Use Play to Become Fitter and Stronger for Longer

Serious athletes may see play as a waste of valuable training time, but is it really?

As far as I’m concerned, there are two essential elements to the longevity of an athlete’s training. Many of you might be expecting me to say variety, recovery, or regulation. But they are none of these. Or perhaps they are all of these.

The Two Elements of Longevity in Training

  1. Including a regular play day in your training schedule
  2. Enjoying the process

Including a Play Day

Serious athletes may see play as a waste of valuable training time, but is it really? Paleo author Melissa Joulwan, talked about how she has only recently realized the point of doing something without a point, in her article Train Hard and Go Easy – Balancing Work, Rest and Play. I personally used to feel like that, too.

Melissa explained how her previous schedule of sports and activities left her feeling exhausted and, in the end, injured and sick. She has admitted to working out at full intensity six days a week for years – sound familiar? It took for Melissa’s body to force her to slow down before she realized the importance of play:

Because it’s fun. And that kind of fun – activities done for their own sake, without any kind of productive outcome attached to them – is essential to our overall health and happiness. It also provides a feedback loop with intentional training. The fun takes advantage of the strength and endurance we build in our challenging workouts – and the fun also provides a mental break so we can bring all of our focus to our hardcore training sessions.

Darryl Edwards, author of Paleo Fitness, explained How Play Can Make You Fitter and Happier, and how play is in fact fundamental to our existence:

Play is key to physical, mental, and social wellbeing, but it is often underrated and viewed as superfluous. Play is endemic to human development – a biological necessity based on our survival. Play is life. As Stuart Brown the founder of the American National Institute for Play stated, “When we stop playing, we start dying.

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Coach Jeff Kuhland, in his article Your Mind Is Your Gym: Your Brain Is All the Equipment You Need, helped us to put play into perspective – a child’s perspective.

Remember back when you were a child, when games spontaneously started and they just as quickly changed in rules and structure. Try playing a game of tag with your friends. It’s a lot harder than you remember. Then swing across the monkey bars. Somehow this too changed from something you did for fun to something quite challenging. Kids are quick to push their limits, and often slow to complain about hard effort, as long as it’s fun.

Now that we have this concept of child’s play, how do we link it back to ourselves as adults? Founder of the CrossFit LA Kids program Becca Borawski Jenkins took a look at this in her article Fun & Flow: A Mental Approach to Training, with Kenny Kane:

[C]hildren constantly play at 100% effort, but they do not even realize they are playing so hard. They are enjoying the moment. When a person or athlete finds that flow, they let go of analysis and false beliefs. Instead they fall back on practice, instinct, and accessing their full and true ability.

Enjoying the Process

Strength and conditioning coach Matt Palfrey discussed this concept of hardcore training sessions in the context of his 5 Week Sandbag Workout Program: Week 4 – Play Time:

Of course it’s a great thing to put yourself through some hardship to achieve a bigger goal, but maybe you’re focusing on the hardship too much? And, while it’s easy to mentally equate hard work with great results it doesn’t always work out this way. Sure, I enjoy tough training sessions that I know other people would shy away from. But, for most people, I think a training program needs to be enjoyable on many levels for it to be effective.

In this world of sets, reps, and time, play can be a welcome break. Matt goes on to define the concepts of play and flow are interlinked:

Flow, as described by psychologist and author Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

This feeling of being present in the moment relates to far more than play. Matt goes on to explain that he feels all fitness training should be like this. And that he believes flow represents how we can approach play within our training sessions.

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Where Did It All Go Wrong?

In gyms up and down the country, people can be seen pushing themselves beyond the limits of physical capability – this is understandable in the pursuit of fitness. However, many can be seen also pushing themselves over the markers of good health. 

Where did it all go wrong? Coach Andrew Read suggested the tide started to turn back in the 1920s in his article Putting the Fun Back in Fitness: The Importance of Play and Community:

It’s not hard to see the loss of perspective on health, vitality, and fitness starting in the fitness and sporting fields as early as the 1920s.Looking at pictures of old time gymnasiums the focus turned from rings, monkey bars, vaulting, and odd implements like Indian clubs and kettlebells, to benches and fixed weights. Before

you know it we started to see machines and treadmills.

While introducing the concept of play into your our schedule, we need to be careful that it doesn’t become a chore itself. Kids’ fitness expert Nicole Crawford reminded us of Physical Play During Early Childhood: Why It’s Disappearing and What To Do About It – a topic to consider for both kids and adults.

As research suggests and experience often confirms, young kids are already becoming hesitant to partake in physical play. Try to make physical play an adventure that kids can get excited about, not something they do to keep from being bored.

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How to Get It Right

Darryl Edwards put together a Four-Week Paleo Fitness and Primal Play Program, aimed at increasing your sense of fun and enjoyment of life. He also put together ten pointers for play, in his piece How Play Can Make You Fitter and Happier:

  1. Seek to reclaim the enjoyment of movement that we experienced as children
  2. Make it BIG (broad, inclusive and general)
  3. Make sure play includes the active participation of others
  4. Make it fun with a small element of risk (imaginary or otherwise)
  5. Make play unpredictable and prepare for the unexpected
  6. Abide by the rules, change the rules, break the rules, have no rules
  7. Use the natural environment as your playground
  8. Use each other as exercise equipment
  9. Get children of all ages (including adults) to create the scenarios
  10. Minimize structure, time intervals, and penalties; encourage real-world movement, imagination, and rewards

For me, strongman is a great way to incorporate a play day for a stubborn strength athlete. Strongman removes the shackles of the movements performed day-in-day-out. It is good fun, yet still has tremendous carryover to other strength sports.

What the World Could Use

Andrew Read provided us with a short but simple closing synopsis, taken from his article Do Cartwheels: Why You Need Learning and Fun in Your Training:

Right now the world could use some fun and it could use looking at things from a new perspective. Learning new skills, meeting new people, and seeing things from a fresh perspective could be quite good right now. The long-term gains from learning a new skill will pay off in the long run by leaving you free from burn out, injury, and boredom. Go have some fun.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.