I don’t know about you, but I love exercise. Actually, that’s probably a gross understatement. The way I feel towards exercise is perhaps comparable to the way Romeo felt towards Juliet (or vice versa).
Of all my passions – playing the guitar, learning, sharing what I’ve learnt, writing about what I’ve learnt, talking about what I’ve learnt – exercise is the only one that I've remained faithful to. For a while, when I realised I wasn’t going to play guitar like Steve Ray Vaughn (my six string idol), I stopped practicing – to my shame. I have since resumed you’ll be relieved to know.
I made a similar mistake in my campaign for intellectual enlightenment. When I couldn’t comprehend Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason I felt intellectually inferior and turned my back on books – for a week or two (which doesn’t sound like long but for someone who routinely squanders three hours a day turning pages a couple of weeks, I can tell you, is an epoch).
However, what I’ve come to realise is, not once in 20 years have I fallen out with exercise. In all that time, roughly 7300 days, I can only recall two occasions when I went longer than three days without getting a sweat on – both occasions were because of illness, one of which was very nearly fatal.
What’s so different about exercise? For me it is the purest form of expression. Also, for me, it is the most direct route to the flow state – that hyper-focused, deeply engaged state popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (find out more about flow).
Moreover, exercise is not only good for us physically but also psychologically and epidemiologically – that is, it reduces our susceptibility to many diseases and enhances our longevity (unfortunately room doesn’t permit an in-depth discussion on the benefits of exercise; but you can learn more by following the accompanying link: The Benefits of Exercise.)
It is perhaps because of the multi-faceted beneficent nature of exercise why I’ve never been able to give it up.
The purpose of this article
In this article I am going to share with you twenty lessons that I have learnt from exercise after two decades of near daily practice. The lessons are related to exercise, of course, but some of them transcend the realms of the physical and penetrate the mental – perhaps even the spiritual.
You are well within your rights to ask: Why should I read these lessons? What am I going to get out of them?
Though they are not in the least important – in the way Plato’s Republic or Montaigne’s Essays are – the lessons do offer an insight into the many ways in which exercise can improve your life. And I don’t just mean physical and/or health improvements either.
For example, we’ll look at how exercise can help us to cultivate consistency – an essential ingredient for success – develop personal discipline and maintain intellectual flexibility. Yes, exercise can teach us these crucial attributes and so much more besides.
A final point before we start
The lessons are in no particular order of importance; they lie exactly how they fell from my mind. I hope you take something from them.
Lesson #1: The importance of having a goal
Anyone who has resolved to reach a goal will readily attest to the tremendous power it can exert. Just think of all those amazing achievements people have accomplished because they pursued an ambition.
Having a goal to work towards can keep us motivated when we feel like quitting or the going gets tougher than we anticipated. (Want to learn more about how to improve motivation?)
Goals also imbue practice with a sense of purpose. Many people every day quit on exercise. Why? One reason is because they do not have a meaningful destination. Thus exercising seems hollow and devoid of substance.
I’ve discovered that by constantly setting goals, by focusing daily exercise on a fixed objective, I am able to maintain high levels of motivation which translates to consistent engagement.
This lesson can just as well be applied to pretty much all aspects of life. Having that goal to aim for can reinvigorate the lived experience. Let’s be honest here, life can be a drag sometimes and Seneca wasn’t far wrong when he said it was perhaps a little too long.
Thus we should fill it with goals and pursuits and objectives and ambitions. Here are some non-fitness related goals I’ve been working on of late that have added spice to my life.
Developing a website
Writing a book (with no ambition to publish)
Publishing another book
Learning to play a Metallica song (One)
Writing this article
Cultivating what Shunryu Suzuki calls the Zen Mind (I recommend reading Suzuki's book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)
Improving my Yoga practice
These are just some of the goals I am currently working towards at the moment. Granted, a couple of them are a bit vague – such as improving my Yoga practice – which is something a goal should never be; an ambiguous, obscure or poorly defined goal can be de-motivational (goals should stick as close to the SMART acronym as possible: Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or actionable), Realistic and Time bound).
Yet those goals still get me out of bed every morning brimming with enthusiasm for the day.
So, now that we’ve discussed the importance of having a goal, my closing question to you is, what goals are you pursuing?
Lesson #2: The importance of discipline
Discipline is that profoundly powerful quality that gets us up doing something. When people find out that I climb out of bed at 5am every morning (check out the Hungry4Fitness 30 Day Challenge: 5am Wake Up), they invariable gasp and, after asking if I’ve a couple of screws loose, say ‘Aren’t you disciplined.’
The thing is, because I’ve been beating the blackbird out of bed for so many years, I don’t really see it as discipline. Just the norm. But I suppose, on consideration, early rising is a show of discipline; this is evidenced by the fact that, even though I’ve been getting up this early for years, some mornings are still a battle.
I believe exercise has helped me to cultivate my self-discipline. A pedantic reader could point to a chicken and the egg situation: what came first the discipline then the exercise, or the exercise then the discipline?
When I first started working on my physicality – in preparedness for Royal Marines Commando training – I found it frightfully difficult to maintain a consistent regime. And I retrograded many times. In those early stages I missed more sessions than I attended.
But over weeks and months something started to happen. Getting up to go for a five mile run before school wasn’t as traumatic as it once was. Forcing myself out of the house to make the two mile trek to the gym didn’t feel like I was off to the gulag.
The power of discipline began to grow and every session seemed to nourish it making it stronger. Since then my self-discipline has developed into one of my strongest attributes and I am able to direct it towards other endeavours.
For example, when I resolved to write a fitness book (not published) I was able to stick to a two hour a day writing regime until, after 100,000 words and countless revisions and incurred costs (photos that needed editing), I successfully completed the project. And even though I didn’t have the courage to solicit publication to me it was a great personal achievement and one that I never believed I could accomplish.
But this is what I’ve come to realise, once you possess self-discipline, once it becomes an intrinsic part of your being, it never leaves you and you always have it to direct towards whatever challenge you pit yourself against.
