When I first started exercising, I thought I had to work as hard as possible during every workout. I thought that was how people get in shape. If it wasn't extremely challenging, I wasn't doing it right.
I would go out for runs, and every run, I would try to run it as fast as I could. If a workout didn't leave me gasping for breath, I would do another one! Something I would tell my younger self is that you don't need to work so hard! Pushing myself so hard was slowly eroding my enjoyment of what I was doing, and eventually, things started to fall apart. I would be exhausted after runs, and workouts would leave me feeling stressed instead of energised.
When I slowed down, I discovered working out wasn't as much of a chore, and I would do it more often. After, every now and then, when I did "give it maximum beans", I noticed I could run faster or do more.
Over time my opinions on working as hard as you can have changed drastically. A workout can be measured by its intensity, low (think walking), moderate (jogging) and high (running). All have their benefits, but when someone starts a fitness routine, they often pick the hardest one. Thinking that by choosing the most demanding option, they'll get the results in the quickest time, and while I acknowledge that sounds appealing, it seldom works.
I recognise that high-intensity training is still quite popular now, and as a whole, it's not the worst training method. Still, you need to ask yourself whether working at this intensity will be sustainable long term. Will you still be doing it in a year? How about in 5 or 10 years?
How many exercise routines have you started but stopped a couple of weeks in because you began to dread the workouts? This usually is an indication you're probably working at too high an intensity.
How to measure the intensity of a workout.
First, we should determine what a high intensity work out is. Interestingly it's not the same for everyone. One person's moderate effort is someone else's 100%.
A simple way to measure this is the talk test.
Are you able to hold a conversation without having to pause for breath? That would be low intensity.
Can you talk, but you have to pause now and then to catch an extra breath? That would be moderate intensity.
Only able to say single words or sounds before having to breathe again? That's high intensity.
The pros of working at a high intensity.
The pros of high intensity are that you can get a lot done in a short space of time; because of this, you can burn a couple of hundred calories in half an hour. That's quite efficient but keep in mind that calories are just one facet of a much bigger thing.
The cons are working at a high intensity is hard and uncomfortable. You might be able to burn a couple of hundred calories in half an hour, but if it's so hard your not enjoying it, you won't keep it up for long.
High-intensity workouts have a strain on the body that you need to recover from. Working out is all about wear and repair. Use a muscle, then rest up, and it'll come back stronger, but the harder you work, the more rest you'll need after to recover. If you don't rest up, injuries start to occur (Either you have been, or you know someone who picked up an overuse injury when they began running. This is frequently because people go from 0 to 100 in a couple of weeks. No rest days, running every day, all of a sudden your ankle starts to hurt.).
You might begin to feel lethargic and struggle to motivate yourself to do the workout.
Doing less to do more.
A common strategy from runners is 80/20 training. This is where a runner spends 80% of their training at a lower intensity (lower for a runner is a jog) and 20% of their training at a higher intensity (running hard). It's been proven to be quite an effective training method, and participants on average, improved their 10k times by five per cent. Not working hard but going for longer encourages recovery, and by having both moderate and high intensity, you get the benefits of all.
The 80/20 training method is intended for runners, but the mentality could be applied in many different situations. Fitness is multifaceted, and thinking that working at high intensity is the only way to go leads to a lot of health benefits and potential fitness gains being left on the table.
Moderate intensity workouts and weight loss.
Some studies suggest that working at a moderate intensity can be just as effective for weight management as high intensity; you just have to do more of it. So if you don't like the feeling of a high-intensity workout, you don't have to do it; substitute it for something lighter, but do it for longer, and you'll be fine.
A decent strategy is to do lots of low and moderate-intensity work, some high on occasion and do some strengthening activities at least twice a week. This way, you get the benefits of all the different training styles, and you're not left with that "this workout is horrible, and I wish it were over!" feeling!