Completing the six-month motivational road to a faster, stronger, just plain better you
By Paul Keegan
THE MASTER OF mental toughness breaks into a booming, gruff-coach laugh. "This is you!" he says. "No smoke and mirrors. This is it, baby."
I'm sitting at a small table with sports psychologist Jim Loehr. We're in the tiny conference room where Loehr has dug into the psyches of elite athletes ranging from speed skater Dan Jansen to tennis great Andre Agassi. Now it's my turn—again. After spending six months on Loehr's program I'm back in Orlando at his training facility, LGE Performance Systems, to compare my current condition, gleaned from a disarming character evaluation and a rigorous fitness test, with the way I stood at the beginning of the program six months ago (see "No More Mind Games," March, or www.outsidemag.com/mindgames). Loehr's plan aimed to make me a faster runner, a more durable cyclist, a quicker basketball player—and, not incidentally, a happier, more productive person. I definitely feel like I'm better off since I started, but Loehr, an empiricist at heart, wants to see the numbers.
As meditation music plays in the background, he studies a sheaf of surveys filled out by ten of my friends and colleagues, evaluations of my personal strengths and weaknesses in 75 categories. "These are definitely better scores," Loehr says brightly. I beam like a fourth-grader with a good report card. Then he spots trouble. After half a year of buckling down, my three most problematic character traits are, well, still my three most problematic character traits.
As he reads aloud two of my poorest-scoring categories—Constantly Seeking Praise, and Thinks "Me"—I feel my anxiety level rising. Have I failed the program, I wonder, or has the program failed me?
When I signed up with Loehr, I wasn't out to change everything about myself—just enough to get in better shape, really. But during the first month I took on so many of Loehr's suggested lifestyle changes—getting up at the same time every morning, eating five small meals a day, doing punishing workouts—that I ended up scuttling my own efforts. Most of the time, I was wiped out. I soon learned that I wasn't allowing myself time to slack off. Oddly enough, in Loehr's world view, I lacked discipline. The program aims to build this critical skill through personalized daily rituals, with an eye to addressing the four pillars of well-being: physical, mental, emotional, and recovery.
While I'd been attacking the first three of these with zeal—creating new schedules, eating according to plan, reciting pre-performance mantras, running from the office to the gym to the health-food store—I had neglected the last, recovery. But with a little guidance from David Striegel, the coach Loehr had assigned to me after my initial visit to LGE, I began using a timer at my desk to remind me to take breaks every two hours, putting adequate sleep above all else, and leaving one day of every weekend unscheduled.
Tweaking my routine made the program more manageable. To be honest, though, I wasn't thinking much about it until one day at the end of the second month, when I was visiting family in Knoxville, Maryland. I went for a jog along a rural stretch of the Potomac, directly across from Harpers Ferry. Bright orange sunlight smeared an overcast afternoon sky as I settled into a medium jog, figuring this would be a light run, maybe a half-hour; I'd get back to serious workouts when I returned home.
But after about ten minutes, something astonishing happened. My body suddenly started sprinting, as if some internal switch had been flipped. My legs leaped out in front of me, my fists began punching through the air, my heart raced. I found myself a startled outside observer of my own body, which seemed to have its own notion of how fast it could go. It was a strange, exhilarating feeling—like driving a car and having the accelerator stuck to the floor. All I could do was steer and enjoy the ride. After a few minutes my body slowed back down to a jog. I was elated. For a few rapturous moments, I had finally reached the quasi-mystical "Ideal Performance State" that Loehr had promised when I signed on back in late October.
That was when the program truly began for me. At last I was seeing tangible benefits from the high-intensity workouts Loehr had me doing. And it convinced me of the truth behind one of Loehr's key principles: Stress, broadly defined as the expenditure of energy, is a crucial stimulus for growth, so long as it's immediately followed by recovery, the period when growth actually occurs. Whether you're talking about a quad-torching run up a steep trail or a blowout game of hoops with a friend, the fundamental approach remains the same: Oscillate constantly between stress and recovery, and guide the process by observing consistent behavioral rituals. Gradually, even though you're fluctuating between progress and what may feel like stagnation, this oscillation will boost you to a higher plane of performance.
Loehr would later tell me that my Chariots of Fire episode along the Potomac indicated that I'd become disciplined, meaning that what once was a chore had now become habit. As much as 95 percent of our behavior, he'd explained before, is habitual—from the way we brush our teeth to how we react to a crisis. That means only about 5 percent of what we do is consciously determined. With such puny willpower, the way to create Loehr's brand of discipline is to hammer away at bad habits, one at time, until they become good ones (see "The Great Barrier Leap," below.)
That all sounds fine, but isn't it something of a Catch-22? If you lack discipline, how do you make yourself stick to a new program designed to create it? And even if you manage to gain some good habits, how do you hang on to them? Those questions haunted me soon after I returned from Maryland. Battling my usual twin villains—travel and deadlines—I somehow lost the recovery habit and everything fell apart. Worse, around week nine, I picked up a nasty flu that not only ruined the mountain-biking vacation I was on, but lingered for a month spent dragging myself to the office and then collapsing at home afterward. By the time I fully recovered, I was in the middle of month four of the six-month program, and utterly depressed. I felt like I was in lousy shape, way behind at work, and had dropped the few good habits I'd established. Now I had a scant ten weeks to reach my fitness goals, some of which were formidable. LGE likes to get its clients into the 75th percentile for their age and gender, so I was expected to drop my body-fat from 23 to 17 percent while dramatically increasing my cardiovascular capacity. Right.