If you think your self-discipline is a puny pushover who acquiesces without a fight, consider taking him or her to the gym for some strength training.
Lesson #3: The power of perseverance
If there is one frustration all exercise enthusiasts have experienced at least once in their careers, it’s probably the frustration at the snail-like pace at which physiological adaptations take place.
Left tired and dejected by its agonisingly slow approach many people have chucked in the towel long before those adaptations ever arrive.
A great physique and supreme fitness, just like Rome, can never be built in a day. They require years of labour-intensive perseverance and self-sacrifice. Few ever come to terms with this painful reality. And usually it’s only ever learnt the hard way.
As a young lad I watched a Bruce Lee film – Enter the Dragon of course. So impressed by Bruce’s athleticism and incredible flexibility I sought to have some of that of my own. However, in my adolescent enthusiasm, I tried to get from an inflexible piece of wood to Mr Elastic in one day.
The outcome of my extreme stretching regime?
For a week I suffered such severe DOMS that even fairly tame activities - getting out of bed, picking my nose, etc. - hurt like hell. It didn’t immediately occur to me that perhaps Bruce had persevered for many years before he could shatter a light bulb suspended two foot above his head with a single kick. Thankfully I wasn’t quite stupid enough to have a go at that. Though I thought about it.
Painful though that lesson was it taught me something of great value. If you want to improve your flexibility, or your physicality, or if you want that rock-solid super-defined physique, you absolutely can do.
But, just like Bruce Lee evidently did, you are going to have to persevere for years before your labours bear fruit.
Those admirable qualities exhibited by our heroes and idols are testament to the power of perseverance. When I first witnessed Steve Ray Vaughn belt out a blues lick on that battered old Fender Strat I marvelled at his god-like virtuosity. Yet what I was really looking at was years of dedicated practice and dogged perseverance.
Strange as it sounds, exercise has taught me that if I wanted to improve my playing – if I wanted to improve at anything – I know it is possible so long as I’m willing persevere.
Lesson #4: Willingness to suffer
For the past twelve years I’ve been teaching and preparing young people for the rigours of military training. And (not blow my own trumpet) I’ve been quite successful at it; I’ve been personally responsible for helping hundreds of youngsters achieve their ambition. And that, I can tell you, is a great privilege.
My approach in the preparation has always been a very simple one: make the training so hard and horrible that the fight resembles a week on the Costa del Sol – sangria in one hand and a slice of watermelon in the other.
If you have to run the 1.5 mile in 9:30 to get into your respective military service, I’m going to push you until you can run it in under 8:30. If you have to perform 5 flawless pull-ups I’ll push for 10 – better still, 20. Why?
Isn’t it obvious? If you can exceed the requirements by a country mile then even on an off day you’ll have enough in the tank to scrape through.
However, what I’ve come to realise is, high levels of physical fitness are not a true indication of success in a vocation like the military. And that’s probably true of most all arduous occupations or endeavours.
The single strongest indicator of success is one’s willingness to suffer.
It’s for this reason why, when a student expresses their intent to join the military, I ask them: are you willing to suffer? Usually they tip their head to one side whilst awaiting the punch line. But when it isn’t forthcoming they enquire as to what I mean.
In my experience students who endure suffering, who are willing to push themselves to their limit and beyond, they are the ones who succeeded. And it was always over the anvil of exercise that students tested the mettle of their tolerance to suffer. Not only tested but forged.
This has wider implications. A well-tempered willingness to suffer will stand you in good stead for, well, not to sound too corny or anything . . . but life. Who could deny that to live is to suffer? Who could deny that the pursuit of any worthwhile endeavour is little more than a protracted period of suffering?
"If you understand the background of existence, you realise that suffering itself is how we live, and how we extend our lives."
Thus I opine that in the majority of cases it is the person who is willing to suffer who will emerge victorious from whatever campaign they embark.
Lesson #5: The ability to suffer
It’s not just the willingness to suffer but the ability to suffer that counts. Though seemingly closely related these are two quite different things. When I asked my students if they were willing to suffer in their quest for a place in the military, invariable 100% said ‘Yes, I am willing.’
There’s a glaring contradiction here though. Contradiction: fewer than 25% actually achieved their ambition. And that small number of successes was by no means comprised of the most able students. Far from it.
So when 100% said they were willing to suffer why did only a quarter passed military training? Exercise could always answer that question. Nothing like a five mile run followed by a few hundred reps of various calisthenic exercises to separate the serious from the not-so-serious.
But exercise doesn’t just decide who’s wheat and who’s chaff. Those students who persevered with their exercises, who even after giving up came back for seconds, and thirds and sometimes fourths, over time they developed an almost indomitable tolerance to suffering.
Rare is it that you come across a young person who possess the natural ability to endure arduous physical exercise. Often, when the going gets tough and the burn sets in, they quit. Even those students who show the most promise inevitably jack it in at some point. Thankfully not permanently though.
What I’ve come to learn is that, like a muscle or skill, the ability to suffer can be trained, strengthened and sculpted into a singularly powerful asset. Over time it can take on the form of an immovable promontory that will weather any storm.
The Greatest Living Explorer - Ranulph Fiennes - is no stranger to suffering. There's not length enough on a giraffe's neck to list his endurance and exploration achievements. Not only has he walked to both poles unsupported, Fiennes has also summited Everest, scaled the treacherous North Face of Eiger, ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, completed the 300 mile Eco Challenge . . . and on and on the list of suffering goes. But perhaps his greatest achievement is in raising over 20 million for the Marie Curie cancer charity. Truly amazing.
Lesson #6: Adapt and overcome
‘It’s the strongest species that survive!’ is the common misquotation from Charles Darwin’s profoundly impactful book Origin of the Species. What he actually wrote was, ’It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change,’ (my emphasis).
Exercise has taught me not only the importance of adapting but how to adapt whilst maintaining sangfroid.
In the early days whenever I suffered an injury I would usually retreat into a shell of depression and bewail my lamentable misfortune. Like an actor from a Shakespearean play I would pontificate on the injustices of fortune and make sombre soliloquies on my sad state of affairs.
