I wrote a few weeks ago about intensity (That’s Intense!) and I promised to return to the subject, specifically with some more guidance on using heart rate and perceived exertion for training.  That is still going to happen, but today I got side-tracked with a story about exercise intensity instead.  Everyone loves a good story, so enjoy.

When I was a post-graduate, I was a volunteer coach for a college cross-country team.  There was a young man on the team named Tyler who had experienced limited success and was not improving.  One day, after practice, he asked me, “Neal, I want to get better, what do I need to do?”  My answer:

“Run faster in practice.”

Tyler sort of hung his head a bit and said, “I was afraid you’d say that.”

The advice I gave to Tyler might seem simple and obvious, but sometimes, the simple and obvious solutions are right in front of us and we just need to hear them.  It was as if Tyler knew deep down what he needed to do to improve, but he wasn’t doing it for some reason.  After our conversation, Tyler began “applying himself” at practice.  He trained with more intensity. He tried harder. He ran faster.  And, as you might expect, he got better.  In fact, over the next couple of years, he got really good.  Eventually, the kid who used to drag in practice was kicking my butt.

When it comes to both exercise and our general health, we’re a lot like Tyler sometimes.  We know deep down what we should be doing, but we aren’t doing it.  We think it’s too hard, too much, or we find excuses.  As far as exercise goes, many people who begin working out see immediate results, but eventually hit a plateau and become frustrated.  Many often stop exercising at this point.  One of the best ways to get out of an exercise rut is to dial-up the intensity of the exercise.  Essentially, this was my advice to Tyler when I told him to run faster.  I knew he was capable of working harder, but for whatever reason he wasn’t doing it.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we could all work a bit harder when we exercise.  This doesn’t mean that we have to turn into Olympic athletes, or every exercise session has to be incredibly difficult, it just means that we need to challenge ourselves periodically.

In Exercise Science terms, this is called the Overload Principle.  The Overload Principle states that when we challenge our bodies with an activity (stressor) that it is not accustomed to, our bodies will adapt to that stressor.  Examples include bone density and lean muscle tissue increasing with resistance exercise, or the heart becoming stronger through cardiovascular exercise.  These are just two examples of thousands and thousands of tiny adaptations that occur inside our bodies when we exercise with purpose!  These adaptations usually work to make us more fit and more efficient, and cumulatively lead to better overall health.

The Overload Principle applies to all levels of exercise, not just the most difficult.  If you walk consistently, try raising the intensity by walking hills, steps, or just trying a more brisk pace periodically.  If this is not part of your normal routine, your body will be “overloaded” by the new stress, and will respond.  If you do cardio, but always at the same pace or on the same piece of equipment—change it up!  Experiment with different paces, hills, resistance, etc.  Your body will respond.  One of my favorite quotes when it comes to exercise routines is:

“The best exercise program is the one you’re not on.”  –Coach Mike Boyle

This just means that our bodies respond nicely to new stimuli, to stressors we’re not accustomed to, and by changes in intensity.  If you feel stuck in a rut, bored with your exercise routine, or you are looking for improvement in your sport or hobby, try slowly adding bouts of increased intensity into your regular exercise sessions or training.  I think you’ll find that your body and mind will benefit.

Again, this is a big subject, so I’ll continue to write about it in future posts.  For now, challenge yourself and have fun with it!


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