Not an Athlete? Here’s How Training Like One Can Make Your Whole Life Better

We all have different reasons why we exercise, but most of us just want to stay healthy and in good shape for life so we can keep doing all the things we enjoy for as long as possible.

For some people, their general fitness maintenance goals don’t require much specificity — so showing up and taking a fitness class at the local gym where the workouts are random and change every day or otherwise, just getting some physical activity and “checking the box” is all that’s needed to maintain their current shape, function, and quality of life.

But for the vast majority of us — the ones looking to see progress, feel better, chase bucket list goals, and be able to enjoy our lives to the fullest — we need a different approach.

Random, constantly-changing workouts and going through the motions and checking the box for the day isn’t gonna cut it if you’re serious about making long-term gains.

I believe that everyone should train like an athlete, regardless of whether they consider themselves an athlete or not.

Why you should shift toward training like an athlete

“Exercise” and “fitness” for the general population have become loaded terms — synonymous with doing unpleasant things in perpetual pursuit of calorie burn in order to lose weight.

But not all of us are hitting the gym and/or pounding the pavement to LOSE something.

Many of us are hoping to GAIN something from our efforts.

What are we hoping to gain?

In a word: Athleticism — qualities like strength, endurance, power, and durability. Attributes which will carry us through all the adventures and experiences we want to have in our lifetimes.

Having and maintaining your athleticism is the key to better quality of life.

Because these characteristics that we train in our workouts aren’t just there to help us perform in the gym or on the run, they also give us the confidence to say “yes” to all sorts of rad things.

So let’s talk about what it means to train like an athlete and why you should do it even if you don’t (yet) feel confident about calling yourself an athlete.

What does it mean to train like an athlete?

Training like an athlete means that you approach your workouts with purpose and intention. Athletes don’t just work out randomly; they work towards a specific goal and they train for that specific goal with specific workouts by following periodized, progressive plans.

Think of it this way: If you want to run a marathon, you wouldn’t train for it by hitting the gym and doing bench presses and biceps curls, would you? No, you’d train for it by running. This is called specificity.

And you also wouldn’t go out tomorrow and just try to run 26.2 miles, would you? No, you’d start by running 3 miles a few times per week, then over a period of weeks, months, or years, gradually increase your mileage until your body has adapted and is strong enough to run the full 26.2-mile marathon. This is called progressive overload.

Athletes also know that the least effective way to get to their goals is by doing random stuff to “keep their body guessing”. Athletes repeat the same workouts over and over for weeks to give their bodies time to adapt to that specific stress and get stronger. This approach allows for measurable progress too, which helps you stay motivated throughout the process.

Athletes also don’t try to improve everything all at once. For athletes, there is a season for everything — a season for speed development, a season for building work capacity, a season for endurance, a season to peak and perform well, a season to recover, and a season to maintain. There is a strategy and a purpose behind each workout that, in some small way, moves the athlete toward a goal.

Training like an athlete means you prioritize quality over quantity and effort over outcome. It means you stop treating your workouts like they need to crush you to be effective and you no longer measure a workout’s effectiveness by how much you sweat, how sore you are, and how many calories it burned. Instead, you measure an effective workout by how well it moves you just 1% closer to your specific goal — because that’s the true measure of a great workout.

By adopting this mindset and approach, you will see significant improvements in your overall fitness and performance.

The benefits of training like an athlete

Training like an athlete has many benefits beyond just looking good. It helps you to improve your overall quality of life and creates more capacity to live independently for as long as possible. You will be able to do things that you couldn’t before, and you’ll be able to do them better and with more ease. This is especially important as we age and it allows us to enjoy our lives to the fullest.

It’s also more efficient to train this way. Athletes don’t waste time or energy on things that don’t create a real impact. There are lots of fancy, complicated exercises and workouts on social media and that can lead to “shiny object syndrome”, where we feel the pull to try all the workout tips and do the same exercise we see our favorite cells and influencers doing rather than focusing on the basics and things that actually move the needle for us toward our goals.

The focus that comes from identifying a goal and working toward it, gives athletes the resolve to eliminate distractions, not get swept up in shiny object syndrome, and ultimately not waste time, effort, and energy on things that don’t create meaningful progress toward their end goal.

The importance of following a periodized, progressive plan

Following a periodized, progressive plan is key to seeing real progress and avoiding plateaus or burnout. Too often, people just jump from one random workout to another, without any real structure or plan. This makes it hard to see real progress and it can also increase the risk of injury. By following a plan, you will be able to steadily increase the intensity and volume of your workouts, and you will see consistent progress week after week.

What is periodization?

Periodization means you don’t try to do or improve everything all at once. 

Let there be a season for everything. Some seasons are for getting stronger, some are for getting faster, some are for going longer, some are for peaking for a competition or race, some are for recovering, and some are for maintaining fitness while you focus on other things in life. 

