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  • Writer's pictureJen Curtis


A few years ago I was mega unfit.

I had played sports all the way through school, but had always been on the chubby side. Being involved in ALL the sports teams kept my weight in check.

Then I got way too stressed doing my A Levels and study completely took over. 4 years at University with very little exercise and faaaaar too much drinking and binge eating, I was at my heaviest ever.

Going to work in an office after that really didn't help matters. I was living a totally sedentary lifestyle.

I knew nothing about health, fitness and nutrition at this point. Like most people, I loved to eat (and drink), and I thought that weight-loss was all about strict diets. I would sometimes try - and I'd usually be really successful - but only for about a week, then I would lose interest and motivation and end up back where I had started.

I really wanted to start running (because I was sure that cardio was essential for "burning off the fat" - this was before I discovered strength training, obviously). So every day, I would say to myself all day in the office that TODAY I WILL go for a run this evening.

I HAVE to go for at least 20 minutes (because otherwise you don't burn any fat, right?).

And everyday I would get home and proceed to watch TV, kind of, sort of thinking about that run - and then convincing myself that I'm too tired, that it's OK, that I will go tomorrow.

And so on and so fourth ad nauseam

Then one day I had this brilliant idea that I would just go out and try to find out how many minutes of running I was actually able to do (rather than deciding ahead of time how many I was supposed to do, based on some totally arbitrary number). I decided to assess my own fitness, if you will. This felt very motivating and far less scary than the 20 minutes of running I had previously set for myself. I kind of wanted to know where I stood, what I was able to do.

I managed 5 minutes - I was puffing and panting and my legs felt like they were filled with lead. My chest and neck felt tight and I was so short of breath. It was horrible and I was embarrassed and surprised by how unfit I had actually gotten.

So I stopped at 5 minutes and slowed my pace into a walk... I thought "oh well, so much for 20 minutes - but now I'm out here, I might as well walk the rest". And then I walked for 15 minutes more.

I felt surprisingly good after that. Although I had been tired BEFORE the run, I now felt energized and had a great, productive evening.

Rather than beating myself up for not running the full 20, I FINALLY gave myself a pat on the back for at least doing something, and I realized that 5 minutes of running + 15 minutes of walking is WAY better than what I had been doing before.

I felt a burst of energy for my new fitness regime that I was about to embark on.

I had this crazy idea that I would do things differently this time, listening to my body, aiming to do less and ACTUALLY DOING IT. Meeting myself where I was at and not fixating on arbitrary goals that were unrealistic.

Here were the rules of my new running schedule:

1. I would go for a run/walk 3 times a week

2. I would add just ONE minute to the run each time

3. Until I was able to do 20 minutes of uninterrupted running, I would walk the remainder of the 20 minutes

4. If I felt really good one day and could run more, I would do so, but this would only count as "bonus minutes" and would not affect the target run time for my next run. So if I was supposed to run 14 minutes and felt so good that I continued and actually ran 22 minutes, on my next run I would still only aim to run 15 minutes (and not 23). I gave myself a pat on the back for doing more than planned.

5. If I felt really crappy one day and decided to cut the run short, I would not beat myself up - I'd just get back on the plan the next day.

6. If I only managed to run twice, or once, or not at all one week, I would not beat myself up, nor would I just give up altogether. I would just reassess where I was at (maybe I had lost a few "minutes") and then carry on from there, from my new start point.

I kept going like this, logging it in a little journal... and I built my run time all the way up to 40 minutes. At this point, I decided to run a 5K, and then I started breaking my runs up (1 long run, 1 short run, 1 intervals) in order to run a 10K, which I eventually did (and by which time I was thoroughly sick of running).

I also lost quite a bit of weight. I went from 72kg to 67kgs, where I got stuck until I started strength training (I'll write another blog post on that).

I looked and felt so much better. I was still making a ton of mistakes with my diet and exercise, but I had built up an exercise HABIT - it felt second nature and I couldn't imagine stopping. It made me feel so much better physically, mentally and emotionally and helped me stay on track with my food. (Exercise seems to reduce my appetite significantly).