Nowadays the first thing I do if I get injured is vociferate Napoleon Hill’s wise words: ‘Look for the seed of the equivalent benefit in every unpleasant circumstance you meet!’ (Napoleon Hill's 10 Rules of Self-discipline)
Thanks to these words and my passion for exercise I’ve discarded my shell and given up acting.
So when, a year or two back, I was taking part in a circuit with my students and slipped off a four foot high plyometrics box badly twisting my ankle in the fall, I accepted my fate with perfect equanimity (after rolling about in agony for five minutes). How?
Because, for starters, it was by no means the end of the world and I knew that, though I wouldn’t be running, cycling or Thai Boxing for a month (minimum), I could still do loads of other exercises that I love.
Also, it afforded me the opportunity to work on those areas of my fitness that I tend to neglect; such as flexibility. And because I couldn’t train for as long – after all, there’s only so much weightlifting one man can justifiably do in a day – I had more time to devote to other activities.
It is to exercise, Charles Darwin and Napoleon Hill to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for teaching me how to adapt to change and to do so with a smile.
Lesson #7: Knowing when enough is enough
By far the hardest test of Commando training – physical test – is the 6 mile endurance run over Woodbury Common. It’s not the distance that’s a killer, it’s the terrain, the tunnels, gorges, bogs, pools and the fabled ‘sheep’s dip’. Plus, you have to run it in full combats, with 40lbs of kit and a rifle. On conclusion of the run you are required to hit 6 out of 10 targets. If you hit only 5 you have to complete the run again – recruits are only ever given two chances (video clip of the endurance course).
I can remember standing on the start line sick with nerves like it was yesterday. I told myself over and over: ‘Adam, either emerge victorious or die trying! They are your only options.’ Why so melodramatic? In the two practice attempts I developed a visceral fear of the course. Honestly, to me it was like hell on earth – especially the 30 metre-long smarty tunnels that are as dark as pitch and half filled with disgusting stagnant water.
As much as I wanted a green beret of my own – desperately so – I wasn’t prepared to run the endurance course for a second time under test conditions. This accounts for why on the day of the test I passed out the moment I crossed the finish line.
I ran so hard, pushing myself beyond my natural limit, that when I stepped over the finish line it was as if someone flicked off the switch. Bang! I slammed into the concrete and all was black.
When I came to – at the impatient behest of a corporal, who’d moved on from light face slaps to 'soft' kicks to my ribs – I was ushered onto the firing range and told to wait for ‘targets to be presented’.
Thankfully I hit 8 out of those 10 targets and arrived at the finish line 4 minutes before the cut-off. However, far from leaving scars that experience awoke an unhealthy appetite – an addiction – to exercise to exhaustion.
Few people will ever understand how somebody can become addicted to excessive exercise but it is a recognised disorder; kind of like OCD on steroids. And though there are arguably worse things to get addicted to, exercising excessively is very dangerous and can result in severe injury.
For me this has been one of the hardest lessons to learn (though truth be told I still relapse on occasions). That is, to recognise when I’m over-training and to listen to my body: to know when enough is enough.
Lesson #8: Be willing to learn from others
I’m not going to lie to you, for a long while I was a conceited, cocky, over-confident little s#!t who thought he knew everything about physical fitness. No one can teach me anything. No one can execute a technique with more precision than I could. And few could match my hard-won physicality.
‘I can’t be educated in the domain of exercise,’ I erroneously believed. ‘I was one of the youngest recruits to pass the hardest and longest basic military training in the world. I’ve also ran marathons on a whim and without a week’s worth of training, and I’ve completed fitness sessions that would induce cardiac arrest in 95% of the population. Who can teach me?’
These delusions that I harboured held me back for years. My blinding ego inhibited me from advancing my knowledge and skill base.
This pernicious mind-set was almost instantly effaced when a kindly gentleman one day pointed out to me that my rowing technique was dreadful. ‘Dreadful!’ Yes, dreadful. On hearing this highly offensive insinuation I struggled to maintain composure. My face must have gone through more colours than a chameleon’s. I beat down the impulse to defend my wounded ego and instead said:
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘Do you really want to know?’ he asked, clearly already clued-up on the decrepitude of my arrogance. Arrogant types who think they know it all do not want to be advised. Why would they? They know it all!
‘Yes,’ came my meek response. ‘Yes I would like to know.’ In truth I didn’t. But you knew that already.
‘Ok, you’re pulling with the arms too early which nullifies the legs. Consequently your strongest muscles are under-utilised. From the catch position your . . .’ and on and on he went his words like wrecking balls to my ego. Before he’d finished I felt like a fool. Here’s this old timer telling me how to row. Can you believe it!
I went away and dismissed his tutelage. But the thoroughness of his analysis got the cogs whirring. Over the next week (and in secret – so sad) I applied his recommendations and sought to ameliorate and amend the shower of shite that was my rowing technique.
Did it make a difference?
By god it did! After applying and embedding his method I improved all of my PBs. Furthermore, the back ache that would often developed whenever I rowed 10k or more literally stopped overnight.
This was an epiphany moment in my life. Ever since I have endeavoured to learn from other people. I give thanks to this fortuitous encounter as it has made me a better person.
(I have endeavoured to capture in a video tutorial the rowing techniques passed on to me. Hopefully they will improve your performance as much as they have mine.)
Lesson #9: Failure is a fundamental fact of life – accept that and learn from it
Exercise is a great teacher. One of the single most important lessons that it’s taught me is how to accept failure.
I use to be a real sore loser. If I failed at something or I was beaten by a better competitor I would go nuts; literally I’d lash out at any inanimate object to hand and I would sulk pitifully for days – sometimes weeks.
I took this petulant mentality with me to the world renowned Sasiprapa Thai Boxing Gym in Bangkok, Thailand. Concluding a pretty dismal show at sparring, when one of the professional fighters threw me to the canvass (to add insult to injury he was a foot and half shorter and about 2 stone lighter – but by god was he good!), I flew into my obligatory rage.