When you decide on the focus for a particular season, everything else takes a back seat to that purpose. Focus on one thing, improve there, then layer in the next thing to build your capacity over time. 

It takes time to do it right — a periodized plan is how you get there and it’s how you improve bit by bit without burning out or losing sight of the final goal.⁠

What is polarization?

Polarization means you don’t try to go hard every day. 

Plan for easy effort days and hard effort days and honor the purpose of that day so you’re training with intention and not just watering down your efforts by going medium-ish every day. 

It’s about learning to drive in different gears — if you don’t slow down on easy days and then you’ll be too exhausted and burnt out from trying to go hard all the time to hit those performance targets. 

This polarized training approach reminds me that the goal is to never out-train my ability to recover.⁠

If you’ve got big goals for the future, try a plan that involves both periodization and polarization — learn what to push for and when. ⁠

How to train like an athlete

It’s important to understand that training like an athlete doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be in the gym for hours every day. It’s about quality over quantity and doing the right things for your goals.

It helps to adopt a long-haul mentality and know that it’ll take time and consistent effort to get to where you want to go … but it’ll be worth it. Training like an athlete involves trusting the process and focusing on the effort you put in, day in and day out, rather than focusing on how far you still have to go and being upset that you “aren’t there yet.” No single workout is make-or-break.

All athletic success rests on the back of a solid step-by-step program or plan — it doesn’t just magically happen. You can start by finding a structured workout program that aligns with your goals and abilities — like our StrongHer in 6 and StrongHer365 programs. You can also work with a personal trainer or fitness coach who can help you develop a more personalized plan — like the work we do in our 1:1 coaching.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that, for athletes, what they do outside their workouts is just as important as what they do during their workouts. Success isn’t just a matter of doing the right training. It’s also about proper nutrition, recovery, stress management, and getting enough sleep. This is a big reason why our programs and coaching focus on these key components as well — we’d hate for you to waste all that effort!

6 simple but powerful ways to improve your athleticism

Lift heavy for greater strength

My number 1 tip for building strength is to PICK UP HEAVIER WEIGHTS. This often scares people who are new to strength training, so they just keep reaching for lighter weights and doing 8-10 reps while leaving plenty more reps in the tank. 

But nothing to be afraid of here, “heavy” is a relative term. 

As I talked about in this post, when determining the right weight to get stronger, I like to use the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and reps in reserve (RIR).

RPE refers to how hard (on a scale from 1 -10, 1 being no problemo and 10 being everything you got) the exercise — with the weight you’ve chosen for the prescribed number of reps — feels to you.

RIR refers to the number of reps you could do AFTER you’ve finished the prescribed number of reps for the weight you’ve chosen for that particular exercise. In other words, it’s the number of reps you left “in the tank” when you finished your set.

When your goal is to build strength, you need to challenge your muscle cells with heavier weights and fewer reps while weight training. Ideally, you want to pick a weight for each strength exercise that’s heavy enough that you can only lift that weight for 1-6 reps. 

So you should do no more than 6 reps with a weight that feels like an RPE of at least 7.5 out of 10 and leave no more than 2 RIR with the proper form. And over time, you should be grabbing progressively heavier weights.

And if you’re lifting heavy enough, you’ll also need more rest (a full 1-3 minutes of NOTHING) between sets. Repeat after me: that rest period is not a waste of time, it’s NECESSARY.

Incorporate quick, explosive movements for more power

Plyometric exercises — like skipping, hopping, jumping, bounding, med ball tosses, db snatches — help to improve muscle power, speed, and agility while strengthening your tendons, ligaments, and bones. Plyometrics or power training improve coordination, balance, and proprioception. Plyometrics can also improve metabolic health, blood glucose control, and insulin sensitivity to prevent heart disease and diabetes.

Talk about some serious quality of life improvements there!

And sadly, for most of us, these exercises are the first to go as we get older. Right when we need it most, power training may be the key to keeping our bodies young — it preserves your ability to react quickly, which is super helpful for avoiding falls and injuries.

All you need is a few minutes added to your strength training sessions, 2-3 times/week, to get the benefits. Think fewer reps (around 2-4 reps), more rest (a full 2-3 minutes between sets), focus on being as explosive as possible for each rep — maximum power output is key and it’s the reason we keep the reps low and the rest high for plyometric training.

Develop unilateral strength and power

This is one that often gets skipped and it’s a damn shame. 

With the two workout tips I shared above related to strength and power training, don’t forget to train your legs independently of each other. 

Often, people get so focused on training both legs together in compound movements like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups, but they forget to train one leg or arm at a time for strength and power. 

Unilateral training is awesome for helping to minimize muscle imbalances that can result in overuse injuries. By targeting each side individually, you can work on the weaker side more effectively, leading to better overall muscle balance and symmetry. 

