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When good training & eating plans go off the rails

Life – like a metre-wide bouncer in front of an 80cm-wide doorway, it often gets in the way of good eating and training plans.
Here are some strategies to get you back on track.

It’s not ‘all or nothing’

Quit thinking, ‘if I can’t do this workout properly, then there’s no point in training at all’. You will work late, a party will go longer than expected, visitors will hang around more than anticipated, and you won’t have the time or the opportunity to do the training session you planned so meticulously. You can write it off, but tomorrow might be exactly the same. Or tomorrow is the rest day you’re supposed to have before the big session the following day. Instead, always have a range of go-to substitute options for training. There should be an option that takes less time than the session intended (but perhaps has more intensity). You should also have alternative workouts that can be done at a more flexible or convenient location. Have sessions to choose from that don’t depend on time of day (e.g. When the gym isn’t open, or when it’s dark outside). You should even have a ‘low mood’ option that will distract you, but won’t stress your mind when you’re feeling hammered from work or travelling. This could be a scenic walk or ride or zoning out with cardio equipment and a fave movie. Something is always better than nothing.

It’s your time

Even if you think you’re on a hiding to nothing, be specific when you plan your training. Don’t say, ‘if I have time, I’ll go cycling.’ say ‘I will cycle from 5:30 to 6:30.’ if your time is at the mercy of others, then one school of thought is to schedule training for the one time of day you can protect – a lunch hour, before work, or after the kids are in bed. The problem with this is that it can set yourself up for something unrealistic – are you really going to train at 8pm when you’ve usually just had dinner and are just about ready to sleep at that time? We each have times of day where our mind and body come together to train better, so perhaps your first option should be to try and guard these periods as best you can by planning around them. If you can’t, then know that you may be surprised at how your body adapts to training at a wildly different time of day – it’s just going to take a little time (and possibly a few pretty lousy workouts!) – but it may make all the difference in the world to fitting in the training sessions you want in the long term.

“Oh no you didn’t!” Jamie Matocinos/Unsplash

Accept your mistakes

One missed training session might extend to three, or you’ll binge out way more than you intended. Learn from these events and don’t let them distract you. It’s the guilt that does the real damage, not the bingeing – that’s the conclusion of a study published in the journal of personality and social psychology. The study suggested that we would succeed more if we didn’t focus so negatively on our falls off the wagon (which can lead you down the ‘all or nothing’ path.) Better to savour the experience, laugh about it on Facebook, check that the photos of you on Instagram aren’t too damaging, and move on. Besides, you can only starve yourself or exercise so hard or so long to make up for it all without doing harm, and injury and illness set you back more than any missed training session, blowout meal or night of drinking. Researchers suggested not even counting a slip-up unless some longer-term (say, monthly) goal wasn’t met. Never think of a goal as ‘failed’, just delayed.

Plan a de-load

The pro athletes have meticulously scheduled de-load weeks. Maybe you should do the same. Look ahead in your life for the times that work, holidays, travel or social events will make it very difficult to train with your usual volume, intensity or facilities/training types. Don’t fight it, work with it. Your body will thank you for the recovery.

Take control of social eating

Most social engagements revolve around food, but staying away from friends or starving while your friends pig out is no fun. Fortunately, there is some middle ground. First, be upfront with friends about your goals. Once they understand you’re serious, they’ll be supportive and avoid the all-you-can-eat fried food fiesta. If they have a restaurant booked, check for an online menu so you can see what dishes best fit your eating plan best – and sometimes an entrée and a salad works better than a main. Best of all, take charge and organise your friends for get-togethers that revolve around activities instead of food, such as a walk, a game night, tenpin bowling or a dance class.

Avoid “pre-emptive diet-breaking” – this is when people know their diet will not survive the day, so they decide that this renders any continued attempts to restrain their food intake useless. The more self-control you have over your eating choices and portions, the less foods or drinks you will have to deny yourself altogether.

Make work functions work for you

High-fat nibblies and alcohol are a bad mix. Alcohol not only increases appetite, it stops your body from burning fat and carbs normally, so both are more likely to be stored in the body. Avoid this trap by drinking two glasses of water and eating fruit or even a light meal before the function or party. This way you’ll be less likely to eat poor quality foods because of hunger or drink alcohol because of thirst.

It’s often hard to keep track of drinks if waiters are topping you up, so if you want to drink to relax, set a time to stop the booze and switch to non-alcoholic drinks. Focus on the view, the entertainment, the people – anything but the food and drink.

If you feel tired…

Work out why you feel tired – is it lack of sleep, illness, low mood or stress? Or maybe it’s the alcohol – people who are less accustomed to alcohol can suffer more tiredness from drinking than regular drinkers, even if they feel they never got drunk.

Researchers at Northwestern University found that people who didn’t get adequate sleep (seven hours minimum) became hungrier and gained weight, particularly between ages 32 to 49. The University of Chicago added that a lack of sleep changes the levels of two important hormones related to fat metabolism, leptin and ghrelin. These findings have since been replicated in other studies.

Maybe you spend time in bed, but a lot of it isn’t spent asleep, or your sleep is really piss-poor quality – the type where you wake up feeling exhausted, or you are aware of waking up every hour or so. There are sleep specialists who can help with this, or you can try to learn relaxation techniques such as meditation or (gentle) yoga and stretching that you can do pre-bedtime. Read more in my article about sleep and sports performance.

If your mood is low or you’re worn out by stress (or family!), exercise will actually help by releasing endorphins that lift mood and promote relaxation – but it’s getting started that’s hard. This might be a time for those ‘low mood’ workouts.

A version of this article was prepared for 2XU International.


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