What is fitness?

‘I’ve gone to all this effort and I’m not even fit enough to achieve xxx’

This upset statement from one of my athletes on a downer really made me think and question ‘what is fitness?’

How do we measure it? What do we really mean when we think someone has a high level of fitness? Was it rational for the athlete to expect to achieve xxx? 

‘I want to go faster.’ Perhaps this seems a simple enough statement and is probably one of the ones we hear the most often.  But does that mean measuring and working to improve our FTP ( Functional Threshold Power) and successfully time trialling, or practicing VO2 max intervals to improve our ability to go with a break, or doing lots of endurance work to go faster over an ironman bike course. All valid aspirations, all variations on going faster and all need training for in very different ways.  Success at one will mean failure at the others….. so we need to be very clear where we are heading.

When we set out to ‘get fitter’ it is important to have targets so that we can measure our progress and celebrate our achievements. Do we mean squatting 75% of our body weight, or managing to achieve one press up. Do we mean being able to achieve a two hour aerobically coupled base ride or smashing a 10 mile time trial. These are all very different fitness goals. Because someone can now get up from the floor without using their hands can they ride their bike faster? Not necessarily, but are they fitter? – yes, in a very functional manner. This tends not to be the first measure that comes into mind when we ask ‘are we fitter’ and yet it is an important, distinct part of functional fitness.

Which brings us on to how do we frame our goal? The end of a season, when many people take a break from focused training, is a good time to start defining  your main goal for next season and planning how to reach it.

Make sure your goal is SMART – Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound. Just on the border of realistic and attainable is a good shout!  For most of us winning a Tour de France stage is not realistic. ‘Improve my 25 mile time trial time by 2 minutes next season’ is specific, measurable, possibly realistic, possibly attainable and is time-bound.

Then you need to take that goal and start planning how to achieve it. A great way to do this is to complete a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of everything which can impact your chances of achieving your goal. This will include many aspects of fitness and probably some aspects of organisation and finance eg decisions about  how far to travel and what new kit to buy! .

Table of some of the factors to consider if the aim is to improve your 25mile time trial time by 2 minutes in 2021 –

Aspects of fitness To considerOther areas
Aerobic fitnessBike, wheels, tyres
Muscular enduranceClothing choices
Muscular forceRace planning – A, B and C races, travel, timescales etc.
Anaerobic enduranceHow much time can you devote
Speed skills – pedalling techniqueThe impact of training on your relationships
Strength and conditioningFinance
SleepBike fit
General diet 
Alcohol consumption 
Stress levels 
Find a coach? Do you need one for your goal 
Training plan 
Rest and recovery 
Flexibility – can you hold the position on your tt 

From the table one can quickly see that ‘fitness’ is a general term for a raft of aspects. That’s why fitness is a very holistic and complex topic.  And I stated ‘next season’. This is not a quick fix job.

Gaining any type of increase in performance, unless starting from a very low base, takes time, consistency and patience. So within this one aim there could be a myriad of mini-fitness aims which are all part of getting to the main goal.

Whether or not you manage your goal of improving your 25 mile tt time by two minutes it is then unreasonable to complain because you struggled to finish an ironman –  that would be an unrealistic outcome given your stated goal.

Set your SMART goal and good luck on your journey, above all enjoy.

Fitness – it’s a complicated life Hector. (Hector’s house, TV 1970s)

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