In month one, we told you that the Shape of Your Life program would be driven by periodization: the idea that athletic improvement can be sustainable and efficient only if you strike a balance between stress and recovery in every phase of your training cycle. So each time we pushed you toward your max (think Zone 3 interval workouts), we gave you rest and recovery to let your muscles grow and adapt (i.e. those weekends after Friday interval sessions). The stress hormones released by intense training encouraged muscle and cardiovascular growth; the recovery period allowed them the rest necessary to do so. With this same philosophy in mind, month five will be your hardest yet; you'll max out in week three, slow things down in week four, and then peak for your fitness goal by the end.
So what happens after that? Good news: You can back off again—this time for an entire month. But before you drop a grand on a new TV to satisfy your pent-up couch-potato fantisies, let us qualify. By "back off," we mean active rest. If you've been running throughout the program, give the knees a break and get into the pool for a month of easy swims two or three times a week. Or if your sport is cycling, try trail running, only decrease the intesnity (forget intervals) and the number of workouts per week. As for the weight room, just one visit a week will do. Perform one set of reps of five to eight exercises that work your major muscle groups. The whole idea is maintenance anf fun—leave the heart-rate monitors, stopwatches, and workout calendars in your locker.
There's logic to this brief vacation. Fact is, you can progressively increase your training load only for a limited time before it becomes a physical and mental burden. In small amounts stress hormones help you move faster and rebuild quicker. But when they begin to accumulate over long periods of intense exercise, they can degrade your immune repsonse and cause logy, depressionalike symtoms of overtraining. Even elite athletes take time off at some point. Lance Armstrong, for example, didn't mount his bike for two weeks after the end of cycling season. He knew he needed a break, and so will you.
Next step: Develop a new goal. Just as you did last April or May, conjure up a grand adventure. Want to run your first marathon this spring? Always dreamed of a trekking trip in the Himalays? You get the idea—a motivational carrot to prod you out of the house during your next push for the peak. And to stay on the safe side, make more than a mental commitment. "Registering and paying for an event that's on your calendar is a good external motivator," says Eric Harr, author of The Protable Personal Trainer. "You're liess likely to stray from the program if you know you're going to pay for it on that 14,000-foot peak in three months." It's also a good idea to try a new sport this go-round. "For me it becomes a challenge to do the same stuff over and over," says surf legend and SYL adviser Laird Hamilton. "It's better to find new things that inspire you. Do them for a while, reach a personal goal, and move on to something else."
With a month of active rest under your belt, and a new goal, you can restart the program. However, just as your muscles need to adapt, so should this plan. Stick to the basic periodization guidelines and schedule, but adjust the training to fit your own specific needs. If you're planning a marathon, try increasing the mileage every week of your Monday Zone 2 run based on the marathon mileage charts offered in most running magazines and websites. If you're training for an adventure race, try mixing up your events Monday through Friday. The point is to read up on some sport specifics and make the plan work for your individual goal.
And there you have it—five months on, a grand adventure, a month off to keep you fresh, and a new beginning every six months or so. It's a sustainable blueprint designed to let you knock off a life-list adventure at least twice a year. But the ball is in your court now. It's your life; what shape are you going to make it?
The Shape of Your Life is not perfect. We'd like to think otherwise, but now's the time to admit that no single strategy can work perfectly for every person, every time. Nor should it. To keep this program fresh, you need to make it your own, and some days you need to break the rules—within reason. Below, you'll find the 25 most important training fundamentals that we uncovered during the formation of the SYL program. Adopt them as general guidelines, and then apply them to create your own smart, rut-busting workouts.
How to Start Getting Into the Shape of Your Life
- Create a goal that's not a number (160 pounds) or a look (rock-solid abs), but a state of mind or an achievement.
- Periodize. Work in preset phases of intensity and always go easier before going hardest.
- Schedule recovery time or schedule burnout. Strength grows during recovery.
- Break workouts up when you need to. Studies show that ten minutes, three times a day, equals 30 minutes at once.
- Practice complete workouts. Warm up first, and cool down and stretch when you're finished.
- Go easy (little more than half of your ability or 60 percent of your maximum heart rate). Building endurance requires the patience to go slow.
- To boost endurance, use intervals (short bursts over 75 percent of your maximum heart rate).
- Manage your interval training wisely. First increase the number of intervals per workout (up to six), then their length (up to ten minutes). Then shorten the rests in between.
- Build slowly. When increasing the duration or distance of your workout, don't leap more than 10 percent from one week to the next.
- Put in the miles. If you plan on racing, you need to be running, swimming, or cycling 75 percent as much as you will on race day one month beforehand.
- Train movements—front-to-back (lunges), vertical (squats), and rotational (medicine-ball chops)—not body parts.
- Practice form first. Three lifts done with good form are more productive than 30 done sloppily.
- If you're new to a lift—or to lifting altogether—one set of 10 to 12 reps is fine to start.
- Use your body weight for resistance when starting out. Push-ups, pull-ups, and dips are all you need to get going.
- When you're ready for free weights, use dumbbells. They're safer and more challenging than barbells.
- Let weight down slowly. Lowering is just as important as lifting.
- Whenever possible, perform lifts on your feet or on a Swiss ball.
- Remember these numbers: 10 and 20. For muscle strength, lift enough weight to wipe you out after 10 reps. For muscle endurance, perform up to 20.
- Treat stretching—and specifically yoga—as a workout itself, not a wrap-up.
- Learn the the Sun Salutation. Try to finish every workout with five repetitions.
- Work slow, be slow: Do power lifts, plyometrics, and agility drills to supplement your slower-speed core strength and endurance work.
- Perform Olympic lifts, plyometrics, and agility drills when you're fresh—not when you're dog-tired after an endurance workout.
- Work out in the morning. Excuses to skip a workout will be less likely to pop up, and you'll invariably end up feeling great all day.
- Find a buddy. Having someone to work out with will keep you on track.
- Whenever possible, take it outdoors.