Learning From Fitness Failure
How a 5K flameout, bad box jumps and deadlift distress changed my approach to fitness.
As I stood in the starting corral for a generic, beer-themed 5K, I could only focus on one thing: this was the day I would beat my personal record time.
Looking back, it’s funny to imagine I’d chosen a blazing hot, August morning in Texas to do so. The temperature at the 9:30 a.m. start time was pushing 85 degrees on a day that would eventually see 101. Even worse, the humidity reading clocked in at 70 percent, with a hot wind blowing from the south. It’s one thing to run in the heat, but it’s another thing to run when you feel like the humidity is slowly choking away your oxygen as the warm air envelopes your body from every angle.
Still, I remained undeterred. I’d set a personal race record the month before, with a pace of 7 minutes, 36 seconds per mile, and I’d been training for 5K races all summer. I felt like I was in peak condition, and I tried to push the adverse weather conditions to the back of my mind. I focused on the Phil Collins song blasting through my headphones.
I can feel it, coming in the air tonight…a PR.
OK, so that’s not quite how the lyrics go. But that was my mindset. The weather wouldn’t stop me. As soon as the starting gun went, I shot out with the leaders. I felt like I was flying…
A few years ago, my small gym at work introduced a new toy: an adjustable height plyo box. If you haven’t seen one before, it’s basically a soft, foam box you can use to practice plymotetric (explosive) jumping. You can incrementally add height to the box by attaching smaller pieces to the top with velcro.
As soon as I saw the box, a plan emerged in my head: I would practice my jumping and be able to once again, touch a basketball rim. I hadn’t touched or hung on a rim since my teenage years. I couldn’t wait to impress my seven-year-old son. I began daydreaming about dunking in my late thirties.
I started doing box jumps a few times a week in the gym. I got more confident. I aggressively added height, even though I was straining to reach a few inches more. It didn’t matter, because I was on my way to basketball glory…
After I kicked my commercial gym habit in my early thirties, I began lifting barbells in my garage. The garage became a sanctuary for me, particularly as I went through a divorce and faced the challenges of being a single dad.
I focused on a few core lifts: squats, bench press, overhead press and deadlifts. Deadlifts quickly emerged as my favorite. There was something raw and primal about pulling the weight off the floor. And of course, it’s the exercise where I could lift the most weight.
I experimented with a few barbell-specific programs, and over time, slowly increased my strength. My deadlifts kept going up: 225..250…275…300. It felt good to lift 300 pounds. I felt strong. It made me confident. I wanted more…
All three of these stories end in failure.
At the race, my blazing pace flamed out as my body temperature skyrocketed. I didn’t beat my PR from the month before. I’m not sure which was more disappointing—my uneven performance, or the tiny beer glass we got in lieu of a medal. My half-mile splits from the race tell the story, and I was lucky I didn’t get heat stroke.
I injured my groin during doing box jumps, which meant no more plyo boxes and no touching the rim. In fact, this injury eventually led me to stop running and start cycling, as it was incredibly slow to heal.
My max deadlift ended up at 305. I threw my back out lifting unsupervised, and I’m sure it’s because I was compromising my form for #GAINS. After this injury, I embraced bodyweight fitness.
With Failure, Comes Wisdom
From these failures, I learned deep lessons.
I learned to accept my age. All of these failures happened in my thirties. I was 38 when I pulled my groin trying to increase my jumping ability. Had I taken it slower, maybe I could have reached my goal. But my age was not compatible with the speed at which I was trying to increase my jumping height. As you get older, you realize you can’t always do what you did when you were younger, and that’s OK.
I learned that I need to be more realistic when I’m competing with myself. I’m always trying to beat my last record, get a better time or lift more. It’s not a bad thing to compete with yourself, but you have to do it in a healthy way and accept that you won’t always beat your best. If you can’t accept that, you’ll feel continually disappointed. Celebrate your successes, find motivation in your failures, and accept when it’s just not your day. The day of the race was just not my day, and rather than accept it, I pushed myself too hard in potentially dangerous weather conditions.
I learned I need to approach fitness more safely. With both the deadlifts and the box jumps, I’m lucky my injuries were limited to what they were. I could have ended up with something worse, like a hernia. These days, I try to take a safer, more measured approach to my training. Fitness and safety are not mutually exclusive.
These failures taught me new approaches and refined my approach to fitness. What have you learned from your fitness failures?