Real-Results Fitness

Weary of working toward weight loss — or worse, toward nothing in particular? Choose one of our four real-life goals, employ the accompanying workout plan, and get ready for some inspired spring training!

Spring is a great time to set some fresh fitness goals and change your fitness routine. Wanting to drop 10 pounds, lose your gut or look great in a bikini are fine goals, but they’re not necessarily all that inspiring. If you’re tired of going through the motions and not having much to show for it, consider embracing a more practical goal – something you can get your head and heart around and maybe even brag about a little.

Like what, you ask? Well that depends on your current fitness level, the type of workouts that produce results for you, and the amount of commitment you feel ready to make. Are you interested in building cardio capacity and dropping some pounds in the process? Consider running a 5K or 10K. Do you want to improve your strength, sculpt your upper body and impress a few friends? Take on the goal of doing 20 real pushups. Are you looking for an overall fitness boost? Sign yourself up for a sprint-distance triathlon. Would you like to improve your balance and explore your yogic edge? Lay claim to doing a yoga headstand without a wall.

The beauty of goals like these is that they give you focus, purpose and a real way to gauge your progress – things that three-times-a-week workouts may not do on their own. Working toward real goals and seeing real progress gives you a strong sense of momentum.

On the other hand, taking on a real goal like this can also be a little intimidating: What if you don’t know how to start? What if you fail?

Fear not. We’ve gathered four highly qualified experts to explain the ins and outs of each of these goals. Our experts spell out a solid, totally achievable training plan and coach you on getting the most out of the journey. You even get a pep talk! So don’t sit idle. Pick a plan, then enjoy the feeling as you start picking up speed toward your achievement of choice.

Picking a Goal

After perusing the descriptions for each goal, read through the training plans and see what seems most appealing and realistic given your current level of fitness and available resources. Play out each plan in your mind, imagining the process, the feeling of achieving the goal, and what you’d get out of it.

Trust your gut. Start with whatever energizes you the most (even if it scares you a little). You can always change your mind or come back and complete the other plans later. If necessary, you can also complete some preliminary training in order to reach the prerequisites required for your chosen goal. As always, though, if you have health issues, consult your health professional before taking on any new fitness regimen.

For each option, we’ve provided an easy-to-follow schedule that progresses at a smart (injury-preventing) rate, as well as pointers and precautions to adhere to along the way. So read up, then dive in. And if you still can’t quite get past your weight- and appearance-oriented objectives, remember this: Once you’ve met one of these goals, you will undoubtedly find yourself in much better shape than when you began.

The Goal: Finish a 5-Kilometer Race

The Coach: Jenny Hadfield, running coach and coauthor of Marathoning for Mortals (Rodale Press, 2003)

The Pep Talk: For those with only a few months of cardiovascular exercise under their belt, completing a 5K (3.1 mile) run is an ambitious but immensely satisfying goal. The first rule of training: Be patient. “Most people who get injured do it by trying to do too much, too soon,” advises Hadfield. Her plan involves both running and walking to stave off injury.

A second rule: Don’t worry about crossing the finish line late, or even last. “Remember, you’re going to complete a race tens of millions of people won’t even start,” says Hadfield. And whenever you finish, remember to raise your arms as you cross the line and celebrate your accomplishment. It’s a feeling that will inspire you to train for – and complete – many more races.

Prerequisite: You have done some kind of aerobic workout (walking, elliptical trainer, stationary bike) at least three times a week, for at least one month.

The Pointers:

  • Run/walk workouts should be at an effort level at which you are able to recite the Pledge of Allegiance while you exercise. That’s about 65 percent to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate.
  • Walk briskly and run easy. “The trick is to keep your heart rate close to the same range for the entire workout,” says Hadfield.
  • On Tuesdays, take a yoga or Pilates class or strength train for at least 30 minutes. You’re building up core strength, which supports and stabilizes your body and is just as important as having strong legs. (If you weight train, focus eight solid minutes of work on your stomach and back muscles.)
  • If you’re feeling especially tired come Saturday, take an additional day off instead of cross-training.

The Fine Print:
If you have knee or back problems or other conditions that might impede your training, consult with a doctor before you begin the program. And invest in a good pair of running shoes that fit well. A running specialty shop will let you try on several pairs (and even run in them) to see which shoes feel best. If you’ll need new shoes near race day, buy and wear them weeks in advance to avoid blisters during the big event.

The Goal: Race a Sprint Triathlon

The Coach: Wes Hobson, an elite-level veteran of more than 200 triathlons, from sprint distance to Ironman-length, who coaches triathletes through his Web site, www.weshobsonperformance.com

The Pep Talk: There are very few sentences in the fitness world that command as much instant respect as “I’m a triathlete.” And for good reason: Being a triathlete means not only that you’ve mastered swimming, biking and running, but also that you’ve learned how to squeeze in the time to train for all three sports. The distances of a sprint triathlon (.5-mile swim, 12-mile bike, 3.1-mile run) allow you to become an esteemed member of the triathlon club with less than two hours of racing effort. (Olympic- and Ironman-length races can be four or even eight times that.) But don’t train short. “This training plan has plenty of workouts that go further than you will on race day,” says Hobson. The extra margin will give you a reserve of energy you can call on during the race.

Prerequisite: You are proficient at swimming, biking and running, and have, for at least three months, exercised regularly for three to four hours a week.

The Pointers:

  • Know your effort level: Calculate your maximum heart rate: Subtract your age from 220. Effort level 1 is easy, 45–65 percent of your max. Effort level 5 is moderate; 65–75 percent, when you can converse in sentences. Effort level 7 is 75–85 percent of your max; you can talk in phrases. At effort level 9, 85–95 percent of max; you might manage a one-word answer.

