From time to time everyone who exercises regularly will find themselves in a training slump. Sometimes it’s down to life events; exercise can be an escape from personal difficulty, but it can also sometimes feel like just another job that needs doing. There are times when our training itself can become uninspiring. Perhaps we’re experiencing a plateau and can’t seem to get out of it, or illness or injury have set us back.
For those with mental health issues, slumps can be an annoyingly regular fact of life. It’s important to remember that, whatever the reason, small regular slumps can affect our long term progress just as much as less frequent, major ones.
Prepping for Slumps
You can of course just wait for the slump to pass in it’s own time, and that’s awesome if it works well for you. That is how I used to deal with things. Writing from my own experience, I quickly saw that my long term progress was being badly affected. I also noticed that my annoyance with constantly having to rebuild my strength was something that contributed to low periods. As someone with a lifelong mental health condition, I wanted to work out ways to get through a slump whilst being kind to myself and preventing regressing my training too much, but most importantly staying sane.
This is why I think it’s helpful to have a plan in place for when these slumps occur. As with most contingency plans, it’s best to make them when we’re feeling well and motivated. The last thing you need when you recognise that your training has become a chore is to have to put a load of mental effort into coming up with a way out. Below are some simple strategies that I have evolved to deal with periods of low mood, low energy or injury which you may find helpful.
Be Kind To Yourself
Firstly, start treating yourself kindly, as you would a dear friend. This should be true at all times, but it’s something that many of us find impossible to do. When you’re failing to meet self-set goals it becomes even more important, and in many respects even harder to manage.
So if you can’t be kind to yourself, find someone who can! It could be a friend, partner, trainer or an online community. The particulars matter much less than knowing that there is someone who will celebrate every tiny thing you do to get yourself through a tricky patch. I have found social media to be a great source of support, my favourite hangout being Instagram. There are many corners of the internet where you can find support to get through tough times. If you have friends or acquaintances who struggle with this stuff too, perhaps you can mutually support each other. Finding a personal cheerleader is one of the most helpful things you can do to get you through difficulties.
For some people social media doesn’t work at all. You might find other people’s perceived non-stop success makes you feel more intimidated about your own training. It may be that time spent on social media is actually preventing you finding the time and energy to get out and move. This is why it’s important to check in with yourself about whether it’s a help or a hindrance. Finding the strategies that work for you means honestly examining your relationship with alternative activities. Are they recharging and re-inspiring you? Or draining and distracting you? Only you can decide.
Setting overly high expectations for yourself is a sure way to get stuck in a slump. Try giving yourself easily achievable goals which can be adjusted as you go along. If you were running five times a week but have had a couple of weeks off and are struggling to get started again, perhaps aim for two runs that week. If you smash that by Wednesday, aim for three! Then congratulate yourself on Sunday when you finish your fourth. Setting four as a goal at first could have seemed unachievable or off-putting but by lowering the bar (in the most positive way) you’ll have more points at which to celebrate getting back to it.
The essential thing here is to remember that it doesn’t matter how small the goal is – in some ways, the smaller the better! During periods of particularly low mental health I have sometimes set the goal as “get through the gym door”. If I managed that, I would always do some training. It didn’t matter how much because the pressure was off; by walking through the door I’d achieved what I’d set out to do. Everything I managed was a bonus, leaving me feeling like a real success even after a short workout.
Break Things Down
It’s often the case that smaller or shorter things are easier to face when times are difficult. If you normally do a workout which lasts an hour, consider splitting it into two. Perhaps you could spread that 10k run out over two or three days. By making the activity more manageable, you’re far more likely to get back into the habit of doing it. Your body and mind will both thank you for taking the time to exercise, even if it’s half the time you usually train for.
Switch It Up
Perhaps some of your slump is down to feeling bored or uninspired by your usual activity. Maybe you’ve hit a plateau and feel like you’re getting nowhere. Changing your activity can make a huge difference to how you feel. It can also leave you feeling reinvigorated when you do return to our original training. Sometimes it turns into a whole new interest that takes over your old one!
Think about both what interests you and what you feel you can face doing. Perhaps something slower and less intense feels more manageable. Perhaps something with less equipment required, less set-up time, or less travel. I often turn to callisthenics (bodyweight strength training) when going to the gym and facing people and stacks of equipment feels too daunting. I can put Netflix on in my bedroom and work out in a really relaxed way whilst still working towards my strength goals.
There are some downsides to this approach which I’ll discuss below. However if you’re using exercise as a way of managing your mental or physical health and don’t mind how that happens then this can really help. The essential thing is to stay active.
Staying On Track
Changing what you’re doing altogether can work out well, but if you know you are going to want to carry on with your original training when you recover, my suggestion is to continue with a baseline level of activity and commit to it no matter what. This is a tough route at times, but I have found it to work out better for me in the long term. For people with long-term training goals, switching activity may not be helpful advice. As an example, taking four weeks out to do yoga instead will seriously affect your goal of running a charity 10k, and that might have a worse mental health impact in the long run than continuing to train through the slump.
Personally my longer term strength goals have been the same for a couple of years. That means that when I’m slumping I either accept a serious setback or find a way through it that doesn’t compromise those goals. I definitely prefer the latter approach. My favourite method is to set myself an absolute minimum level of training which I will do each week pretty much no matter what.
At first this was really difficult but it has become much easier with time. I feel like I am going through the motions – and in fact, that is exactly what’s happening. These are never stellar workouts, but my body is still doing the work I need it to do to prevent backsliding. That’s all I’m aiming for, and often I manage more than that. By keeping to a regular level of activity I ensure that when I’m back on good form I’m not having to deal with the frustration of regaining lost strength.
Whatever your approach, congratulate yourself (or get your personal cheerleader to do it!) at every opportunity. You deserve to for taking action to look after your physical health during times when your mental health is on the slide. That’s no small thing!
Look for ways to reward yourself which make you feel good and are sustainable in the long-term. I’ve used a variety of methods including shiny sticker charts, taking myself out on a date, treating myself to a healthy food stuff which I don’t buy very often (fresh figs work for me), or even just having a long hot bath. Framing these things as rewards and looking forward to them when I’m in the moment of choosing whether to train or not often makes all the difference.
Let Your Body Be Your Guide
If you have lost strength or fitness, remember to adjust your training accordingly. Pushing your body as hard as you were before will do you no favours, mentally or physically. Step back into things at a sensible level and build up again in your own time. You’ll likely regain fitness at a faster rate than it took you to acquire it in the first place, but remember not to punish yourself by stepping up the intensity too soon.
And if you really need to rest, rest. This is about what works for both your body and your mind. Make sure that other self-care is high on your agenda. Eat regularly and well. Try to take care with your sleep patterns and make sure to do other things which benefit your mental state. Praise yourself (or get your allies to) for any and every small thing which you achieve. Make a note of your plan for dealing with training slumps and refer to it often. That way you know that when one occurs you have a sound course of action waiting for you.
Many thanks to Ann Lynch for her feedback and contributions to this post.
If you have any any tips which you’d like to share, please comment! I can only speak from personal experience and my ideas may not work for you. I am always interested in sharing ideas and learning from others with different experiences.