Different Strokes For Different Folks: A Look At Three Very Different Training Goals

by Yael Grauer

For the very first time in my life this year, I’ve been working towards a purely aesthetic goal. I haven’t been trying to cut weight and get in grappling shape for a BJJ tournament (Lord knows it’s been forever since I’ve been to one of those), and I wasn’t trying to meet certain performance goals (weightlifting PR, sprint time, etc.) with an eye towards health and longevity. I wasn’t even focused on recovering from an injury. I’ve just been on a mad quest to lose a few extra pounds and look hot in a wedding dress.

The mindset I’ve gotten into is a new one for me, but I don’t think that’s the case for everyone. In any case, it got me thinking about the different types of goals people have and the conflict that’s created when people assume everyone else has their goals (or should).

In general, I’ve always known that performance-based goals were healthier than aesthetic ones. The mindset is better. There’s more control. It’s easier to see your progress and plan accordingly. And in general I’ve also known that a huge chunk of the population is entirely focused on aesthetics rather than performance or health—whether they readily admit it or not. Even athletes focused solely on competition or people getting highly educated on long-term health by reading magazines such as this one voluntarily want to look good. The question is what one’s top priority is, and that’ll guide their decision-making.

Although the psychological and physical benefits of focusing on an actual physical goal or on long-term health trump extreme diets and an obsession with scale weight, this isn’t a lecture or an attempt to get you to change your ways. There’s a time and a place for each of the three training goals I’ll outline… and people often jump from one category to another. Plus, you can’t really change what people’s goals are, anyway. What I do want to do is explain the differences in psychology between the three, the approaches you may wish to take with friends (or athletes you coach) in each category, and what you’ll really want to watch out for. That way, if you care about someone’s health and longevity, you can steer them towards making better decisions for the long run without them wanting to throw things at you. Or at least, they’ll be less likely to. No promises.

Training for Performance (i.e, Competition)

Goal: Going for gold.

If you’re training for competition, you’ve likely got an event coming up that you’re putting a ton of time and effort into preparing for. Perhaps you have a competition season and an off-season, and during competition season, you are hyper-focused on that goal. If you’re in a sport that has year-round competition, you’ll either choose to compete more during a certain time period or just compete as often as you can, until injury or other factors stop you.

Diet: Extreme.

Nutrition for competition can be tackled in two different ways. Ideally, you keep a decent diet and are near competition shape year-round… and then you tighten your diet up a bit as needed to make a certain weight class or have optimal performance when you’re competing. Another tendency, however, is to maintain an extreme diet for a very short period of time followed by post-competition binging. This rollercoaster diet is pretty unhealthy, but maintaining a very strict diet year-round is unrealistic. The smart competitor will limit their post-competition binges to just a day or two, and never veer too far away from the weight they need to be at.

Mindset: Hyper-focused.

Eye on the prize. It’s worth noting that competitive training by its nature is a little bit selfish. The over-trained athlete will sometimes be somewhat irritable. Competitive training by its very nature is a little bit selfish, but athletes with a lot of physical attributes or natural talent may be less focused than necessary.

Kryptonite: Mediocrity.

It’s worth noting that training for competitive performance isn’t always healthy if you’re looking at longevity. Well-meaning friends will often talk about “balance” or “sustainability,” which will annoy the competitive athlete to no end. And those who are concerned about a lack of life balance in their friend or family member who’s training for competition will have to either learn to put up with it or leave. Putting pressure on the person to train less is usually a bad decision. On the other hand, some competitive athletes get a little bit lazy, relying on their natural talent. Good coaches know when to put a bit more pressure on them when more hard work is needed. (Bonus Kryptonite: unsolicited feedback on one’s physical appearance, often in the form of internet trolls commenting on certain women being ‘too muscular.’ News flash: looking good for you isn’t one of their training goals. But I digress.)

What to watch out for: Overtraining.

