I’ve started running again lately, and have shifted my goals away from being as strong as possible.
In large part, this is because I’m starting to get older, and because I’ve been lifting heavy for over a decade. However, I’ve also been dealing with some health concerns that I seem to have inherited from my parents.
When I was a kid, I hated exercise.
I was the kid who went to the library, fetched a stack of books so tall that I had to hold the bottom of the stack with both hands and the top of the stack had to be held in place by my quivering chin. I would take these books home and devour them, one by one, often two or more in a single day. At one point, I had read so many books that there was almost nothing left in the children’s and young adult’s section for me to read, and I started making furtive trips into the adult’s book sections. I read Lord of the Rings in third grade, to earn points in a reading competition. The book was worth so many points that I won that year - earning more points than anyone in the school, including the 8th graders.
My dad, who was a former high school athlete, went on to a career in computer science, and skipped exercising for a few decades. He was still relatively active - gardening, mowing the lawn, renovating the house, moving around in other ways - but his gut slowly grew over the years.
When I was a kid, I remember a sudden amount of talk around the house about my dad’s blood pressure. I didn’t know what that meant at first, but I knew that it was bad. My mother cut out an article from the paper about a diet to help your blood pressure, and taped it to one of the cabinets. My dad got more active. He started going for runs, took up a racquetball league at our local YMCA, and developed a greater enthusiasm for camping trips, hiking, and other outdoor activities.
My dad took me on my first workout - a run, in our neighborhood. Our suburban city is laid out in one mile blocks, so a run from our intersection to the next intersection (where the grocery store was) was about a mile each way, with just a little bit of hills. My dad took me along on one of these runs, and I was completely thrashed just halfway through that first mile - we alternated walking and running home, as my lungs would tolerate.
In seventh grade, I joined my school’s track team, and remained on it for about four years until quitting in mid high school, also picking up cross country running along the way. Ultimately, I didn’t like running at the time - it was long, it was boring, and this was before I had an iPod to make the time pass faster. (One time, I tried to take my walkman CD player with me, holding it like a plate between my fingers as I ran. It wasn’t fun.) I consistently ranked in the back of the team in cross country 5k’s, in large part because I was too apathetic about training to really push myself. I was going through the motions because my parents supported it, but I had no real passion for running.
Then I went through a short period where I didn’t do much at all - in part due to my struggles with depression and anxiety. After that, I saw a therapist, got into lifting weights, got hooked, and rest is history. My dad would take me to the YMCA to lift while he was running or playing his racquetball games.
Since I started lifting over a decade ago, my tolerance for cardio has gone back and forth. When I was initially doing bodybuilding training, I mixed in a healthy amount of cardio - too much of it, really, because I didn’t know any better. Then I got into powerlifting, and went for a while without any cardio at all, occasionally mixing in little bits of it periodically whenever I felt an itch to do so.
A few months ago, we moved to London. Registering for your general practitioner with the NHS includes doing some basic information on intake, and I was asked to take my blood pressure for the first time in many years. I was surprised to discover that my systolic blood pressure was a bit high - nothing to worry too much about, I thought, but something to pay attention to.
On a recent trip back to the States to visit my family, my sister and I went to the pharmacy to pick something up. When we arrived, I noticed the blood pressure testing machine in the back of the store, and I idly suggested that we test our blood pressure together. What we found is that my sister, too, had the same pattern: isolated high systolic blood pressure. Since I’m careful and knowledgeable about my diet, and since my sister and I are both pretty active (she’s a personal trainer as well), it’s clear that we probably inherited something from our dad.
I’ve been lifting heavy, seriously, for over a decade now, and that means that I sometimes have to be honest with myself about my own limitations. I’m probably never going to set a world record deadlift, and I’m probably never going to win a Mr. Olympia competition, but fingers crossed, I guess.
Most people achieve most of their athletic potential around about 5-10 years of serious training. Even after the first 1-2 years, results slow down pretty significantly and you can’t expect to make it too much further. This is often a hard pill to swallow, because people would like to believe that they can keep seeing results forever. The reality is that especially genetically gifted athletes often become apparent very quickly into their training career, and after that it’s just a matter of slowly eking out a few more percentage points to compete at the highest levels.
While you can certainly continue to grow and progress long after your newb gains are over, the return on your time invested goes steadily down - and sooner or later, it’s probably not worth it to train seriously. You need to decide, for yourself, when that point is.
Now, that’s not to say that you can’t improve at all if you’ve been training for more than a few years. In particular, if you switch to a vastly superior diet or training program, gain or lose a lot of weight, or starting taking steroids, you can expect to see a big bump in your results just because you were being artificially “held back” before. But even then, you’d quickly return to the diminishing returns you’re used to, and your results would quickly slow down again. You’d be back to struggling hard and putting yourself at risk while pushing for just a few extra percentage points.
I’m not young anymore. I’m not old, either, but I’m on the edge of needing to start acting like an adult all the same. I’ve paid off my student loans, I’ve got a fiancee and kids to care for, and I’ve got a retirement savings account. Between this blog, my clients, and my new day job, I work quite a few hours every week. I don’t have as much time anymore for training, and I need to be realistic about my genetic lot and how far I can expect my training to go.
Thinking long term means accepting the fact that at some point, your numbers aren’t really going to go up anymore, and that’s fine - even maintaining your current levels of strength and muscle mass, over a long time, will put you far ahead of almost everyone else out there. It means gritting your teeth and focusing on the things you need to do instead of the things you want to do - like going running a lot more, because you inherited crappy blood pressure from your dad.
Luckily, if done correctly, adding cardio into the mix doesn’t have to be a death kneel for your gains. If you hate traditional cardio, there’s a ton of other things you can try.
I think Greg Nuckols put it best: “You can’t get jacked if you’re dead.”
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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