And a HUGE side bonus to them is that only working one side of your body at a time will also torch your core in the best possible, and most functional, way as your core muscles have to work overtime to maintain balance and stability. This means that while you’re working on your arms or legs, your core gets an excellent workout as well. The result? A stronger, more stable core that can support you in all your activities in life.

Additionally, unilateral training closely mimics the way our bodies move in real-life situations, making it a practical way to train for better quality of life. By focusing on one side at a time, you develop better coordination and control over your limbs, which translates into improved performance in daily activities.

If you’re looking to take your athleticism to the next level, unilateral training can be the secret weapon in your arsenal. 

Incorporate multi-directional training

While many people focus on traditional workouts that primarily involve forward and backward (or up and down) movements, our ability to function well in life requires much more movement variety.

So, if continuing to function well in life is a main motivator for your workout routine, then it’s essential that you continue training your body to not just move forward and back or up and down. 

Incorporating sideways, rotational, and diagonal exercises into our routine, we can target various muscle groups that often get neglected during standard workouts but are heavily used in life. By including movements that mimic the diversity of real-life activities, we can enhance our overall quality of life, reduce the risk of injury during daily tasks, and continue to perform everyday tasks more efficiently and safely. 

These movements can help prevent muscle imbalances, which can lead to chronic pain and injuries over time. Additionally, multidirectional exercises promote better posture and body awareness, leading to improved coordination, mobility, and balance.

Incorporating exercises that move us in all directions can also make our workouts more enjoyable and engaging. By challenging our body in new ways, we can prevent workout boredom and improve our motivation to exercise regularly. This variety can help us stay committed to our fitness goals and achieve long-lasting results.

Start sprinting

You read that right — springing is very good for us, even as we get older … especially as we get older.

SIT is a type of high intensity workout or high intensity interval training (aka HIIT). It involves super short (30 seconds or less), hard sprint intervals at all out effort, followed by rest periods that are long enough for you to maintain that hard effort for each sprint interval so your output doesn’t drop off.

And there are so many great health benefits to developing and maintaining your ability to do sprints. SIT is superior to walking or easy running for decreasing abdominal fat, increasing lean muscle mass, as well as improving bone health, blood sugar levels, and glucose metabolism. It also improves power and cardiovascular fitness.

SIT fires up your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are those quick burst, high-energy fibers that we lose first as we lose our athleticism with age. But we can and should train to keep them, because having these quick-response muscle fibers working for us makes us less vulnerable to injury. It’s these fibers that are what allow us to react quickly without pulling a muscle, steady ourselves, and keep us from falling.

Additionally, this high intensity and vigorous physical activity is better for managing anxiety. This 2022 study found that the more intensely the study participants exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved.

Add in some sprint interval training (SIT) a few times per week with whatever method you prefer — running, cycling, rowing, kettlebell swings, battle ropes, or pretty much any exercise that you can push for short sprints. In about 20 minutes a couple time per week, you can knock out a great athleticism-boosting workout without having to first free up an hour of your precious time.

Why it’s worth it to train for athleticism

Training like an athlete may not be for everyone, but those who adopt this mindset and approach will see significant improvements in their overall fitness, function, and performance in life. 

So even if you don’t consider yourself to be an athlete, training for athleticism will undoubtedly improve your overall quality of life, help you do things you couldn’t before, and ensure you’re able to enjoy life on your own terms and live independently for as long as possible.

Look, I get it, you might not think of yourself as an “athlete”, but if you’re exercising to gain strength, endurance, or durability and grow your capacity, you most definitely are one. And the process becomes much more rewarding and powerful when you start thinking of yourself as one.

Our clients are all everyday people of all ages, sizes, and abilities, all with jobs, families, and very real responsibilities, but they have made a commitment to exercise with purpose and be strategic in their approach in order to maximize their efforts over the long haul.

And we LOVE TO SEE IT! Because it’s our mission to reclaim exercise and fitness as positive terms that challenge us to become more, not just make us feel like we always have to be less.

We’re all about setting big goals and giving ourselves time to GROW into them. This is how we bring out the best in ourselves. This is how we do awesome shit.⁠

So, if you’re ready to take your fitness to the next level, it’s time to start training like an athlete.

No time like the present to start that journey.⁠

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Hi, I'm Alison

I’m the Founder + CEO of Miles To Go Athletics.

My own journey has taken me from always-injured-and-in-pain-farthest-thing-from-an-athlete in my 30s to ultramarathoner + competitive weightlifter in my 40s and beyond. So I firmly believe that athleticism is accessible to EVERYONE and is actually the key to better quality of life.

My team + I are here to help you stop putting your life on hold due to pain, injuries, and “getting old” and instead get back to the things you really want to be doing – like being active with friends & family, chasing bucket list goals, and feeling badass at any age.

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