Iron Discipline – Staying In Shape For Life.

Iron discipline - deadlift bar loaded with heavy plates ready for tough lifting session

The Life And Times Of An Average Athlete

I’m struggling to walk a little bit this morning. Not a good time to write about the importance of the iron discipline of staying in shape physically and mentally, in order to be ahead of the game. My personal trainer has introduced a couple of new lifts into my regime over the last two weeks. I had a solo session yesterday and predictably overdid it. I’ve tweaked something and have sciatica today.

Complaints over. I’m not even sure it’s a complaint, actually. I find the odd niggle here and there is simply part of the game. The countless small and big knocks and niggles stack up over the years. It’s not bad to feel them, it shows I’m still alive and experiencing exercise. It shows I’m pushing hard enough to make a difference.

I have never been a great athlete of any sort. I remember puffing around red faced on the rugby field at school. Drifting in at the back of the field on the cross country course. In football, I could justify being on the field only because I was tall enough to rise and head the ball. I once threw a discus quite a distance; it was a freak throw, I could never replicate it.

Mental Discipline

As I got older I realised mind over matter has a role to play. So I forced my way into the starting XV at rugby for a while just by hustling hard and being intelligent. Remember, gifted athletes take talent for granted at times and don’t see a determined bugger sliding in under the radar. I once calculated I could do a lot better at cross country and decided to give it a go. On team selection day I emerged from the woods in a qualifying position. Of course, some thought I had been resting in a shrub somewhere, emerging only to take the glory.

I hadn’t been. The rugby and cross country efforts proved to me that the mental part of sport and exercise is crucial. I’ve carried this with me throughout my life and it’s encouraged me to do various team sport and solo events far beyond my physical capability. None of these have been negative experiences, I have always felt a sense of achievement.

Setting Targets

The achievements being bettering my own personal targets. Of getting up when it’s dark and doing the exercise in order to train for a long cycle event months in the future. Working through lunch so I can go to the gym in the afternoon and have a quiet burst of weightlifting, feeling both reflective and invigorated afterwards. Of knowing that I’m in decent shape for a man of my age. Taking my annual medical and seeing numbers better than the year before.

I set myself exercise targets each year. It might be deadlift a certain weight by a set date. Or finish a century bike event. Or a total cycling mileage for the year. In the years I set the goals, I exercise much more regularly. I also hit the goals. There have been years I haven’t set a goal and in those instances I’ve drifted around; I’m a simple soul, I need a target.

The Iron Discipline Of Lifting Iron

The iron discipline of meeting the training goals spills over to my wider life. I’m much more focused on business when I’m disciplined at exercise too. Why? I feel more mentally alert and more goal-oriented than usual. Definitely in better physical shape, with more energy, lasting energy. Self-esteem improves in all aspects of life as well. I’m more happy and alert and engaged in my social life too.

The discipline of getting up early makes days longer, but the longer day is a more rewarding day. Finding ways to fit an exercise session into my routine is a positive challenge. I’m fortunate in that I’m senior enough to be flexible and go to the gym in the morning or afternoon. I work my lunch break and have an effective session while the gym is quieter.

These sessions are almost meditation to me. I find the getting focused on the next lift, hitting the bar and then sitting and resting for 3-4 minutes mentally fulfilling. Focus, achieve, reflect. Over an hour I find that my mind starts to clear and creative thoughts seep into my consciousness. I remember one of my colleagues remarking I come back from the gym with a bagful of thoughts and ideas. It’s counterintuitive to think that a huge effort dragging the bar off the ground 7 or 8 times can be an environment for reflection. Yet, that’s how it unfolds for me. Staying in shape, both physically and mentally. The iron discipline of lifting iron.

Two-Wheeled Meditation

Cycling works the same way for me. At the start of my normal 2 – 3 hours on the bike, my mind is full. Sometimes I feel restless and even bored. But as the miles roll under my wheels, the noise in my mind melts away too. I do a lot of reflection on my current life and past life. Think about the future, both my personal life and business goals. On longer rides the fatigue and burn in my legs becomes almost a pleasure, adds to a sense of achieving something.

When time is short or the weather is poor, iron discipline can be needed to ride indoors. (Yes, I’m an unashamed fair weather rider.) The Zwift platform has transformed indoor riding, as you can ride with other riders across the world on a number of challenging courses. There you are, your digital self in the peloton with other digital riders. Pretending not to compete, while really competing. Even with this entertainment, I find the minutes drag by when you’re pedalling indoors. But it’s all part of staying in shape, minutes and hours in the bank. Not much meditation here, but I use it as an opportunity to catch up on podcasts in order to learn something.

Staying In Shape With A Coach

I found in recent years that using a coach has helped me. I work with the excellent Joe Beer to prepare for my cycling events. His experience and guidance are invaluable. Not only advice on structuring a training programme, but also his broader fitness and wellbeing experience brought to bear. Most certainly he’s a coach who adapts to the athlete and understands the wider context of his client’s life.

For gym work, Roman Caban has done me a world of good. He is an insatiable student of his craft and travels widely to develop his knowledge. I’m his oldest client and I get great care and insight. He’s very knowledgable about the key considerations for an older athlete, so a lot of flexibility and mobility work is built in. There is no patronising soft work for the old guy either. You do the work, do it hard and enjoy the feeling of being tired when the session is over.

I’m a hugely independent person, I much prefer exercising on my own. I don’t really enjoy a club ride on the bike, I much prefer a solo ride. I like to exercise on my own. For many, many years I would do what I do in most areas of my life: study a subject of interest through reading and observation and then just get on with it. I wasted time in this respect. Over the last five years, I have used coaching and it’s been a revelation. I’ve been injured less and I have been in much better condition. Not just on weight lifted or miles cycled, but also through the cold hard numbers of my annual medical results.

Staying In Shape For Life. For Life.

I stay in shape because it has a positive effect on my whole life. It helps me physically. After all, muscle declines from the mid-thirties onwards. So it’s more than important to me. My genetic predisposition is to fat around the waistline and there is type-2 diabetes in my family. Keeping decent muscle mass will help me in several ways.

Iron discipline helps me mentally too. The routine, the goal. The positive feeling that comes from exercise. Time to reflect, time to be innovative. There is enough indicative data to suggest that exercise can help reduce the risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, therefore staying in shape may deliver a structural benefit in mental health.

There’s a saying “I would rather wear out than rust out.” That’s truer than ever. We are living longer than ever. I would like to have the best fourth quarter being as physically and mentally in shape as I can be. That’s why I will get up when it’s dark a do the – literally – hard yards. It’s why I will do that gym session when I really don’t feel like it. Iron discipline to stay in shape for life for a better life.


Also published on Medium.

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