F#’@k! this and F#’€k that I began ranting and raging – I think I even unleashed blind fury on one of the ring corner pads. . . . Pa-thetic!
Anyway, the head coach walked over to me, smiling pleasantly, his hands clasped disarmingly behind his back, and said: ‘Adam, here, in this gym, we do not conduct ourselves in that way.’
That simple sentence dropped me to the floor with more force than did the throw. He added: ‘Losing control of your temper is a sign of weakness. You must master your emotions before they master you.’ (This was a real Mr Miyagi moment.)
At this point my head was drooped down and I was nodding obsequiously like a schoolboy in front of his headmaster. But it was my coach’s closing remarks that made an indelible impression on my mind.
‘The true fighter,’ he said, now placing his hand lightly on my shoulder, ‘. . . the true fighter accepts failure as a fundamental fact of life. They not only accept it, they welcome it.’
Perhaps he saw that I was at the point of bursting into tears, or that my westernised mind was struggling to comprehend these profound teachings, but he abruptly turned and walked away.
For the remainder of the session I sequestered myself away in a dark corner where, whilst kicking at a cast-iron punch bag, I ruminated on those words of wisdom.
I’ve come to realise that exercise – and combat sports (any sport!) – can teach us not just how to fail but, more importantly, how to learn from failure. That’s what my coach meant by welcoming failure. For it is failure that teaches us how to become better – if, that is, you’re willing to learn!
Lesson #10: Maintain intellectual flexibility
“When the facts change, I change my mind.”
The field of exercise and fitness is in an ever-changing state of flux. What do I mean by this? Well it wasn’t too many moons ago when continuous training sat proud as punch upon the throne as the crowned king of fat-burning exercises.
If you had a pair of those flappy bingo wings the best remedy was a long slow run (three times a week for a few months – plus cut back on the carbs and confectionery). Or if you were baking up a muffing top steady state cardio was just the thing to trim the fat.
This was exercise orthodoxy at its most dogmatic and it reigned supreme for many years. At least it did until sports science research showed steady state to be not nearly as effective a method of dissolving fat as HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training.
When the usurper took the throne all hell broke loose.
The crown came crashing down and a schism tore the paradigm in twain. (Another feather in Kuhn’s cap.) And all those in the physical fitness profession were left trying to make sense of the world from the scattered fragments of their shattered beliefs.
But the chaos has since settled, as it inevitable does, and the professionals flexible enough to adapt to change happily adopted HIIT into their practice. However, many a brittle-minded old dog remains sceptical refusing to relinquish the bone of contention.
Another example? Ok . . .
For more years than I’ve been conscious sit-ups were a staple of the exercise enthusiast’s diet. You want abs like slabs? Sit-ups! You want to sculpt the transverse abdominis into a piece of Renaissance art? Sit-ups!
Emerging evidence suggests, however, that this seemingly harmless exercise could seriously damage the vertebrae. It transpires that over time sit-ups may cause anatomical instability by compressing the sponge-like inter-vertebral discs. (Follow me if you want to gain a deeper insight into the anatomy of your spine.)
By failing to adopt this information into their practice the exercise professional could be putting not only themselves at risk but also their clients. It is for this reason why, in such a shape shifting discipline, it is imperative to maintain intellectual flexibility.
(A final example that lends additional credence to the importance of intellectual flexibility. I’ve included it in parenthesis because it occurred literally 20 minutes after I wrote this lesson.
I’d just polished and published an article on The Benefits of Stretching and whilst scrolling Google images for precisely that, I happened upon one that was linked to an article entitled The Dangers of Stretching which very persuasively supported the emerging, but by no means contemporary, view that stretching can actually increase injury susceptibility and decrease athletic performance. Which completely contradicted everything I’d written (including the citations I'd used to lend credibility to my discussion)
Now I already knew that stretching can impede physical performance which is why I advise against pre-session stretches. However, I wasn’t aware there exists such an abundance of research demonstrating that, for example, stretching decreases a muscle’s force production capacity and can weaken not only the muscle stretch but localised muscles also.
As a consequence of serendipitously stumbling on this article I have had to invest a number of hours reading research that completely contradicts my current knowledge. For this eye opener I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Phil Maffetone.)
Lesson #11: Learn to love it
I’m going to follow in the footsteps of one of my intellectual heroes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and make a confession. Here goes. Deep breath, deep breath . . . In the beginning, back when I first started to sweat voluntarily, I didn’t much enjoy it.
And exhale . . . Damn that’s a weight off the old shoulders. I’ve been carrying that rock about for years. Catharsis never fails to lighten the load.
For me running was a miserable chore; so much so that tying my shoelaces felt like clamping shackles around my ankles. And I would procrastinate for ten minutes before finally blackmailing myself out the house.
Going gym wasn’t much different. It was one of those spit and sawdust, sted’ed gyms that stunk of fart, rotting rubber and Maximuscle protein shakes. A truly noxious combination of odours if ever there was one.
In fact the only reason I use to endure an hour of feeling inferior amongst the herd of bison-like body builders was for that post pump protein shake; which was a pint-sized polystyrene cup of pure molasses – and that accounts for why I could never sleep on gym nights.
I couldn’t accurately put my finger on the moment when the change took place. But at some undefinable point in my meagre history I began to like – nay love! – physical exercise.
What can this diametric change in feeling be put down to? Well, sad as it sounds, exercise is really the only thing I’ve ever been any good at. I’ve poured countless hours into guitar practice and I’m still a tenth-rate fiddler. I’ve spent more hours than I care to count filling my head with knowledge, yet I’m still as clueless about the world as I was when I first opened my eyes. Actually the one sure thing I’ve come to understand over the years is that the more I learn the less I know.
It is perhaps because I find exercise easy, and that it is eminently comprehendible, why we get on so well.
I know that the majority of people do not feel this way. As a pedagogue and professional physical trainer it has been my challenge to motivate clients and students to engage with exercise. This is especially difficult when they harbour ill feelings.
How can I help them overcome that seemingly insurmountable barrier so that they can begin to reap the rewards of exercise? Honestly, I haven’t figured that out yet. But what I have figured out is, if a person cannot learn to love exercise they are far more likely to quit.
