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Building a fitness menu
By sampling and experiencing
On Saturday, I took a Peloton Class. I was craving intense cardio but it was -15°F here in New England. I love a sprinkling of cold exposure, but this was too much even for a sucker for punishment like me.
Normally when I ride, I listen to music and do a slow self-guided zone 2 ride. I try to keep my heart rate between 120 and 130 beats per minute, breathe slowly through my nose, and feel into my body. Yet, given the cold creeping through our windows, this wasn’t going to cut it.
So there I was with Hannah Frankson yelling at me to push through the final sprint. My quads burned and my lungs cried out for air. I was drenched in sweat, finally warm. It felt good. I savored the accomplishment, not just in finishing the workout but in meeting my body’s desire for intensity.
Classes like this can be amazing tools in our intuitive fitness toolbelt. The wide variety allows us to sample techniques to explore differences, find what we like, and select one that fits our intent for the day. We can minimize the stress with a low-impact ride or maximize burn through a climb workout. We can enjoy the rhythmic nature of a Tabata or choose a HIIT class with longer rest. We can match the vibe with our mood by selecting a specific instructor or genre of music.
Another benefit is how classes enable us to turn off our brains and focus on the sensations in our bodies. I let go of the need to plan or control the workout and just let Hannah guide me. I brought my awareness to how the changes in resistance and shifts in tempo felt in my muscles, lungs, and heart. I naturally dialed the intensity up and down without thinking. Sometimes I was slightly below her recommendation and sometimes well above. I used to resist classes because it felt like someone was telling me what I had to do. Now I see them as a container to connect with my body and align with my intent.
Building Out a Menu
This sampling of classes connects with a broader theme of building a flexible approach that fits us. I like to think of my weekly exercise routine as a menu. Similar to a good meal, I have a rough structure for what’s a good week. Right now, it’s a few strength training workouts, a couple of slow cardio sessions, and at least one bout of high-intensity training. I sprinkle in mobility and flow movement like side dishes.
Yet, within each of these sections, there are tons of options to choose from. I don’t have to do the same things each time or the workouts in the same order. Currently, I do more bodyweight calisthenics for strength but mix back in heavy barbell training. Due to winter, my slow cardio is usually on the bike. Yet sometimes, like yesterday, I feel pulled out on the trail behind our house for a jog.
I’m in the process of mapping out different modalities of training, exercise types, and workout variables to help others explore their own menu development. Hit me up with any thoughts or questions you have on the topic so I can incorporate these ideas.
Trade-Offs and Optimization
It’s important to name the trade-offs we make in our choices around exercise. The menu-based approach is geared towards combining enough structure to make progress with enough variety to make it fun. If my goal was short-term optimization in one facet of fitness, I’d be better off with a more rigid approach.
My friend wrote about this concept of extreme optimization in this week's edition of The Long Game: “On a personal level: the moment I feel the best, and the healthiest are not moments of obsession; quite the opposite.”
In fact, he argues extreme optimization can actually create fragility: “when your diet is extremely specific, your routine very rigid, you take dozens of supplements, etc., the slightest change in your preferred "perfect optimized life" will ruin how you feel.”
I love how Mehdi reframes this and highlights the way extreme optimization can set us up to fail. Over the long run, I believe tailoring our approach to increase enjoyment almost always pays dividends.
Playing with these ideas
Here are some prompts to explore these ideas in your own life:
Reflect: What is your version of a good week of exercise? Can you come up with a list of activities you enjoy that fit into each section?
Experiment: Spend one week where each day you select something from your menu instead of planning out all the workouts in advance.
Experience: Notice if choosing an activity each day creates any shifts in how you experience the exercise.
Thank you for reading. Please consider sharing this with a friend if you think they will be interested in Intuitive Fitness. I’d love to hear any reflections, ideas, or questions you have in the comments or by replying directly to this email.