The way out of my slough of despond, Striegel informed me in another telephone checkup, was to fundamentally change the way I thought about such goals. "There needs to be some ownership on your part about what your goals are," he said. "The ones we gave you came from exercise software. Take your own life into consideration, what you want out of this. Given that you're not a competing athlete, you can always adjust them. It's up to you."
This was a revelation. I had gotten stuck on the narrow idea of a single, unchanging, objective standard. Compromise, in my book, was tantamount to surrender; calling a goal unattainable was a thinly veiled rationalization to let me off the hook. But goals, I was learning, are really just a constructive form of self-delusion. The point isn't so much achieving them as using them to keep you pointed in the right direction. Clearly, I had allowed my initial LGE-prescribed objectives to make me feel intimidated and defeated—like the program was controlling me, not the other way around. What I really want—my real goal—is to feel stronger, have more energy, and perform better in the sports I love.
Before LGE, I'd been working out two to three times a week, but rarely with much intensity. Now, once again, I'd stagnated. So I created a new goal: to work out hard for a minimum of three days a week, with a fourth day every other week. I even rigorously kept a workout log. For nutritional discipline, I made up a menu of three healthy breakfasts—poached eggs, egg-white vegetarian omelets, and whole-wheat French toast made with egg whites—spiced them up with fruit, low-fat ham, and 1 percent milk, and rotated them each day. At midmorning and midafternoon I snacked on energy bars, cottage cheese, fruit, and pretzels to keep up my blood sugar. And I found a lunch place where I'm guaranteed a healthy meal every day, chock-full of vegetables and low-fat protein like fish and chicken. (Dinner, alas, remains problematic; I eat out a lot, and the social ritual often trumps my fitness ritual of eating lean and mean.)
I went back to my recovery rituals, too, taking more rather than fewer breaks when the going got tough. That meant quick naps in the office and scheduling recuperation time during trips, including occasional five-minute catnaps on the side of the road while driving between meetings. By the end of the fifth month I felt better about the program than ever before. Finally, my rituals were becoming habits. I was working out harder and more frequently, generating huge energy boosts, and sleeping more soundly. Muscles were growing taut; fat, evaporating. I began feeling great even during my most stressful and exhausting days.
BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Perhaps inevitably, other setbacks materialized during the sixth and final month, mostly in the form of an avalanche of work and late-night partying. But I kept my cool and simply dialed back my workouts, essentially dropping into a holding pattern. I knew I wasn't making huge strides anymore—I was only trying to avoid falling off the wagon completely.
By the time I find myself driving the Bee Line Expressway in Orlando to LGE's headquarters, I've had several weeks like this. But despite the intense pressure of deadlines compounded by sleep deprivation, my training has stood me in good stead, and I don't feel stressed out at all, which is one of the objectives of Loehr's program. Still, have I let my goals slip too much? I'll soon find out if the way I feel is backed up by quantitative measurements, or if I'm merely in the happy haze of some kind of placebo effect.
The results roll in soon enough. In the gym, I've become significantly stronger. On lat pull-downs, I've gone from being able to do 17 repetitions to 27; on leg extensions, from 14 to 31; on arm curls, from 11 to 20. My VO2 max—a measure of aerobic fitness—has jumped from 33 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute to 37.5, slightly over the goal LGE had set. Last, but hardly least, my body fat has dropped from 23 percent to 20.5, about half of my goal of 6 percentage points. True, I've lost only three pounds of fat, but I'm startled to find I've gained six pounds of muscle. All in all, far better than I expected.
As for the psychological tests, Loehr leaves Striegel and me to hash out some new rituals to counter my low marks. We come up with some visualization exercises and pre-performance mantras that may not change who I am fundamentally, but that can help me manage my weaknesses so that they don't impede my performance.
"The key thing is to have some kind of accountability," Loehr says, and that's exactly what the tests gave me. What often works with his clients, he adds, is a quarterly or semiannual self-testing system (see "Home Schooling," at left) overseen by a friend or family member. Keeping a meticulous record of your test results gives you a solid indication of how well your regimen is working.
The tests helped me finally recognize the connections between goals, rituals, discipline, and accountability. Goals provide the motivation to create rituals, which eventually lead to discipline. But progress is gradual, and you need to be tested periodically to measure whether you're on the right track. Even if the results aren't spectacular, having proof that you're moving forward can provide the necessary shot of motivation to help you gear up for the next challenge. You begin to realize that the process itself—not the result—is what is so invigorating.
When I return to New York, a friend wonders if I'll continue with Loehr's program now that this story is finished. It seems like an odd question, because I don't feel like I'm on a program anymore. What was daunting and, quite frankly, a little weird at first—all that business of controlling your eating and sleeping cycles—has become simply part of my life, something I do without thinking. More to the point, it seems like a normal way to live. It's the rest of the world that now appears strange, with hidden rituals of its own that impose habits on us that are not just unhealthy, but perhaps contrary to our essential nature.
Listen to me. Maybe it's the placebo effect, or all that positive thinking Loehr's staff has been drilling into me. Whatever, the damn thing works. My life's infinitely better now—and I feel like I'm just getting started.
Paul Keegan is a highly motivated correspondent for Outside.