Several weeks ago I received an e-mail message from a newbie in weight training who suggested I provide more information for beginners. Their specific area of interest was how to get started in a training program. This seemingly simple question feeds into a broad stream with many other important tributaries: Why exercise? What are my goals? How do I get motivated? How do I stay motivated? Should I compete? Will exercise hurt me? What if I’m slow? Am I too old to exercise? Although it isn’t possible to answer all of these questions in this article, I hope to get you pointed in the right direction.
The first step is to formulate goals. Ask yourself what you want to do and why? For example, a 50-year-old wants to start a running program to feel fit and lose weight. Write your answers down in a logbook that will serve as your exercise diary. List several layers of goals (e.g., finishing your first 5 k "race") and refer back to them as you track your progress. This will help keep you on the right path.
Before you actually start exercising make certain that you consult your doctor. This is important for athletes of all ages, but is especially important for those with health problems. After all, one of the reasons that people exercise is to promote their health. The pre-participation physical examination is a good start towards enjoying exercise, safely.
Formulating a training program that is specific to your needs is as much art as science. There are a variety of sources that you may consult to develop a proper plan. Books, friends, and the Internet (web sites and discussion groups) are some of the most readily available resources for beginners and experts alike. Don’t be shy about being a beginner; most experienced athletes enjoy answering questions. Compile a "resource list" and refer to it as needed.
One of the most common mistakes in the execution of a training program is to try to do too much, too quickly. Launching on a new program is exciting and challenging, but the lure can lead to injury and burnout. If you haven’t been exercising, don’t expect to jump into a 2 hour a day / 7days per week routine, or you’ll find yourself quitting the entire thing two weeks later. Start off gradually and build gradually. Don’t try to do too much in each workout, and be sure to allow for rest and recovery time between workouts (i.e., every other day workouts). Keep track of your workouts in your logbook, so that you can see what you’ve been doing if a problem starts to develop.
As you progress in your exercise program, be aware that all those wonderful and noticeable benefits of exercise (e.g., improved mood, fat loss, etc.) take weeks to months to develop. The "silent" benefits (e.g., decreased risk of cardiovascular disease) evolve over months to years. Furthermore, you must continue to exercise to maintain and enhance these benefits. What this means for you in a practical sense is that patience and consistency are required. To help you achieve this, workout partner(s) or groups are very helpful. Also, if possible, exercise with someone who is a little bit better than you. This presents an extra challenge as well as a learning opportunity.
One area that is often overlooked, and not just by beginners, is equipment: The right equipment is essential. Equipment refers to any of the essential devices needed for a sport, and should be "fitted" to your needs. For example, running shoes should be selected by type (e.g., motion control for flat feet), not color. This is necessary to help reduce risk of injury and boost enjoyment. In a similar vein, don’t go overboard and buy the latest super-high-tech stuff and expect it to catapult you to greatness; it won’t. Remember these four words, "Basic equipment, proper fit". (Keep in mind that ‘basic’ doesn’t mean ‘low quality’). Consult your resource list for help in choosing the right equipment.
Finally, keep in mind that workouts should be fun. No one expects you to be ecstatic every time you look at your running shoes, but in balance you should enjoy what you are doing. If you don’t, then you won’t do it. So, go hard and challenge yourself, but enjoy the ride. The trip is as important as the destination.