And that’s a damn shame when there are so many benefits up for grabs. (Would you like to learn more about the benefits of exercise?) I suppose what I’m trying to say here is if you love what you do it’ll never be a chore.
Lesson #12: When the going gets tough you get tougher
I’d just staggered past the 22 mile marker of the Taunton marathon and I was in a world of hurt. My feet were on fire, I could’ve been walking barefooted across glowing embers. My hamstrings were as tight as drum skins and I feared they might snap at any moment. I was fatigued, thirsty and thoroughly fed up and I was as close to quitting as I’ve ever been. To make matters worse an old woman trotted past me and cheerily exchanged a few words of motivation. They didn’t achieve the desired effect.
Across every mile and with every step I kept asking one question: Why in god’s name are you putting yourself though this?
How had I landed myself in this lamentable state?
Two weeks earlier whilst at my local Ju Jitsu club a friend – more a casual acquaintance – proudly proclaimed that he’d soon be running the Taunton Marathon and would anybody like to sponsor him.
‘Marathon?’ I thought. ‘That’s on my exercise bucket list.’ I asked him for the event details and that evening signed up and paid my entry fee.
Now two weeks’ training is not ideal. Most runners will have spent anywhere between 6 months to a year preparing for a marathon. But I didn’t have that luxury. Also, I’d only recently gotten over a particularly persistent Achilles injury – which, in my optimism (aka ignorance), I thought had heeled (no pun intended).
My first preparatory run consisted of a blow-the-cobwebs-off ten miler. Bad idea. By mile two I was limping. By mile three I was hobbling back to barracks, my head lulling left to right like that of a bovine animal’s.
I decided to give running a rest until the marathon. For the following two weeks I rehabbed my injury to death and prayed like hell that my cardio wouldn’t waste away to nothing.
Standing amongst the 1500 competitors, feeling quite nervous and regretting not going for that seventh poo, I noticed that only a small minority of runners were wearing numbers front and back. When I caught up with my friend I asked what this meant. He told me that a single number signifies that the runner is taking part in the half marathon whereas two numbers signify the full marathon.
‘Ok, that makes sense. But why,’ I said, ‘do you only have one number?’
‘Because I’m running the half marathon,’ he replied, in that irritatingly cheery way of his.
‘But you said –’
Before I could challenge his evident lack of honesty the event organiser came over the tannoy to initiate the 10 second countdown. I was forced forward as the horde lurched closer to the start line. The start gun sounded. We were off.
The marathon consisted of two halves – making it a bit dull (second time round). I did well on the first lap and set a PB of 1 hour 28 minutes (I still haven’t beaten that PB). As for the second half – well that was an epic disaster.
At mile 20 I slammed into the infamous wall. Honestly, it felt like I’d gone from running through air to wading knee deep through treacle. By mile 22 I was all but down and out. Then the old granny shuffled past me, tossing over her shoulder a couple of empty words of motivation. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d suffered so badly during exercise.
It was whilst preparing an excuse to justify quitting that I realised, with cutting clarity, that in fact quitting was simply not an option. ‘Even if it means being beaten by a septuagenarian – you’ll finish. Even if you have to walk the remaining three miles – you’ll finish. Even if you have to crawl. By god boy you’re not going to give up!’ boomed that Churchillian baritone in the back of my head.
Winston gave me that sobering slap across the cheeks I desperately needed. I promptly pulled myself together and with gritted teeth marched on. After the longest 3 hours and 40 minutes of my life I completed the distance.
As awful and humiliating an experience as it was (I’ve now got to go to the grave knowing that a Mary Berry lookalike pipped me to the post) it taught me that when the going gets tough you absolutely must get tougher. He or she who can do this will always succeed.
Lesson #13: Variety really is the spice of life
One of the primary reasons why people quit on exercise – quit on most things – is because they get bored. And boredom, if you didn’t know, is a precursor to declining participation which itself is symptomatic behaviour of someone who is soon to Q-U-I-T.
If I had a quid for every time I heard the excuse ‘Yeah, I quit gym cuz I just got bored with it’ or ‘I sacked-off circuits because the trainer kept rerunning the same session’ I’d easily be six perhaps even seven English pounds better off by now.
Many trainers, and I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, get trapped in a Groundhogian Day cycle of completing the same routine, the same exercises in the same order, session after session for weeks, months and years . . .
God, it’s no wonder they quit (or don’t improve). To me even the mere thought of such a repetitive regime induces bovine boredom. But then that’s to be expected from a diet of grass! Going to the gym to work through the same workout would evoke the same enthusiasm as heading off to spend an evening in the company of a gathering of train spotters. (No disrespect to train spotters.)
I won’t deny that exercise shares a similarity with sex in the sense that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve really only one end in mind. For exercise that’s preserving health – or at least it should be. However, irrespective of the fact that the destination remains the same, we should still seek out new and creative routes whilst in transit.
Apparently settling into a repetitive cycle is a human characteristic. Over the course of a year the average dining room table (or lap tray) will see no more than four different meals. It transpires that most people stick to the same recipes week in week out. So sad when you think about the immense variety of foods and recipes available.
This phenomena, the one of willingly accepting monotony (in case you’re lost), could probably be identified in a whole host of human activities. I find this quite strange considering our seemingly unquenchable thirst for novelty. This is a huge contradiction of the human condition and one which I am not going to discuss a single syllable further.
What I will briefly comment on is how exercise can teach us to shake things up, to add spice to a flavourless part of our life. For you see, exercise acts almost the same way a mine candle does. If starved of oxygen the candle begins to dwindle, slowly at first, eventually extinguishing – the remnant of its former existence no more than a puff of smoke in the dark!
To keep the passion alive, to keep the flame of enthusiasm flickering, we’ve got to keep the fire well stoked. And by that I mean, whether your gig is exercise, sport, or something completely unrelated like, oh I don’t know, train spotting, if you don’t regularly add some spice you’re going to go the same way as that candle and the only trace you’ll leave is a puff of smoke.