This is how I work with clients - we first ASSESS the trainee's current level, then build from there, only ever challenging him or her beyond their current training level. This builds a little every session. As she/he gets stronger, we add a little more to challenge the NEW level - but I never leave anyone totally crushed or feeling very sore.

What I had accidentally stumbled upon here is the principle of PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD.

When you apply a training stimulus to the body, you want to find that sweet spot where it is CHALLENGING for the body, but not too challenging - the body must be able to RECOVER from the stimulus (or it gets injured of fatigued).

The body must then ADAPT to that training stimulus, by getting stronger, or improving cardiovascular function, or whatever parameter is challenged. You need adequate rest and recovery to allow the body to adapt.

This is called OVERLOAD. Giving the body a small challenge that it has to stretch to.

If it is too EASY, the body doesn't need to adapt to anything, and so stays the same.

After sufficient recovery, the body is stronger, and now needs MORE of a training stimulus if it is going to continue to adapt.

This is called PROGRESSION. Adding a little bit of difficulty (time, load, reps, intensity, distance) each time.

Together, the principles of "progression" and "overload" are referred to as "progressive overload"... clever, huh?

If you give the body the exact same stimulus over and over again, it will stay the same.

So the first time I ran 5 minutes, I was gassed, it was hard to do, because it was a stimulus greater than my current training level.

After resting, the body improved lots of intertwining functions of the body (mitochondrial number and function, blood flow, gas exchange, increased number of capillaries...) just a bit. Which meant the next time I was able to do a little bit more.

If I had forced myself to run for 45 minutes at that point, I may have injured myself or been extremely sore afterwards. This is too much stimulus.

But if after that initial run I had continued to run just 5 minutes each time, my body would never have had to improve, because there was no stimulus for it to stretch to. It would have plateaued. This is too little stimulus.

Hence adding just one minute at a time. (I could probably have added more each time if I had wanted to "optimize" my training programme, but the psychological advantage of adding "just one minute" meant that I stuck to my training plan... Remember: The GOOD training programme that you will do is better than the PERFECT one that you won't do.)

Side note: The Ancient Greek Myth of Milo demonstrates this principle. Milo famously carried a calf every day - as the calf grew, Milo got stronger until he was built like a brick shit-house and could carry a massive bull.

This is how beginners should approach a new training regime. Most people go balls to the wall and think they should train everyday, but in reality that is WAY too much training stimulus, and too big an overhaul of their lifestyles. Most people would be far better off starting with a very small goal and adding to that incrementally.

If you are just starting out on your journey, I invite you to try the "one minute challenge" - it doesn't have to be with running - it can be with walking, swimming, cycling, yoga, weight training - anything. Just start small, start where you're at (not where you'd like to be). Break the big goal down into much smaller, more manageable chunks. Give yourself a pat on the back for small wins and set your sights a little higher when your confidence grows and the step you just made becomes manageable.

(In fact, you can apply this to any aspect of your life).

Just a final comment (or two)...

Firstly, although this running challenge initially helped me lose weight and work exercise into my lifestyle, I never really met my aesthetic goals until I started weight training consistently... but I'll save that for another post...

Secondly, once you get the principle of progressive overload, it can become an obsession. Once I got fit, strong and muscular, I found it hard to understand that I no longer have to work that hard to maintain what I have BUT in order to continue to improve (get leaner, stronger, fitter) I would have to add sooo much more work to my weekly training regimen.

Fitness had become a part of my life and I found it hard to NOT exercise 3 or 4 times a week. I just needed to show up and enjoy it and go home, not look for improvement every time. Just do enough to maintain and feel good, and not run myself into the ground.

But the effort that you have to put in to get that final 10-20% is insane and not worth the trouble (for me) for the small amount of gains that you might see.

Now that I am writing this postpartum (5 weeks) I am excited to have those gains ahead of me and see the fast improvements (what are referred to as "beginner gains") once again. But I hope that once I reach my aesthetic and fitness goals I will be able to chill out a bit, give myself a break and just enjoy the momentum that I will have built up for myself.

Further reading

Great article on Progressive Overload:

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