The Fine Print:
If you do get hooked on the sport, be prepared: A good bike costs around $1,000, a wetsuit $120 and running shoes $80. You might also invest in a book to help with the logistical aspects of the sport, such as setting up your transition area. Try Swim, Bike, Run by Wes Hobson (Human Kinetics, 2001) or Triathlons for Women by Sally Edwards (Velo Press, 2002).

The Goal: 20 Perfect Pushups

The Coach: Maureen Wilson, ACE-certified personal trainer and owner of Sweat Co. Studios, a gym in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Pep Talk: Anybody who has seen the films Rocky or G.I. Jane knows that perfectly executed pushups are one of the most effective barometers of upper-body fitness – and a surefire crowd pleaser. But even if you’re not one who strives to impress others, consider this: “Pushups hit the pecs, shoulders, triceps, rhomboids and serratus muscles, which run under the armpits along your sides,” says Wilson. “It’s one of the best bang-for-your-buck exercises.” With added strength and tone, you’ll not only look sleeker, you’ll also enjoy better posture – whether you’re running up a hill or typing on a keyboard.

Prerequisite: You’ve been hitting the weights, either free weights or machines, two times a week for at least two months and can do a set of 15 pushups on your knees.

The Pointers:

  • When you hit the ground, your arms should be slightly more than shoulder-width apart, forehead facing the floor and abs always, always tight. Your body should form one straight line, from the crown of your head to your heels. Any time your form fails – your hips sink or your head bobs, for example – take a break.
  • The goal is not to touch your chest to the floor: Lowering until your upper arms are parallel with the floor is plenty impressive.
  • Inhale when you lower down; exhale as you push up.
  • Pushups depend on the rotator-cuff muscles. To strengthen them, loop an exercise band around a doorknob, and stand with your right side closest to the door, the ends of the band in your left hand (see photos at right). With your elbow bent 90 degrees, slowly move your left hand out past your left side. Return to the start position; do two sets of 10 to 15 reps on each side.

The Fine Print:
Those with shoulder or lower-back problems should make sure those areas are healthy and you have a doc’s OK before you begin. And keep a tube of Ben-Gay or arnica gel handy. “You’ll definitely be stiff the first few times you do pushups,” warns Wilson, “but your body will adapt.”

The Goal: Hang Out in a Headstand

The Instructor: Baron Baptiste, creator of Baptiste Power Yoga and author of 40 Days to a Personal Revolution: A Breakthrough Program to Radically Change Your Body and Awaken the Sacred Within Your Soul (Fireside, 2004)

The Pep Talk: The headstand, or Sirsasana, as it’s known in Sanskrit, is one of the most important, powerful postures in yoga. It teaches balance and poise while rejuvenating your brain with a rush of blood to the head. And, perhaps most important, says Baptiste, “By turning your world upside down, you’re challenging your comfort zone. When you succeed, you’ll be more in tune with your body.”

Prerequisite: You have practiced a vigorous, total-body discipline of yoga, such as Ashtanga, Hatha or Power, three or four times a week for at least three months.

The Plan:

  • Set yourself up facing a wall so that your hands, at the start of the post, are no more than 3 inches from the wall. A corner is ideal because it promotes even alignment and prevents swaying from side to side when you’re in the headstand.
  • Begin in downward dog with a folded mat or blanket under your hands, then bring both your forearms and knees to the floor. Place each hand on the opposite arm’s biceps to be sure that your elbows are directly under your shoulders. Then release your hands and interlace your fingers, as if you were holding an imaginary tennis ball. This is your base: Your hands and forearms should be symmetrical. Press your arms into the floor, and lift and spread your shoulder blades.
  • Put the crown of your head on the floor, pressing the back of your head against your hands. Look ahead at your knees and extend your tailbone toward the ceiling. Then, push up on the balls of your feet and walk them toward your hips. The ideal is to have your hips stacked over your shoulders, so your torso is one straight line.
  • Exhale and, in a smooth hop, take your feet off the floor, bring your knees to your chest and tuck your heels into your gluteus. As you press your forearms further into the ground, straighten your legs until your body is perpendicular to the floor.
  • Throughout the pose, concentrate on your alignment – your body in one straight line – and the foundation created with your arms. Keep your abs engaged, your thighs rotating inward and your eyes open, gazing straight ahead. Keep stretching up toward the ceiling for 10 to 20 breaths, then come down the same way you went up.
  • When you’re done, rest in child’s pose (on your knees, body folded forward with arms outstretched and forehead on the floor) for at least 10 breaths.
  • Practice your headstand as often as possible – even daily. Over the course of two to four weeks, progress to the point where you’re either totally freestanding with the wall behind you or just touching one heel to the wall for support. Then you’ll know you can go solo, which Baptiste acknowledges is a “leap of faith.”

The Pointers:

  • Build the strength you need to hold a headstand by practicing poses such as the sun salutation, backbend, bow, cobra and camel. These poses build upper-body strength while simultaneously opening the back, shoulders and chest.
  • Your goal is neutral alignment: Your body should stack up the same way when you’re on your head as it does when you stand on two feet. If you find yourself wobbling, remember how it feels to stand – tailbone toward the floor, pelvis level – and adjust accordingly.
  • Be sure your body is very warm and limber before you attempt Sirsasana; it’s typically practiced toward the end of a yoga session.

The Fine Print:
If you have any kind of weakness in your neck or back, be very careful with this pose. And even those who are totally strong and healthy are advised to do this pose, for the first month or so, under the supervision of an instructor.

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Dimity McDowell is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, N.M.

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