THERE'S PLENTY OF RESEARCH focused on helping elite athletes optimize, and stick with, their training, but what most of us need is advice on how to fold fitness into a life not sponsored by a power drink. This begins with some rigorous introspection. Why get fit in the first place? What's the point? There are the superficial reasons. Guilt after a physical. Panic over, say, an impending surf trip. Ego. Vanity. Better reasons include the intrinsic value of exercise: how it can help stave off disease; how it stimulates the brain's production of serotonin, a natural mood-booster; how it keeps energy up and blood pressure and appetite down.
But the real answer is more simple and obvious. Getting in shape is nothing more—and nothing less—than a means to an end. You can take off on a surf safari with dignity intact, run a half-marathon with your spouse and not seek couples counseling afterward, or ski black-diamond runs, fast, without sacrificing an ACL to the cause. You'll find troubleshooting tips ("Barriers and Breakthroughs"), but the general wisdom is this: nail down a goal and you've found the wellspring of motivation, the fountain of fit.
Which is all well and good as long as you also have some solid infrastructure that will accommodate the day-to-day logistics of an ostensibly lifelong exercise plan. Convenience—or, rather, inconvenience—is a tremendous gumption trap. "Have a training regimen for every environment you find yourself in," says Ed Jackowski, author of Escape Your Shape and owner of Exude Fitness in New York. "When you can't make it to the gym after work, you have to have something you can do at home."
Got a spare room? A basement? A backyard? Consider turning an unused space into a low-tech home gym. The Shape of Your Life requires only a few pieces of basic equipment—a bench, dumbbells, a stability ball (also called a physio or Swiss ball), a new jump rope, and a plyometric box—that shouldn't run you more than $200. This modest tool kit is all you need to do brief-but-intense resistance training, à la Bill Phillips's Body for Life, the best-selling exercise book that seemed to have everyone who followed it looking like Joe Piscopo in a mere 12 weeks. You may not be after the freakish physique of a bodybuilder (if you're like me, the thought of waxing your chest gives you chills), but reams of research and fitness experts from coast to coast tout the benefits of lifting weights.
Next, you need a strategy, and nothing has proven itself more effective than the concept of periodization—cyclic bouts of expansion and retrenchment designed to build fitness. By following a specifically staggered schedule you give your body a chance to regenerate enough to spring forward a few days later. After all, your muscles, and the capillaries that transport blood to fuel them, grow during rest, not during exertion. Simply alternating cardio and strength days, while important, is not enough. As a diagram, periodization might look something like those blocky steps and valleys you see on preset treadmill programs—go hard, ease off; go hardest, ease off; go hard; ease off. The popular training programs developed by Joe Friel—author of The Mountain Biker's Training Bible and The Triathlete's Training Bible—present a monthly workout schedule in which the third week is the hardest of the four. The key is to create a program with multiple layers of periodization, taking the staggered approach within each workout, each week, each month, and ultimately through the duration of your program. "Periodization is the most likely way to achieve athletic success," says Friel.
Barrier #1: You skip workouts due to "unforeseen conflicts." Breakthrough: Exercise in the morning. Consider these two benefits of a daybreak sweat session: You'll jump-start your resting metabolic rate, helping you burn more calories throughout the day; and you'll be less likely to have family, a job, or other obligations derail your workout. "The number-one excuse people have for not working out is time." says Rob Skinner, director of sports nutrition for the Georgia Tech Athletic Association. "Well, everybody has time early in the morning, and that way you get it done."
Barrier #2: You can't rely on yourself for motivation. Breakthrough: Find a partner. According to a 1999 weight-loss study undertaken jointly by the Universities of Minnesota and Pittsburgh, those who exercised with friends rather than alone boosted their chances of sticking with a program. Working out with a buddy adds accountability and provides a lift when you're not on top of your game. "I find it essential to have good training partners," says Roland Green, the 2001 overall World Cup mountain-bike champion. "To train by yourself, it becomes tough to maintain quality. But if you're in a group, someone is always feeling good that can push the pace."
Barrier #3: You get tired of the same old routine. Breakthrough: Vary the place—and the way—you work out. Sure, your lakeshore running trail is heartwarming for the first month. But then comes that fateful morning when the wildlife seems not quite as friendly, the water not so shimmery. "Every day of the week I ride and run a different route," says Tim Deboom, last year's Ironman World Champion. "It makes it impossible to get bored during my training." Take it from Tim, arguably the most highly motivated human on the planet: Mix up your workout venues and aerobic activities. Been trail running? Try road biking. You're a cyclist? Start swimming.
Barrier #4: You don't make it an adventure. Breakthrough: Establish a goal beyond the weight room. This week, dream up a giant fitness goal for October—a weeklong mountaineering trip in the Cascades, say, or your first trail marathon in Colorado—and post it on your refrigerator. By that time, the SYL plan will have you firing on all cylinders—and no glance in the locker-room mirror will motivate you like a looming, butt-kicking physical challenge.
A SUSTAINABLE APPROACH to exercise is tricky business because when it comes to fitness, we are all pilgrims stumbling toward the light. Everyone seems to have a vague idea about what they need to do to get in shape, and stay in shape, but that doesn't mean they know what to do about it. According to the research firm American Sports Data, 60 percent of Americans say exercise is good, yet they never exercise.
The five-month Shape of Your Life program has a solution. The first month, presented here, showcases endurance—both physical and motivational. It's the easiest month in terms of sheer volume, intensity, and complexity of the exercises, but it's essential because our endurance prescription is designed to get you in the habit of working out regularly, establish your baseline, and identify fitness goals. You'll also steadily increase your time commitment from about 30 minutes to an hour a day, five days a week. Subsequent months won't increase the duration of your workouts, but will ramp up the intensity and vary the exercises.