Not only does overtraining lead to irritability and often injury, it’ll impact your sports performance as well. And that’s exactly what you’ll want to bring up when you’re concerned about your friend or teammate or athlete… or you’ll need to realize for yourself. Work in adequate rest days. Make sure to pay attention to your resting heart rate, stress level and mood and recovery. Even when it’s not two weeks before a tournament, make sure your diet is on point and that you’re getting enough post-workout carbs. Stay fully hydrated. Make sure you’re sleeping enough. And find a way to work in a recovery week now and again (or even a few months if you compete year-round). Which brings up another point—athletes who train through injuries. You can’t always stop them, but it’s something to look for. If you’re a coach or teammate, do what you can to make sure that someone’s not sacrificing their long-term well-being for a temporary win. (Easier said than done, I know!)

What to cultivate: The parasympathetic nervous system.

That, and consistency. It can’t hurt to try to relax now and again amidst competitive overdrive. And though you probably don’t care very much about your health right now as much as you do about your need to win, staying close to competition shape year-round will make things a lot easier for you and improve your performance…and the health benefits are just a nice side effect.

Training for Aesthetics

Goal: A Hot Bod

There’s often a time limit for those with aesthetic-based goals… a wedding or reunion or other event coming up where they’ve decided it’s absolutely necessary to look amazing. Aesthetic goals can sometimes get baked into other training goals (such as longevity or competition), but if there’s a time limit, those would definitely be put on the back burner. Training for aesthetics can involve beach muscles (usually men) or obsessively looking to meet a certain scale weight (often women). 

Diet: Extreme or Roller-Coastery

Much like training for competition, training for sex appeal can sometimes involve a pretty extreme diet followed by a period of eating everything in sight. Unfortunately, many people whose sole goal is to be at a certain weight often don’t eat enough, or justify eating really unhealthy food by doing things like counting calories. Because they are focused on their short-term goal, they’re not always swayed by the long-term health effects of their diet. However, there’s still ways to diet smartly even when the goal is purely aesthetic. The important thing when coaching someone trying to lose X lbs. by X date is to focus on those goals (or pretend to), especially when they’re not getting quick results. Telling them they’d be healthier if they had a vegetable with breakfast, for example, is likely to just get them annoyed.

Mindset: Tending Towards Neurotic

When not combined with performance or health-based goals, simply trying to look hot can be pretty unhealthy (both mentally and physically). Luckily, cultivating overall health is not necessarily at odds with looking hot, at least in the long term. It’s worth pointing out that this shouldn’t be addressed as an either/or. Whenever possible, try to help your friend/athlete focus on long-term strategies as well as short-term ones. Although they may ignore your good advice about avoiding extremes, helping them understand the difference between what they’re doing now and maintenance is a good thing. And if you can slowly nudge them towards training for longevity or having a performance-based goal, all the better.

Kryptonite: Lack Of Progress (real or perceived) 

These are the people who freak the fudge out when they haven’t lost any weight in two weeks. They’re the ones who get really annoyed at the lack of progress in a program even if there’s some kind of money-back guarantee. They don’t care about the guarantee if they don’t think they’ll make the weight. Sometimes it’s worth it for these people to strictly track their diets or to work with Robb Wolf’s awesome flowchart. They should at least be informed about the inaccuracy of BMI/scale weight, and on the dangers of undereating.

What To Watch For: Disordered Eating

How to deal with people who have eating disorders (or if you suspect you have one yourself) is beyond the scope of this article. Seeking help from a trained professional or someone who’s been through it and come out on the other side is advisable. If you are extremely underweight, or are inducing vomiting, or are suicidal or considering self-harm, stop reading and call a doctor. This article won’t help you. If you have a tendency towards less extreme disordered eating, it’s worth pointing out that super strict diet plans may be a trigger. Work in cheat days, make sure you’re getting adequate nutrition (and especially enough fat in your diet), and get some support (ideally from a trained professional) in dealing with the emotional issues that arise. A secondary concern to watch for is people (often women) being obsessed with factors that don’t make much sense: scale weight, thigh gap, calories, etc. This is a good area for educating people—it may not sink in right away, but if someone’s going to have aesthetic goals, at least trying to gently steer them towards metrics that make sense is a nice thing to do.

