After living 50 years as a fitness nerd, I have a few ideas about what constitutes a perfect workout for me. Of course, this all depends on which “me” shows up to exercise that day. Is it the “feeling great” me, the “getting back up on my horse after a round of IV’s” me, or the “not exactly sick, but not feeling at my peak” me? The right workout for each situation will be vastly different, but the basic constituents of the hour or so at the gym are the same.
Is there a “perfect workout” for you? Yes, but I guarantee it is unique to you, and unique to you on this particular day. From the 10,000 ft point of view, the “perfect workout” is the one that you will do, consistently, and if not enjoy, at least not abhor. It should leave you feeling tired in a good way, so that you know you did some work, but not so exhausted that you dread the next encounter with your inner athlete. And if you live with CF or some other chronic illness that waxes and wanes, the perfect workout is a moving target. Some days, 20 minutes on the elliptical is the right amount, while other days, 5 minutes on the stationary bike is what your body needs. On really awesome days, a 5-mile hike in the woods fits the bill perfectly.
But whatever state your body is in, the components of each workout should be the same, modified to suit your body, with its particular issues. Each component is important, and the order that you complete each component matters. I’m going to run briefly through each, and offer some suggestions for specific exercises that work for me and might also benefit you.
The order is as follows:
soft tissue work
corrective exercises or “pre-hab”
movement preparation or active stretching
cardio or “metabolic conditioning”
Yes, I put nutrition in there at the end, because at least for me, it is vitally important to feed my muscles nutritious food including both carbs and protein very soon after exercise. Experts say a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrate to protein is what you should shoot for. You can do this very easily by drinking some chocolate milk, or eating a peanut butter sandwich. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does have to happen.
So, let’s go through the actual workout.
This consists of a:bout 10 minutes of foam rolling or using a tennis or lacrosse ball in areas of muscle and connective tissue that is excessively tight. You know an area needs to be rolled when it is uncomfortable to do so. If you don’t feel discomfort, you are good to go on to the next spot. I generally start with a ball to my feet (ouch), and then go to the foam roller for calves, hamstrings and glutes. I then flip over and do my quadriceps. Then I take out the magic “peanut,” my extremely complicated and expensive device that I now absolutely cannot live without. With this, all my tension dissipates from my back, as it remembers how to extend after my day of sitting, coughing, and typing. That’s it!
As I said, I’m fifty. I have accumulated a lot of tight areas. You may not need this much, or you may need more. Only you will know, by trial and error.
This is also not complicated and we are talking about joints here. Having good mobility simply means that you are able to take each joint through its natural range of motion. Each joint is different, of course. The knee joint shouldn’t be able to traverse a circle, while the ankle joint should (ha…tell that to my ankles!). Take a survey of your body. You will be able to tell which joints are tight. Work on those. Also, do some range of motion in the joints that you intend to use in your workout.
These are also referred to as “pre-hab” exercises, presumably because if you do them, you won’t ultimately require “rehab” exercises. Simply put, the idea is to strengthen weak areas that contribute to unhealthy movement patterns or poor posture. In my case, and likely in the case of anyone with CF, this is primarily my thoracic spine. Lung disease and chronic coughing cause the biomechanics of the chest wall to get messed up (to use a technical term). The result is the “hunched” back and rounded forward shoulders we commonly see in each other. Corrective work for this focuses on opening the anterior chest and shoulders with active stretching, and strengthening the muscles of the back that pull the shoulder blades back and down.
Movement Preparation (AKA active stretching):
This is the “warm up” part of the workout. The goal for this portion of time is to actively work the areas of your body that you are about to engage. You slowly start asking more of the heart and lungs as you begin using large muscle groups in a similar way to what you are about to ask of them. For example, if this is a leg workout day, you might begin with some lunges, or body squats and add in some walking hamstring stretches. If you are going to focus on bench pressing, simply pressing a very light weight for a few sets of 5-8 would be a great warm up. If you are going for a walk or jog, beginning to do that exercise at a slow rate for a few minutes is the way to go. It all depends on what you plan to focus on that day.
Strength Training or Cardio (metabolic conditioning):
I put these in the same category because I would suggest focusing on one or the other during a workout. You can do this by alternating lifting days with cardio days. Alternately, you can do both at the same time by doing weight training in a circuit fashion, with little rest between exercises. My favorite way of doing this these days is with kettlebells, which I will discuss in another article.
The main thing to remember here is to start small and slowly progress as your body adapts to the challenge. If you want to be able to run a 10K, that is awesome, and you can do it! But start with walking/jogging intervals which feel like work, but also feel good! There is no better way to sabotage yourself than to rush your body faster than it can go. How will you know if you are? You won’t want to keep doing it. When you start dreading your daily jog, you know you are pushing too hard. As you very slowly start adding time to your workout, or lesson the periods of rest (if you are doing intervals), you get stronger and stronger.
Ah…this is what you’ve been waiting for. The end of the workout! You’ve done your last set, or run your last interval. You want to grab your stuff and go fall on your couch. But wait! There’s more…
This is the time to do just a little bit of flexibility training. Your muscles are warm and pliable…a perfect set up for some passive stretching. Passive stretching just means holding a muscle in the stretched state for about 20-30 seconds. This is what we normally think of as stretching. Spend just 5 minutes stretching those areas on your body that tend to be tight. You don’t need to go through a whole yoga series here. You know what you need. I almost always need low back and hamstring stretches at this point. I also find that this is the perfect time to lay across the foam roller lengthwise (so it is under my spine from my head to my butt) and open my arms to the side and let gravity open my chest. Some deep, meditative breathing in this position is the perfect way to conclude the workout.
And before you hit the couch, don’t forget to eat!