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My Progression from Average Joe to Fitness Nerd

The mental frameworks I relied on while becoming an endurance athlete.

I never had the most strenuous fitness regimen, but I played rugby in college and exercised consistently both with my team and on my own. We had training sessions throughout the week and a game every Saturday. It kept me active and motivated to go to the gym both in season and in the off season.

After graduating, I figured the same consistency and motivation would continue. I’d played organized sports for almost 20 years up until this point and always found my way into the gym outside of practice. Exercise was a part of my identity, but it became hard to work out on a regular basis.

I put exercise on my calendar, built training plans, and read health and wellness books, but only exercised every once in a while. I got on some good streaks training for 3 or 4 days in a row, but then I would fall off the wagon and go the next 2 weeks only exercising once or twice.

I enjoyed working out and I wanted to see improvement in my performance, but the only thing consistent about my exercise was frustration.

Eventually, things began to click and I’m writing this after training 6+ days a week for the last 8 months and finishing 2 triathlons, a 10-mile road race, and a marathon. After logging thousands of miles on the road and hundreds of hours in the gym, consistency has replaced my frustration.

A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.
James Watkins

I’m not sharing my journey to brag or because I think I’ve got it all figured out. It wasn’t easy to get to this point, but I did learn a lot along the way.

I’m sharing this to show my progression from struggling to make progress and exercise consistently, to becoming “that guy” that seems to effortlessly train every day and finish races that seem ridiculous to most.

I used to think there were two different types of people. Some people were naturally fit and loved working out, while others would always struggle with exercise. I thought the fit folks were just built different, but I’ve realized there’s a progression between these two points.

I hope sharing how I progressed from struggling to run a few times a week to competing in endurance races lasting 5+ hours can help others reach a level of fitness they can truly be proud of.

Throughout those 8 months I relied on a variety of mental frameworks to keep me consistent and build fitness. I started with a concrete goal and leaned on social accountability. From there, I slowly built confidence in myself day after day until training every day felt effortless.

A Concrete Goal

For a long time, I went out for a run with the goal of checking the exercise box for the day and hoped I would eventually get faster or be able to run farther. I never had much luck with either.

Out of the blue, I decided I wanted to run a half marathon. I didn’t sign up for a race, set a date, or even think about how fast I wanted to run, but once that thought got stuck in my mind, things slowly started to change.

My ambiguous goal of “getting better at running” turned into “running 13.1 miles”.

Although similar, once the goal was clearly defined it was much easier to build a path to achieving it. All of a sudden, I had a starting point and an endpoint and each run was a stepping stone towards something bigger.

It also prompted me to consider a question I hadn’t thought of before, “How do you get better at running?”. It wasn’t a groundbreaking question, but I realized I had never spent any time figuring out how to accomplish the goal I was supposedly chasing. After searching around online I came across one article from Phil Maffetone that made a lot of sense to me.

It turns out a little research goes a long way. The day after reading it I completed my longest run ever.

It was only 5 miles (and I ran very very slow), but that run gave me the confidence to try for 6 miles the following week. With the combination of my recent improvement and a concrete goal within sight, I had new energy and excitement around my workouts.

All I had to do was continue my current training, running a little farther each week, and I would be able to run 13 miles no problem. Even though the goal of running a half marathon was completely arbitrary, the idea of checking that box (and the knowledge of how to do it) kept my exercise more consistent than ever.

Every run or workout was one step closer to accomplishing my goal and I was chipping away at something concrete. When I was focused on “getting faster” it was impossible to measure any progress, but with an objective goal, I was able to see quantitative improvements every week.

9 weeks later I ran my first half marathon after a string of consistent and surprisingly enjoyable runs. I looked forward to the challenge of each workout and relished in the feeling of accomplishment that came in running a little bit farther each week.

Social Accountability

Once I started running more, people in my life started asking about it. Friends and family would ask me how far I had run and over time I continued to share larger numbers with them. Soon enough, even my coworkers started asking me how far I had run that morning.

It was nice to have some positive reinforcement after sharing bigger numbers, but a big change happened when folks started asking me how much I was going to run instead of how far I had already run.

Whenever someone asked how far I was going to run I would say “I’m supposed to run miles”. There was always uncertainty in my answer but as soon as I shared how far I needed to go with someone else, I never let myself stop a run short.

