After more than a decade of competitive running, Daniel Wanta was confident in his fitness level. But when multiple sclerosis forced him to hang up his running shoes and hit the pool, he was surprised and initially frustrated.
“I could run five to ten miles easily, but I could barely swim to the end of the pool because of local muscle fatigue,” says Wanta, an exercise physiologist with UW Health Sports Medicine. “Swimming is a very different sport. You can run forever, but it won’t make you a better swimmer.”
As Wanta discovered, it can be hard for even the fittest of exercisers to switch from one type of physical activity to another. Consider how many Wisconsinites are sore after the first big snowstorm of the season, he points out. “You might regularly exercise and possibly even lift weights, but after you spend 20 minutes to two hours shoveling that first snowfall, you’re usually sore because you’re using muscles and doing movements that you haven’t done in months. But after awhile, you get used to it. Your body will always adapt to what you regularly do,” he says.
So why mix it up?
Building variety into your routine can reduce overuse injuries, strengthen different parts of your body, and keep exercise more interesting.
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“Being human beings, we fall into routines of doing something comfortable and familiar,” Wanta says. “Let’s say you’re a piano player and you play the same piece over and over again. You’d be very good at playing that piece, but would your overall ability improve? Probably not. Your ability as a mover, as an exerciser, is better when you do different things as well. Even if it’s more difficult at times, the reward is far worth the effort.”
How to Mix Up Your Workout Routine
Wanta shares these tips for diversifying your workout routine:
Bring the right attitude. “It’s so easy to be frustrated if you’re going one length in the pool and are huffing and puffing and you were previously a person who could exercise for 30 or 40 minutes straight. But give it time,” he says. “As an athlete, you have already proven that you have the ability to learn new things. You just need the right attitude and mindset. The great thing about exercisers is that they’ve usually discovered within themselves that they CAN and WILL learn new movements, and they have a good feel for just how much they can do.”
Practice, practice, practice. Like any new activity, your progress will depend on how much time you put in. Even just 15 minutes a day can help you improve over time. “I very quickly built up my swimming to a mile at a time,” Wanta says. “You just have to stick with it.”
Look for the right activity for you. Switching from one straight-line activity (such as running, cycling or swimming) to another straight-line activity may be easier than transitioning to a multidirectional sport such as soccer, tennis or basketball. But it all depends on what you’re looking for out of your workout. Swimming is a good workout for the shoulders, chest and upper back, compared with the lower-body focus of an activity like running or cycling. “Swimming can be rejuvenating and could prevent lower body overuse injuries seen with excessive running and cycling,” Wanta says.
Tempted by the latest fitness craze? Make sure it’s a good fit for you first. “Sometimes when things get popularized, like CrossFit, people jump into activities that may not be appropriate for them. There’s nothing wrong with training this way except it’s a lot of explosive movements that are difficult for people with some limitations to do,” he explains. “It’s not for everybody. If people are jumping into it, they could get very hurt.”
Humble yourself and take a lesson. Whether you’re new to strength training or swimming, a half hour with an expert can prevent injuries and lower your frustration level. “Even if you’re a good runner or biker, you can still benefit from instruction on what to do differently and how to do it appropriately and safely,” Wanta says. “With swimming, the minutest change in your swimming technique can have gargantuan results on your efficiency in the water.”
Little changes help, too. “We’re creatures of habit. It’s so much easier to lace up your shoes and go out your front door and do the same route you always do,” he notes. “But if you’re a committed walker or runner, you’re doing yourself a favor if you can introduce change into your routine. By changing your route, you’re changing the terrain, maybe doing some hills. You may even want to do some intensity changes: go a little bit faster for awhile and a little bit slower for awhile. Do something out of your norm. Remember, that exercising — in its most basic form — is purposefully stimulating your body to adapt to changes you present to it.”
Look for new opportunities year-round. “We live in Wisconsin: it gets cold here and it’s going to snow, and we can’t fight it,” he says. “So go out and do something in the winter — snowshoe or cross-country ski or ice skate. Yes, you’ll be sore because you’ll be using slightly different muscles than when you’re on the treadmill or elliptical machine, but I encourage people to not see fitness as something that happens only on one piece of equipment or in the gym. Fitness is a choice you make every day.”