Lesson #14: Never stop trying to push past your perceived limits
“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”
Isn’t it amazing the way words can affect us? I can’t quite recall the moment when I first parsed those three sentences but I am well aware of the impact they have had on my attitude towards physical exercise. Indeed, towards every facet of my life.
Before those words wandered into my consciousness my acceptance of limitation was far more liberal and laissez-faire than perhaps it ought to have been. Yeah I was fit, as a Royal Marine you have to be, and I did more than my fair share of exercise. But I certainly wasn’t making a habit of testing myself, of seeking out and breaking down boundaries and limitations.
For it is through physical tests that we identify strengths and weakness. Also they enable us to come face to face with our physical limitations.
However the point is this, once we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and when we meet a limitation (or two or three), we should continually strive to improve and advance – to move beyond – them.
Well as Bruce rightly pointed out, if you accept limits and are not continually pushing forward then you are, by proxy, either standing still or sliding back. This attitude will result in stagnation or, worse, woeful decline.
Also, by not habituating the attitude of striving for self-improvement, and by allowing the limitation mind-set to take root, these two pernicious forces will spread into your being. And believe you me, when they have taken hold they are mightily difficult to break free from.
It is for this reason why we should – nay! must – make it our daily habit to improve or advance, even if it is only a single solitary step. For any advancement, however imperceptible, is infinitely preferable over stagnation, over decline.
How can we achieve this?
Simple! By setting ourselves little daily challenges, goals, targets or objectives we can cultivate a culture of continual self-improvement. These challenges can be anything from setting our morning alarm 30 minutes earlier, thus forcing a fracturing of ingrained habit, to a daily good deed.
Really, it doesn’t matter what you do so long as not standing still. Remember: rolling stones gather no moss!
Lesson #15: Celebrate small successes
I popped out the womb a pessimist – so I’m reminded every Christmas day around the dinner table. I wasn’t crying but complaining about poor hygiene and the untimely hour of my delivery. But then nobody wants to be woken up at two thirty in the morning.
Apparently the doctor whose unenviable responsibility it was to supervise my entry into the world, on seeing that I was a sour lemon, held me at a distance and proclaimed: ‘This here child is destined to see only shades of grey and his life will be a colourless canvas.’ And for a good many years I made it my daily mission to fulfil that prophecy.
What does this look like?
Nothing I ever did was good enough. And before I attempted anything I predicted failure. Instead of identifying positives, though perhaps there were many, I actively went in search for negatives. It was as if I was afflicted with some strange visual impairment that prohibited me from seeing the colour of personal success.
This is no way to be. It is self-destructive and only serves to sabotage, to stifle, growth and development. But, and anyone who is a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist will readily attest, breaking free from the shackles is no mean feat. You see, after a time pessimism becomes your default setting and it is the one you automatically revert back to.
How did I set about emancipating myself from the cell of pessimism and negativity?
Well I can tell you this, it’s not one of those prison breaks where you pick the lock, slip past a guard or two and peg it into the concealing woods. It’s a Shawshank Redemption affair where daily you scratch and scrape away at a concrete wall in the hope that it’ll one day lead you to freedom. And it will so long as you persevere.
This is what I did.
I made it a weekly habit of setting small physical goals – such as achieving a new PB or completing a particularly challenging circuit – and then celebrating the outcome. Even if it wasn’t the outcome I anticipated.
Here’s one example. I wanted to achieve a personal best time over the 2000m ergo row (this is the test that all Olympic rowers have to complete in order to secure a place in the boat). My previous time was 6:40; which is not bad but by no means anything to brag about. I felt the time had come to go sub 6:30.
So I set about training and working diligently to achieve this goal. Come test day I felt up to the challenge. But before I’d even entered the second 1000 metres I knew my pace was off and that my target time had slipped away.
Now the old me, the negative pessimist, would’ve tossed his toys out the boat and threw a right benny. Instead, I stuck to my guns and celebrated the many success that before would have been overshadowed by my failure to achieve the desired time.
Sticking to a month-long training regime is a success – more so when your only reward is to shave a few seconds off a PB. Also, the extreme effort exerted just to fail ought to receive commendation. Rowing 2k at threshold is a horrible experience. And finally, though I didn’t achieve sub 6:30, I did set a PB of 6:32. These are all mini successes which I celebrated.
I’ve carried this mentality into other aspects of my life to positive effect. By taking the time to celebrate even small wins I introduced colour into my life and by so dispelled the doctor’s prophecy.
Lesson #16: Keep an open mind
Flowing water is safe to drink, so I was once told during a survival training course. Still water, on the other hand, can be deadly. Why the difference? After all, it’s only a mere matter of motion.
Water that is still stagnates and soon becomes infested with all manner of nasties. If imbibed in this state the stuff of life can become the stuff of illness and death.
In a roundabout way, the human mind is the same. A closed mind, a still mind, a mind not in motion, will quickly become stagnant. Over time this leads to intellectual illness and, ultimately, the degeneration of our faculty for learning.
Thus it is an imperative that we keep an open mind.
Buddhism brings our attention to the personal impediments of closed mindedness through one of their colourful metaphors.
The monk sits serenely in zazen waiting for a pot of tea to brew. His pupil, a loquacious little squirt, jabbers on incessantly. But the monk sits serenely in zazen, at one with the world. After a while he attempts to impart a word of wisdom to his pupil. He tries to tell him that he ought to talk less and listen more. These sagacious words fall on deaf ears.
Noticing that the tea is ready the monk initiates the ceremony. He starts with his pupil’s cup first and begins pouring until it is overflowing. The pupil tells the monk that the cup is full. Seemingly oblivious the monk ignores him and keeps pouring, and pouring, and pouring . . .
By now a puddle has formed around the base of the saucer yet the monk continues to pour. The pupil, fearing the monk had lost his marbles, intervenes and wrestles the pot from his hands asking if he could not see that the cup cannot contain anymore tea.
It is at this opportune moment that the monk draws a similarity between the overflowing cup and the pupil’s mind.