What To Cultivate: A Healthy Mindset

People who are training strictly for aesthetic reasons become very good at hiding it, and at pretending they have health-based goals. And it’s true that lowering one’s weight, for example, can be healthy. Focusing on long-term longevity or coming up with a performance-based goal can be much healthier mentally, though, than counting calories or obsessing over skinfold measurements (or worse, scale weight). Try to focus on how you feel—on what eating nourishing food feels like, increased energy and improved mood from healthy nutrition and training, and on how your body feels and what it can do (rather than what it looks like and what you imagine others may think of it). 

Training for Longevity

Goal: Overall Health

Athletes training for longevity aren’t trying to break any world records or look hot for a photo shoot. They’re trying to enhance their life through appropriate exercise and good nutrition. Although they may be involved in competitive sports, they have no problem taking an extra week off to prevent a niggling injury from getting worse, and are less likely to go through extreme weight cutting. Even if exceptions are sometimes made, the focus is on living a balance, healthy life. This is the attitude many people take as they get older, or if they are sick, and it’s easiest to maintain balance and consistency when training for longevity.

Diet: Sustainable

For many people, a diet based on longevity will be a strict Paleo diet. Others may find they can sometimes incorporate small amounts of legumes, dairy or even certain grains. The focus is on creating a diet that’s sustainable in the long-term and consistent from day to day and week to week. The Pareto principle may come into play, here. Longevity-focused athletes aren’t as attracted to extreme shred diets, and are much more focused on thoughtful and moderate tinkering than on extreme self-experimentation.

Mindset: Healthy

Focusing on longevity can actually feel like a luxury. It allows the person the ability to really see where they’re at and what makes them feel best and is sustainable long-term. It also allows time to experiment with activities such as prolonged mobility work and stretching (I know better than to mention yoga in these pages). You can get bodywork but without the pressure of it fixing whatever issue you have right away…and taking a few days or even a week off now and again or doing modified workouts while dealing with some kind of injury or imbalance is not a problem.

Kryptonite: Extremes

People who are focused on longevity are often less attracted to, say, CrossFit gyms. They’ll look at you like you’re crazy if you recommend that they train through a pretty intense injury. Sometimes it’s difficult for people in this category to refrain from making judgments about all those crazy people doing all those crazy things for a single event (or worse, for no event at all). Many people who have switched to training for longevity were former athletes with competitive goals themselves. Others were very sick or overweight and simply want to move and feel a little better, so they can’t relate as easily to competitive athletes or people who only care about how they look on the beach in their bikinis or Speedos. (Meatheads looking down on them at the gym certainly don’t help, either.)

What to watch for: Stagnation

Focusing on long-term health and longevity can sometimes turn into a lack of focus or goals. It’s sometimes easy to just blow off a workout because you’re sore and skip out on active recovery for no real reason, or to have a few too many cheat days because there’s no real event to train for. Not all people with longevity-based goals slip into laziness, but it’s important to be very vigilant to make sure you really are training for health rather than just letting yourself go. For people who used to be very sick or overweight, it’s important to set realistic goals, sure—but it’s also possible to set expectations too low.

What To Cultivate: Goals

Even if you have no competitions or tournaments coming up and don’t need to look smoking hot for swim season, having actual formalized goals (meaning you’ve written them down somewhere to document it) and a plan to work towards those goals will keep you agile and engaged. It’s often helpful to work with someone else to come up with goals that are challenging but not unreasonable. As mentioned before, you have the luxury of really tinkering around with whatever it is you wish to explore—so enjoy it!

Yael Grauer is an independent journalist living in Phoenix. She dabbles in Olylifting and trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Find her at http://yaelwrites.com and on Twitter.



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