How Many Crutches Do You Need?

How much time do you spend tweaking your workout playlist, versus actually working out?

What do you carry with you into the gym? A water bottle? Your phone, headphones, and a towel? Wrist wraps, knee sleeves, weightlifting shoes, and a chalk bucket? A duffel bag full of foam rollers, gloves, recovery shakes, and a first aid kit? How much time do you spend tweaking your workout playlist, versus actually working out? Do you wait for the treadmill with the big color TV built in to come open, instead of hopping on the one with the busted screen?
My work schedule dictates that I do a large portion of my training solo. One side effect is that when I find myself working out around other people, the differences between my habits and theirs appear very pronounced. The other day, I was getting started on some Bulgarian split squats, when a lady walked into the weight room. She proceeded to stand in front of the dumbbell rack and fiddle with her phone and headphones long enough that I finished all four of my working sets of five reps per leg.

In her defense, somebody had turned the gym’s sound system onto a station that was playing a steady stream of Johnny Cash and Phil Collins. Not exactly workout music. The least they could have done is crank up some Dave Matthews Band.

Spending all that time in a gym not doing any work looks bizarre to me now, but that would have been me, a few years ago. Over time, I’ve come to realize that the more experience I gain, the fewer crutches I need to get me to go train or compete.

No Headphones, No Problem

A lot of years ago, somebody told me that if I had to have music while I trained, it was because I didn’t enjoy training. At the time, I had two responses:

  1. Duh, nobody likes training.
  2. Why would I not have music? It makes my workouts better!

Not long after that, I was reviewing the data from my performance at a local 10k, and became frustrated that my pace and cadence were so uneven, despite the flat course. Then I realized that the fluctuations coincided perfectly with my playlist for the race. I was subconsciously distracted by the music to such an extent that I wasn’t paying attention to my running. I ditched the headphones, and never ran with them again.

Losing the music unlocked a new avenue for improving my performance. Because I was no longer distracted, I could pay more attention to the messages my body was giving me, and make corrections. I would notice if my left knee was caving in on a squat. I could monitor my breathing better during a metcon. I would hear the front tire of my mountain bike fighting for traction before I felt it slip.

The most profound difference came in my running. I was able to run in a more meditative state, controlling my breath, listening to my footfalls, and taking in the atmosphere around me. I heard the cheers of spectators, the heavy silence of the woods after a snowstorm, and the crunch of fallen leaves. In the closing stages of a race, I could listen to the breathing of the guy running next to me, and know when to time my kick to beat him to the line.

Training Is the Wrong Place for Comfort

One of the strongest concepts I took away from my interview with Dr. Andy Galpin was that “if you’re always optimizing, you’re never adapting.” The entire point of exercise and training is to introduce your body to adversity and discomfort, so that it will adapt and get stronger. If you always use your gear to shore up your weak areas, how are you going to make those areas stronger?

If you have to wear wrist wraps for every metcon, maybe you need to work on your wrist strength. If you never squat or deadlift without a belt, maybe it’s time to back off the weight and build up your core. If an entire forest of chalk trees has to die to get you through a week at CrossFit, and at the end of it you still have to dunk both hands in a bucket of RipFix, you should probably consider improving your grip technique and strength with kettlebell exercises.

If you have to have the perfect song to go train, maybe you need to reorient your mentality about training.

Masking your weak areas, be they physical or mental, is not setting you up for long-term success. It is a shortsighted athlete who takes every advantage to “win” a workout every day, with no plan to fix the things that hold them back. Training is just practice. Treat it that way, so that when you have the advantages of competition, you will enjoy an elevated performance.

Your Crutches Hold You Back

Be conscious of the things you require. They can end up being obstacles that can stop you from getting better, both because of your dependency on them, and because of the time they require to assemble and service. Ever missed a workout because you couldn’t find your shaker bottle, or the shorts you really like, or your favorite headphones? Ever been late to a race because you had to run back and get a different pair of sunglasses? I have. It’s dumb. I’m working on it.

As a cyclist, I tend to be as persnickety as anyone about my kit, my bottles, and my rig. This past weekend, I finally talked my wife (the most wonderful woman in the world and the occasional victim of my enthusiasm for racing) into being my partner in a mountain bike relay race. In my excitement on race morning, I left my jersey at home. For a moment after discovering this travesty, I stood by my truck, hands on hips, scowling in bib shorts and no top. Then a buddy loaned me one of his trademark cutoff t-shirts, I got about the business of racing my mountain bike, and all but forgot my less-than-pro appearance.

I’m all for doing whatever it takes to get going. If that means you have a bag full of accessories every time you set foot in the gym, that’s fine by me. But over time, you should evaluate the things you carry with you, and figure out whether they’re helping you get any better, or if you’re just dragging them along out of habit. If it’s the latter, maybe your gym bag could stand to get little lighter.