Even though most people would have no idea how far I actually ran, there was a part of me that had to hold up my end of the bargain. I used to feel like sharing how far I was going to run was bragging, but once I realized the effect it had on my accountability, I shared my training schedule with anyone who would listen. If I started to doubt myself or get lazy, I always had my after-action reports to friends and coworkers that forced me to finish my workouts.

Building social accountability made a huge difference because I no longer had to rely on my own willpower or discipline. Instead, I purposefully designed my environment so I had external forces pushing me to do what was necessary, even when I doubted myself.

This became even more prevalent when I registered for an Ironman 70.3 Triathlon. When I signed up to swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles, and run 13.1 miles, I had no experience swimming or biking (I didn’t own a bike at the time) and I had only been running for 3 months. It took me more than a week to tell anyone.

I was embarrassed to share I had signed up for the race because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to finish. Finally, I started to tell other people and it was like rolling over the edge of a hill on a skateboard: there was no way to stop until I reached the bottom.

All my friends and family thought I was crazy when I told them I signed up for the race, but my mindset immediately shifted. The question bouncing around in my head changed from… "Can I finish?” to “How fast will I finish?".

Without any experience in triathlon (or any endurance events for that matter), I didn’t have much confidence in myself so I relied on the accountability I created with others.

When I told everyone I was signed up, they had an expectation I would finish and I didn’t want to let anyone down. In the first months of training, I constantly imagined crossing the finish line and seeing everyone I cared about there to cheer me on.

Carrying this thought with me during my training was a replacement for my lack of confidence. Even writing about it now still fills me with an overwhelming rush of emotions. It kept me going when I didn’t think I could finish a workout and kept me hungry to learn everything I could about the sport of triathlon.

Building Competence

As I continued training, my volume steadily increased and my training sessions were becoming longer and longer. At a certain point, my average workouts were longer than my personal bests when I had signed up for the race.

It was around this time that I started to rely less on the social accountability from others and more on a growing confidence in my own ability.

My confidence didn’t come from the logical part of my brain telling me that if I just did the work everyday I would eventually get faster. Nor did it come from other people’s words of encouragement.

Instead, my confidence hinged on becoming competent in the disciplines I was pursuing. Completing faster runs, longer bike rides, and smoother swims left me no other option besides confidence in my own ability. For me, the only way to bridge the gap between relying on others for motivation and becoming confident in my own abilities, was doing the work each day and slowly notching fitness gains.

There was never a massive change one day, but rather a gradual shift over time. Each training session was evidence of my capabilities. I was proving to myself over and over again that I was capable of more than I thought until my belief in myself caught up with my physical capabilities.

Once I was confident and believed in myself, it brought a new energy to my training. I had an internal drive to train every day and for the first time in my life, it became what I looked forward to most.

Maintaining a Persona

After training for 8 months, I was faced with my first ever organized race. When I finished top-5 in my age group, I realized that I’d become the type of person I’ve always strived (but struggled) to be.

I’d become the guy that wakes up at 5am and works out 6 or 7 days a week. My friends didn’t include me in weekend plans because they knew I would be staying in so I could train early the next day. Even acquaintances and friends of friends knew me as “guy doing the triathlon”.

Now that I’d finally built the habit of consistent exercise, the social pressure from friends and family affected me in a new way. Everyone expected me to run 10 miles before work or go on a 60 mile bike ride early on Saturday morning. My friends were surprised to see me out on a Friday night.

I used to purposefully tell people I had a hard workout planned so I could use their expectations to motivate me, but once training became my new normal, people only noticed if I missed a workout or decided to sleep in on the weekend.

At this point, I was motivated to exercise because that was the type of person I had become, but I also felt I had a persona to maintain. The expectations from everyone else kept me honest. If I wanted to skip a workout, I knew my friends or family would ask me what happened.

At that point, it became easier to do the work and fulfill the expectations I created for myself than to do the “easy thing” and skip out on training.

There was a lot of friction getting there, but after months of consistently building my fitness, I finally enjoyed consistent training that felt effortless and the results that came along with it.

As I’ve become an endurance athlete, exercise has become a normal part of my day like brushing my teeth or eating lunch.

Getting here feels like I’ve reached the summit of the mountain, but as soon as I finished each of my races, all I could think was “What’s next?”

I’ve realized that even though I love training and racing, what I’m truly after is growth. I’ll always be trying to improve my fitness, my goals will always be changing, and I’ll always be trying new things, but I’ll be consistently pursuing the same thing: constant improvement.

Thanks for reading!

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