The difference between WORKING OUT and TRAINING

Exercise, as it relates to physical activity, is defined as “a particular movement or series of movements done to become stronger and healthier.” In 2015, over 54 million people enrolled in fitness centers in the U.S., and there are around 34,000 membership-based exercise facilities in the U.S. Despite that, people aren’t seeing positive results; our society as a whole is getting less healthy! Obesity and rates of lifestyle-related diseases are increasing despite the popularity of ‘exercising.’ Why is this?

Many people mistake ‘going to a gym’ with ‘being healthy.’ Now, going to a gym CAN lead to healthy outcomes, but unfortunately most people aren’t given the tools in which to maximize fitness and health. I’ll get into the health aspect of exercise in another post, but for this article, I want to focus on HOW people… specifically people who identify themselves as ‘athletes’… exercise when they are at a gym (or at home, or with friends, or where ever…).

Everyone who exercises has some sort of motivation behind it. Some people want to get healthier, some want to lose weight, some want to prepare their bodies for some sort of physical test (like a race).

There are two categories of folks who exercise:
• Those who are working out
• Those who are training

First, I should define what I mean by working out and training.

I define working out as exercising without an end goal/target. Folks that work out tend to always be fit and rarely miss a session. Most folks that want to be healthy work out. If they choose to race, they finish and are consistent. BUT, they also tend to not improve much over the years. The graph below shows the “stress” and “fitness” of someone who is working out. Notice the consistent ‘stress’ (workouts) and the stable fitness.


Training, on the other hand, is when sessions are prescribed in relationship to key races and have a place in the overall seasonal / yearly / multi-yearly goal. These folks are “slow” 3/4 of the year and kicking ass the other 1/4. They may cancel workouts if it doesn’t help them reach the target or they may choose to stay away from group sessions if they feel the group session isn’t in their best interest.

The graph below shows the “stress” and “recovery” of someone training for an Ironman. Note the variable “stress” (training load) and “fitness” as they peak for the Ironman. Also note the decreased stress as they recover from the race. These are characteristics of someone who is training.

How can we tell the difference between somebody who works out and somebody who trains? Good question.

I look at performances during the current year and progression over the past few years. If the performances have plateaued, or there is no improvement in performance despite a lot of exercising, the person is most likely working out. These folks are predictable in their race finishes – for example, I’m sure you know people who work out a lot and always run nearly the same time in races.

Training occurs when we have a clear idea of where we want to be and are willing to sacrifice immediate successes for long term gains. Training requires planning and patience. It requires us to kill the ego and be willing to trust the yearly / multi-year plan. The journey to becoming really good at any physical endeavor endurance athletics is not easy. It is a long, sometimes frustrating path with many set-backs.

On a personal level, It wasn’t until the year 2007 that I started to reap some of the seeds I sowed in 2002-2006. During my Ironman career in the 2000s, I knew that Ironman required a deep base – I heard somebody say that in one needs to train a long time in order to train for an Ironman. So, throughout 2002-2005, I spent most of my time simply building the base. I didn’t have the high race finishes that I could have had if I had done faster training, but then again, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had gone after the immediate rewards.

All along, I kept the end target in mind – get strong for Ironman. For me, that meant that I wouldn’t be as good at any distance in the meantime. That is the type of sacrifice that someone makes when they are training.

The obvious problems arise when people think they are training when they are actually working out. It is easy be distracted by ‘the shiny new thing,’ whether that be a trendy new fitness facility, or a social club who want to have you join them for group workouts. If you don’t have a plan in place, and you aren’t seeing results, don’t fool yourself into thinking you are ‘training.’

As a coach who has worked with athletes for over 20 years, I see many people who want to train, but are distracted from ‘training’ and replace it with working out, yet get frustrated that they don’t reap the rewards of those who train.

Not everybody wants to train. Many people are quite happy working out. This is great and a excellent path towards health and fitness. But If you choose to train, embrace it and go full in. Take personal satisfaction in the knowledge that you are on a different course than most.