When it comes to fitness and exercise, the time you spend sweating it out in the gym tends to get all the credit for the results you see and feel. But the truth is, the way you treat your mind and body before and after your workouts is going to have a big impact on your progress and how well your body adapts.
So, in order to get the most out of your workouts and all that effort you’re putting in, here are a few considerations which will make your time in the gym more effective.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
I bang on about this all the time to anyone who will listen because, in my opinion, this is THE most important thing you can do for your health and wellbeing – whether you’re exercising or not.
Water makes up approximately 60% of your body, so staying hydrated is crucial for keeping your mind and body functioning properly – including removing waste and toxins, transporting nutrients, improving circulation and digestion, regulating body temperature, acting as a shock absorber for our joints, and boosting brain power and concentration levels.
The current guidelines are to drink 1-2 litres of water a day, however if you’re exercising you’ll need to up these levels. We lose a lot of water when we exercise, through sweating and breathing, so it’s essential that we keep our hydration levels topped up to help fuel our muscles, boost our energy levels, reduce the risk of cramp, and help us to perform better so we can get the most out of the session.
I know it can be a bit of a pain at first – remembering to drink water regularly throughout the day – but downloading an app for this or setting a reminder on your phone can be a quick and easy way to get started. And then once you get into the habit of doing it, you’ll be surprised at how quickly your body adjusts and how much better you feel as a result.
- Fuel your body
Food is not the enemy, even if weight loss is your goal. In fact, especially if weight loss is your goal. It might sound counter-intuitive, but food is what’s going to keep you going and give you the energy to workout, push yourself further and get the most out of your session. Simply put, no energy in means no energy out.
Our body uses what we feed it to constantly heal, repair and rebuild cells and it needs a wide range of food to be able to do this effectively. A healthy balance of…
- quality protein (to build and repair your muscles and cells);
- healthy fats (to help absorb and transport vitamins A, D, E and K, provide insulation, protect your organs, and assist brain and nerve function);
- starchy carbohydrates (to provide a slow and steady release of energy throughout the day to fuel your brain and body);
- plenty of vegetables (a source of fibre, vitamins and minerals)
…will give you the nutrients your body needs to keep you energised through the burpees, whilst also helping to repair your body after a workout.
And if you’re upping your exercise, remember that you’ll need to up your food intake too. If you eat too little, your metabolism will simply slow down to conserve what little energy your body does have, your energy levels will dip, and you’ll end up feeling pretty grim.
Allergies and intolerances aside, I believe life is too short for diets, rules and heavy restrictions around what you’re eating, and that complete deprivation of certain foods can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, which can ultimately become more damaging to your physical and mental health than the food itself. Your body is smart. Trust it. Yes, moderation and balance are important, but so is listening to your body, finding what works for you and being confident with that. Food should be nourishing to the body and to the soul – and what this looks like will be different for everyone.
Like hydration and nutrition, getting enough quality sleep is so important to our overall health and wellbeing, but it also becomes even more crucial when upping your exercise routine. Not only will a good night’s sleep keep your energy levels up throughout your next workout, it is also during this rest period when your muscles repair, recover and grow stronger.
A good workout will place your body under stress, fatigue your muscles and push you that bit further each time. This will cause microscopic tears to the cells in your muscles, which is why you feel sore the next day. But when you allow your body to rest (which is a crucial part of any fitness plan), it will recover and grow stronger and fitter in the process.
This cycle of stress and recovery is what improves overall fitness and strength over time, however it’s important that this is done in a safe, progressive and measured way to avoid over-training (yes, that’s a thing) and injury. A good PT will be able to offer advice and guidance in relation to this, but only you know how your body really feels and where your energy levels are. Once you get into a routine, you’ll begin to pick up on the cues and understand the difference between when you need to push yourself to train through the sluggish, lethargic feeling and when your body genuinely needs to rest.
I know getting good quality sleep can be way easier said than done, but the good news is that regular exercise promotes better quality, restorative sleep so it can help you get into a good, healthy cycle.
- Start small
A good fitness program is built up over time and should always be completely unique to each person, because every single body is different. If you’re starting from scratch or you’re picking up again after a long period of inactivity, you’ll need to start slowly, make sure your form is correct and engaging the correct muscles, and build a strong foundation first before progressing the intensity – otherwise it won’t be effective and you’ll risk injury.
Every stretch releases tension, every movement helps oxygen to flow a little faster around your body and every stress/recovery cycle will make your body a little fitter and stronger so, even if you can’t see any immediate changes, know that they are taking place, your body is adapting, and you’ll be able to feel it pretty soon.
And as soon as you start to see and feel the results, you’ll feel motivated to do more and more. But it’s important to know that there is such a thing as over-training – no matter what level you’re at. Everyone has their limits and going too hard, too fast can lead to injury and sickness as your body struggles to recover. Signs of over-training include a lack of improved performance (despite an increase in intensity), excessive fatigue, insomnia/poor quality sleep due to the over-production of stress hormones, nagging injuries/muscle pain which doesn’t ease, headaches, irritability, frequent sickness and low energy. If this happens, it’s important that you take a temporary step back from your programme to allow your body to rest.
My final tip is simply to keep in mind that progress isn’t linear – it comes and goes in cycles, twists and turns, ups and downs. We are complex beings! So if you go into anything, including a new fitness plan, with the expectation that you have to shoot straight to the top, get all A’s and then stick rigidly to it for the rest of your life, you’re setting yourself up to fail. You’ll put unnecessary pressure on yourself and then as soon as life gets in the way (which it inevitably does), you’ll beat yourself up for failing. And when you make yourself feel like a failure, you’ll give up.
So, if you’re in this for long haul, it’s time to tune in to your own body, cut yourself some slack and remind yourself that fitness is a journey to be enjoyed and celebrated – not a quick fix or a punishment for what you ate.