Tuesday, February 2, 2010


People at the gym and the workouts they perform can be loosely divided into two categories: training and maintaining.  Training activities are those designed specifically to increase performance; maintaining activities are designed to, well, maintain one's fitness level.  People who go to the gym, jog on the elliptical for half an hour, do a few sets of resistance work, stretch, and go home are almost always maintaining.  People who lift weights at length, work with a personal trainer, or design their cardio workouts (by adding intervals or seeking a certain target heart rate) are generally training.

I don't associate training with a particular intensity of exercise.  The six months before I moved to New York, I was spending more time in the gym than ever before or since.  I was there by six every weekday; three days a week I spent an hour on the elliptical before an hour-long sculpting class, and two days I went to an hour-long spin class followed by an hour-long yoga class.  On Saturday I did two to three hours of running, step class, yoga, and sculpting, and Sunday was my rest day.  I was working hard and in great shape.  But I wasn't training.  I was working out twelve hours a week because it made me happy and because the gym was where I knew people and felt comfortable.  I liked being flexible and strong, but I wasn't going to the gym every morning with an intention to make myself faster and stronger; I was going to the gym because it was part of my day.  I was maintaining, not training.

Now, I am training.  I have a plan for my workouts for the next twelve weeks, culminating in the half-marathon I plan to run.  I have articulated goals for distance and less-articulated goals for speed.  Some of my workouts don't have specific goals, so in some ways they're like maintenance workouts - but they're part of a larger training program.  Today's workout was a spin class; spin classes are generally conducted as if the instructor is trying to jar maintainers out of a rut and force them to train for 45 minutes.*  Sometimes I like this, but as I get further into my training program, since spinning is my cross-training and is not supposed to exacerbate fatigue or any injuries, it may become a problem.

It's easy to think of training as the hard work that is done at the gym, but actually training is fun.  When I see people training, I'm often jealous of them, or wish I knew them so we could discuss their regimens.  But when I see people who are clear maintainers - people who come to the gym every weekday, or three times a week, and spend 30 or 45 minutes doing cardio at the same intensity every time, and then do their sets of leg lifts and crunches and biceps curls, and then stretch and refill their water bottles and go home - I admire them.  They come to the gym even though exercise isn't their focus, even though something else is occupying their primary intention in life - their training focus is on their work, or on raising their children, or on going to exciting bars every night, or whatever - and they do what needs to be done to maintain, and they do it again and again, without getting discouraged, for months or years.  It's that skill, the ability to persist in the absence of progress or even hope of progress, without any goal besides to continue taking care of things, that I admire, and I think it is the people who are able to do that, to maintain all areas of their life at all times, who are happiest and best off.

* It isn't relevant to this post, but I'm annoyed by the fact that female spin instructors often try to urge the class to higher levels of performance by invoking bathing suit season, which is always either coming or here.  First of all, it's hard to think seriously about bathing suits when it's twenty degrees out.  Second, the instructors especially like to do this on steep climbs, and most women who are trying to look good in a bathing suit are more focused on burning fat than building muscle, which is best done at a lower resistance level but for longer periods of time.  Third and most importantly, I don't like the assumption that we are and/or should be exercising with a goal to look good in a bathing suit.  Perhaps this is my own bias, i.e. no matter how many marathons and half-marathons I may run, and even if I am someday able to do a pullup, I doubt I will ever approach a bathing suit without anxiety, and if I do it will be a psychological and not a physical triumph.  But really I think we can all agree that there are more important reasons to go to the gym than to conform to society's ideas of how we should look in a small piece of nylon. 


  1. Excellent point. As we've discussed, I don't have the self-discipline to maintain.

  2. True "maintainers" are probably a rather rare breed. Most people who work out at a low maintenance level are the sort who lose interest in exercise and stop going.


  3. This is the exact opposite of the impression I have. I'm not classifying maintenance as necessarily low-level; it's an attitude. I've noticed that people who are training - trying to lose weight, or bulk up, or complete a race or other event - tend to flame out after they meet their goal or when the goal starts to feel unattainable. The classic example of this (which you've also commented on) is the New Year's Resolution crowd, most of which dissipates by mid-February. But people who are not at the gym for any particular purpose or goal, simply because going to the gym is what they do, tend to (in my observation, anyway) stick to it.

  4. ...This raises the question of whether I'm a trainer or a maintainer, and I think when it comes to exercise I'm a maintainer. I've been working out regularly for eleven years, during which time I've performed fairly intense exercise three to six times a week except during brief periods of illness, moving, or other major impediments and a few months in 2001 when I was finishing college and then traveling in Europe. In that time, I've occasionally tried with varying degrees of success to achieve some specific exercise-related goal - running a marathon, losing weight, doing a pullup - and I've passed through a variety of enthusiasms. But the reason I've kept working out several times a week is not that there's always some new race to run or that I really really like spin or yoga or whatever I'm into this season; it's because working out is something I do. Even when I'm not prioritizing it, I'm still at the gym three or four or five times a week, lifting and ellipting and going to classes. I feel like a slacker sometimes during these periods, but I guess maybe the lesson I should learn from my own post is that maintenance is not such a bad thing.

  5. You're right. I was thinking of people on maintenance routines as the sort of people who do a few minutes of desultory exercising while making infrequent visits. But I now see you meant something quite different.

    Another example of people who train hard and then flame out are the former high school or college athletes who go completely to seed after their playing days are over.