By emptying our minds (or at least by not clinging to cherished beliefs) we will be open and able to adopt fresh ideas. Also, by allowing new knowledge and information to freely flow through our minds we’ll not become intellectually stagnant.
Over the years exercise, which, as I’ve already said, is in a constant state of flux, has taught me the power of maintaining intellectual receptivity. It wouldn’t even come close to an over-exaggeration to say that, the best of what I know, has come from someone else.
Lesson #17: You’ve got to forge your own path
I don’t want to come across as cheesy, or corny, or cliché, but you are entirely unique. And I don’t mean that as a passing peppy comment calculated to stimulate the dopamine reward system, or to reinvigorate and renew your sense of self-worth. That’s what parents and teachers are for.
I mean to say, purely from a biological and anatomical perspective, you are completely one of a kind. I’ll give you a minute to mull that over in your mind.
What does this mean and how does it fit thematically within this article?
Of all the lessons that litter this long litany of learning, the necessity to forge your own path and to resist idle worship and emulation crops up again and again. Not for me though you understand. I’ve learnt this lesson. But many haven’t.
As an impressionable young Royal Marine I wanted to be just like one the hulking Adonides that strutted around camp with their barrel chests, Popeye arms and suspect vasodilation.
I asked a friend of mine, who fitted the above bill, how he’d gotten so hench. He told me straight: huge meals, protein shakes and steroids – and the occasional weight session. Now I’m as puritanical as a Huguenot and even on pain of death I won’t break with my belief that health should trump all other reasons for why we engage in exercise.
However, I wanted to be an Adonis. I thought that maybe I could achieve this childish ambition without the steroids. So I purchased a tub of protein power, ramped up the calorie intake and started pounding the iron.
Do you want to know what this achieved?
Precisely nothing. In two months I didn't put on a single extra pound of muscle mass – that’s combined across all measurements: biceps, chest, quads. I remained exactly the same; that is, stick thin.
I think the stupidity of my ambition dawned one Sunday evening. Whilst lying on the couch feeling thoroughly sick from my seventh meal of the day (nobody should ever eat that much – it’s disgraceful), and fighting back the fear of having to force down my gullet another pint of synthetically derived protein, I had an epiphany.
Maybe, I thought, maybe I’m going against my biology. Maybe for me it is simply not possible to get that muscled. After all, I’m a millimetre shy of 6, 4” and my body looks as though it was modelled on the image of a racing snake.
It was on that Sunday afternoon that I became aware of a number of truths. They are:
You are entirely unique
You should be grateful for that uniqueness
It is an act of folly to fight against your biology; by doing so you will have to resort to tactics that could have severely detrimental impacts on your health in the long term
It is an act of folly to emulate others; to try and mould yourself in the image of others (hopefully the reader does not require an exposition on the difference between learning from others and emulating others)
The imperative of recognising your personal physicality and which modalities of exercise it is suited to
The imperative of accepting this – in fact, not accepting but cherishing it
Lesson #18: Repeat after me: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
I’ve taught boxing for years. To this day I teach it – teach it to anyone willing to stick around long enough. Yet here’s the thing, when wannabe boxers come face to face with the reality of how skill is acquired, few ever stick it.
‘What is this harsh reality that has been responsible for deterring so many aspiring pugilists?’ you may well ask. ‘Is it something to do with the sweat and toil of the training? Is it fear of getting hit and hurt? Being knocked out and humiliated?’
Though these are partly responsible, in my experience the real culprit for causing so many to throw in the towel is repetition.
‘Repetition? That hardly seems on par with a punch to the solar plexus.’
I concede that it must sound like an implausible reason. But when amateurs discover that, if they have any hope pf obtaining a tenth of the proficiency as their boxing heroes, hours and hours of weekly practice must first be invested, they soon lose their appetite.
"Remember that the secret to the success of any exercise programme is repetition, repetition, repetition, until the exercise becomes second nature. Only then will you begin to see results."
(IQ of 280, the highest ever measured)
Whenever a beginner enters the gym and expresses their intention of learning to box, I always make this fact explicitly clear to them.
‘If you want to get good – not great – but good,’ I say, ‘you’ve got to be prepared to spend hours practicing mundane movements. – Also,’ I hastily append to my demoralising pronouncement, ‘Also you’ve got to be extremely patient. Skill development requires hours of dedicated practice over months and years.’
Few, of course, have the stomach for such bland fare. But those who can sustain enthusiasm on so austere a diet, and I personally haven’t yet met one, these rare individuals will develop superior skill.
It never ceases to amaze me how little understanding people have of the hardship required to forge a skill. Before a boxer ever climbs into a professional ring they have probably spent upwards of ten years developing their craft. Over that time they would have thrown literally millions of punches.
When I trained in Thailand I was truly overawed by the dedication of the boxers. They begin learning what is without a doubt the single most brutal combat sport in the world at the tender age of ten – sometimes younger. From Monday through to Saturday they train for four hours – two two hour sessions: 8am to 10am then 2pm to 4pm. When one of the fighters is entered into a competition they ramp up the training to seven hours – 7 hours!
And what are they doing for most of that time? Kick! Kick! Kick! Knee! Knee! Knee! Elbow! Elbow! Elbow! Punch! Punch! Punch! Over and over and over again.
And by god does this brutal regime pay off. Some of the fighters as young as 16 could uproot a tree with a single teep. But that’s the power we all could obtain if we were prepared to repeat the same movement thousands of times over.
Lesson #19: Do not remain within your comfort zone
“Unless you test yourself, you stagnate.”
Mark Allen – winner of six ironman titles
Believe me when I say it, staying inside your comfort zone is a killer. To me a comfort zone is no different than a coffin or a padded cell: confining, constricting – safe.
In that safe space you’ll neither grow nor develop; and you’ll be destined to achieve nothing. A comfort zone to people is what a small glass bowl is to a fish or plastic pot is to a plant; prohibitive and restricting. It is common knowledge that fish and plants grow only to the size that their environment will permit.
You with me?
Now we both agree that the comfort zone is a pernicious place to hang out, the question left to be answered is: how does one break free from it?
