Success: A Balance of Planning and Response to the Unexpected

So much of success in the gym is about planning and expectation

You know in advance what your workout is going to be.  Maybe you’ve written out a training program and keep a meticulous record of your results. You remember what the final reps of the day felt like last week and you hope they’ll be just a little easier this time.  Consistency is key.  You want to go in with a game plan that’s become second nature.

Stepping into the gym and warming up should be a ritual, a set of steps that prepares you for success and shakes off any lazy mood. Your ritual is your rock: it’s what gets you out of bed on the gray winter mornings when you want to sleep in.  It’s what gives you the faith than although you’re half asleep when you enter the gym, you’ll be ready to go by the time your warmup is over.

But ritual meets its limit in the unexpected, in the sudden burst of energy that inspires you to do one more set, and in the harrowing twinge in the bicep that screams injury.  Can you become an athlete, or maybe one day an extraordinary one?  How you respond to the unexpected will determine the answer. The key is flexibility.  You must be able to say “No!” to the plans on which you typically rely and “Yes!” to what the situation demands.

Coping with unexpected injury

It’s not easy.  I can’t tell you how many times, in the face of a heart-wrenching muscle pull, my first reaction was, “I can continue.  Let me test out a light rep to see if the twinge will work its way out.” That’s habit talking; and it can lead you down a disastrous path.

When I experience unexpected pain or injury, and habit tells me “carry on,” I’ve learned to pause and rethink.  The force of habit makes it tempting to push forward.  I want to stay on track and fear that if I don’t complete the workout, I’ll fall behind. But experience has taught me to resist the temptation.

In the face of a sudden injury, the smart response is to forget your training plan and stop.  Drop everything, stand tall, calmly pack your bags, and leave the gym with a confident gait that says “I’ll be back.”

When you get home, thrown on some ice and take your mind off the calamity.  Do something you enjoy. Watch a movie. Get together with friends.  Go out to dinner. (Sometimes I even knock back a couple cocktails, though it’s not ideal for hydration and recovery.) The next day, you can plan your next move.  Chances are you’ll be better in no time.  But if you push through the injury, you may set yourself back months, or more.

Remind yourself of the journey

Would a journey be truly a journey if everything were set out in advance and success were without obstacles?  Think of an injury as an obstacle to overcome, an opportunity for redemption.  What makes the training exciting is that you don’t know exactly where it will lead.

And how much sweeter will the success be after you get over a low point?  The victory, when it comes, will not merely be a line on the leaderboard, or a personal best, but a victory of internal fortitude and wisdom, a lesson on which you can look back for inspiration in everything else you do.  That’s what I mean by effective response to the unexpected.  It takes perspective and independence. Don’t let yourself be enslaved to your own habits.

Responding to unexpected inspiration

The lesson is equally important in the face of sudden inspiration—that rare and inexplicable moment when you finish the last set of the workout and feel like you could do it all over again.

There are moments during my workout when I grip the pull-ups bar with chalked-up hands, ready to propel myself through the ceiling.  Then I start to think, “You’ve had a great workout. Quit while your ahead; save it for next time.” But this is when I let inspiration propel me up over the bar again. I remind myself of the journey: seizing the moment is not only a step on the way to game day. It’s an accomplishment in itself.

Today’s breakthrough could be a paradigm shift.  It could redefine your capability, readjust your entire plan.  Give yourself over to the moment. Forget the part of you that’s planning, looking ahead, and saving up.  Let yourself be moved by a higher power: the spiritual X-factor, the workout gods, the unfathomable force responsible for everything truly great.

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