EXERCISE PLANS TEND TO BE conspicuously lopsided. When I cavalierly leapt into my fit-a-thon a few years ago, I saw only one thing: me, ripped, on a board, cutting frontside arcs on a four-foot North Atlantic swell. Rest was for sissies. Don't even get me started on yoga.
I'm different now. Enlightened. My Shape of Your Life odyssey revealed nothing if not the understanding that lasting fitness and a resilient, balanced musculature depend on more than weights, running, and a sensible diet. Of equal if not greater import are mindfulness and flexibility. We delve fully into flexibility by way of yoga during the third month. Why yoga? Not only has it gone mainstream—15 million Americans, including the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants, now practice yoga, up from six million eight years ago—but an expanding body of research touts the importance of the mind-body connection.
"People probably have a genetic set point for flexibility," says Ed Laskowski, codirector of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center. But that set point may be unrealized by some. Laskowski recently led a study that found the range of motion among those who suffered from chronically tight muscles changed significantly under anesthesia. "It might not be the muscles which are tight, but something about the nerves energizing the muscles," says Laskowski. "If people learned how to relax mentally, that might improve their flexibility."
This is where we come in. In the first month, The Shape of Your Life introduces traditional, one-minute postworkout static stretches to aid your recovery. During month three, we'll add dynamic power-yoga movements to help increase your core strength and flexibility, and—perhaps the most enduring asset of yoga—fine-tune your ability to monitor and adjust mental and muscular tension.
The final two months of the program are devoted to speed and power, balance and agility. We'll max out the intensity during the fourth month, then turn you on to some multipurpose dexterity training during the concluding four weeks.
And there you have it: endurance, strength, flexibility, speed and power, balance and agility—the building blocks for The Shape of Your Life. Mix in a few cups of nutrition, sprinkle on some motivational tips, add a dash of how-to, and serve on a bed of fun and adventure.
Had I known all this three years ago, who knows what I might have checked off my wish list by now. A surfing safari in Indonesia? Climbing Mount Rainier? Mountain biking across Chile? (We can all dream.) Hell, I might even have my original wedding ring. Which leads me to my final admonition: Look forward, not back. Put our plan in motion and see it through to the end. When you've reached that end, head out on the grandest adventure you can dream up. I can assure you of one thing: You'll be ready for it.
ENDURANCE IS THE FOUNDATION of The Shape of Your Life because this workout plan is about going places—the top of Mount Washington, three weeks down the Back River, the finish line of 24 Hours of Moab. Technically, endurance is a combination of efficiency (lean body mass), physiology (a dense network of mitochondria that produces energy in the muscles), genes (a high percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers), plumbing (an efficient heart capable of moving more blood per pump), and strength in those areas that help transfer force between the upper and lower body (the hips, lower back, abdominals, and other core muscles).
How do you build endurance? First, you need to put in steady, sustained periods of activity—running, biking, swimming, rowing—at moderate intensity to build your muscular and aerobic base. "If you're always running out of gas after an hour, that can be indicative of not enough foundation," says Ray Browning, seven-time Ironman winner and coauthor of Serious Training for Endurance Athletes. "In some sports, like cross-country skiing and cycling, it can be easy to always work at too high an intensity and never develop your low-intensity base of endurance." But base-building workouts in tandem with intensity training can bring about significant leaps in aerobic efficiency.
Brace yourself—here comes the lesson from Exercise Physiology 101. As intensity increases from moderate to high to very high (think jogging, running, sprinting), you compromise your body's ability to produce the energy needed to power muscle contraction. You can sustain a very high level of effort for brief periods because you've crossed your lactate threshold. (Lactate is a byproduct of lactic acid that can't be burned as fuel.) At this point, you shift from aerobic (oxygen-aided) energy production to anaerobic (non-oxygen-aided) energy production, and lactic acid is pouring into your muscles in such large amounts—hence the burn—that they shut down. With proper conditioning, you can push this threshold back. Proof? Watch Lance Armstrong, a lactate-threshold-training devotee, pedal away from the peleton on a long climb. As his competition falls behind, legs searing, Armstrong's able to keep spinning—and he has yet to cross his lactate threshold.
To lift your LT, you first need to find out where it is—easily done, thanks to the development of wireless heart-rate monitors—and run an interval now and then close to that number. You can estimate your LT using a simple calculation that approximates your maximum heart rate (see "The Prime Rate," last page), the highest number of times your chest ham can go flippity-flip in one minute. Your MHR isn't a direct indication of how fit you are, and it will vary from sport to sport. But this number is invaluable because the body marshals its different energy systems at various percentages of maximum heart rate with remarkable consistency. At 70 percent of MHR, it uses oxygen to burn fat; at 85 percent it begins breaking down muscles for fuel; and at 90 percent it burns carbs exclusively. Not many athletes can surpass 90 percent of MHR without hitting the lactate wall, when muscle contraction—and therefore you—grind to a halt. Depending on your fitness level, your own LT lives somewhere between the 75 and 90 percent mark.
The first month of The Shape of Your Life dedicates three days a week to aerobic and LT training. These sessions will repeatedly push your LT by way of intensity drills—what you've probably come to know as intervals. At the end of each month, you'll gauge your progress with an easy time trial. As you find yourself running a mile faster at the same heat rate, you'll know you have a bigger engine and a higher tolerance for lactic acid. Congrats. You now have more than a running routine; you have endurance.