It’s perhaps no surprise that I believe exercise to be a great means of facilitating a person’s transition from the safe cell to the scary world of the unknown where failure and defeat lurk around every corner.
In my experience of working with young people I can confidently say that humans (the majority of) are inherently comfort zone addicts. We’ve all got a little hedonistic homunculus inside craving for the couch. Always my greatest challenge as an educator is to encourage students to step out of their comfort zone, to dare to fail.
Initially they all put up a fight; and some are incurable. However, I have found that one of the best ways to coax my students from the safe cell of their comfort zone is with exercise.
Because exercise is a great confidence builder. And, if it is approached in the right way, progress and development come quickly and are clearly identifiable. In the past I’ve had students who have achieved beyond their wildest dreams. After setting a new personal best on a fitness test or completing a demanding training session they’ll look back and marvel at their accomplishments.
These small wins and successes are like kerosene to confidence. Soon the student is ablaze with ambition and the world, as opposed to being a scary place where failure lurks around every corner, instead transforms into a vast landscape of opportunity for experience, growth and personal development.
Comfort zone escape plan
As with any addiction, admitting to the fact is the first and most important step you can take. So, my question to you is: Are you addicted to your comfort zone? If, after a couple of minutes of soul searching, you answered Yes – ‘Yes! I am addicted to my comfort zone’ – then you need to answer another question.
Q: Do you want to emancipate yourself from your padded cell?
If you answered No – ‘No! I’m happy here in this safe place where I’m neither challenged nor tested’ – please proceed to the final lesson.
But if you answered Yes – ‘Yes I, like Edmund Dantes, am desperate for liberation’ – have a read over the following escape plan and begin your fight for freedom.
Step 1: Identify your comfort of choice; is it lazy lie-ins, the couch, flicking through social media, cheap entertainment?
Step 2: Attempt to calculate the amount of time you spend in your comfort zone each day.
Step 3: Reduce that time by 25% for two weeks (another 25% the following two weeks and so on until . . . zero!). So let’s say that currently you squander three hours each evening in front of the TV. You would aim to reduce it down to 2hrs 15 minutes. Ensure to be strict with this. It is important to first ween ourselves off comfort before hatching your escape.
Step 4: Identify an activity that makes you feel uncomfortable just thinking about it. For ease of illustration we’ll imagine that this activity is running. You don’t much enjoy this exercise because not only does it induce physical discomfort but when you run it looks as if you're mocking the Ministry of Silly Walks.
Step 5: Search out a running event: 3k, 5k, 10k, half marathon or, right in at the shark-infested deep end, full marathon.
Step 6: Sign up to that event immediately. Do not procrastinate with this as you will inevitably talk yourself out of it.
Step 7: Seek sponsorship from friends and family. Why seek sponsorship? Because the more people that know you’re going to take part in a race, the more guilt and embarrassment you’ll feel if you quit. These, rightly or wrongly, are great motivational forces.
Step 8: Start preparing for the race by creating a comprehensive exercise programme ensuring to follow it with the mindless pertinacity of a religious fundamentalist.
Step 9: Run the race – and it matters not the outcome only that you stepped out of comfort zone . . . and finished.
Step 10: Begin the process again, but this time set your sights on a different challenge.
Lesson #20: Appreciate movement whilst you can
My old mate Rousseau said there’s no better teacher than experience – seeing with your own two eyes and getting actively involved.
I’d always taken movement, vitality and physicality for granted. With me it was all take and no give. Hours spent using and abusing my body each week yet not once did I stop and express thanks or gratitude for this wondrous gift – the gift of pain-free, unimpeded movement.
This all changed when Richard started training at the gym where I worked.
I hadn’t seen him enter because I was busy PTing. When I finished up I headed over to the staff room with one thing on my mind: food!
As I threaded my way through the exercise machines and mass of sweaty bodies I spied something out the corner of my eye which stopped me dead in my tracks. A man struggling with all his might to pull himself out of a wheelchair and into the seated leg press.
For a moment I watched him whilst marvelling at his will and determination. I didn’t know then what disability or injury he was afflicted with but I could clearly see that it made his every action an arduous ordeal.
Snapping to my senses I rushed over to offer assistance. He gratefully accepted and I proceeded to help him out of his wheelchair into the exercise machine. I’ll be honest with you, at the time I couldn’t comprehend what point there was to this because, as I struggled to hoist him from his chair, I knew he had almost no command over his body. He was so physically weak that I had to move his legs into position.
After adjusting the machine settings I stayed with him and supported him through his set. We got chatting – as you do – and quickly struck up a friendship.
Completely insensible to the art of subtlety as I am, I asked if he’d been in a serious car crash of something; I just couldn’t understand what had happened to him that was responsible for making what I took for granted so agonisingly difficult.
Richard told me that ten years ago he’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). At the time I’d never heard of it. I later learnt that MS is a particularly nasty progressive wasting disease that eventually renders the sufferer immobile and significantly shortens their life.
I was deeply saddened to learn of his affliction as there is no known cure. That disease will deprive him of his ability to move and, ultimately, his life.
I apologise for leading you down so melancholy a path but I feel it is important to share stories such as Richard’s. His profound courage and continued commitment, even in the face of unimaginable adversity, is a lesson to us all.
Concluding our first meeting I asked Richard if he wouldn’t mind if I supported him during every gym session. He said he’d like that very much.
So for three one hour weekly sessions I worked with him providing assistance and companionship. Richard always tried to pay me for my time but I always declined. I never got round to telling him that, in fact, I should be paying him. But then how do you put a price on a lesson in humility?
It is to Richard that I dedicate this article. A small token of appreciation for a big lesson in life.
So there we have it, 20 lessons after 20 years of training. I can’t deny that this has been a mightily long article. And though I doubt few have scaled the edifice to those that have I’d like to say thank you for choosing to spend your time with me. It is my sincere hope that you were able to take something of use away from these 20 lessons.
But really what I hope more is that you will take the time to share with me some of the lessons you have learnt from exercise. Either include them in the comments box below or email them to email@example.com.