Set your goals and don't be afraid to go after them!
I am often asked "how do I get fitter?" or "how can I ever get to carrying the shopping without my neck pain?" or "how can I learn to sit longer at my computer comfortably?" The consistent answer I give to all of these questions is "pacing".
Pacing is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as 'to do something at a slow and steady rate in order to avoid overexertion.'
You can use this technique to achieve your goals. Most people –including yours truly- find that they are in limbo with often no clear goals. Or even if they do have clear goals, no way in which to tackle them head on. Fitness goals, strength goals, activity goals, running or swimming time goals. So before we start using this pacing technique, we have to really think about what our goals are. I'm included here.
Ok, let's take the goal of improving your fitness without worsening your pain. Pacing, as defined above, means the art of doing a bit more -but not a lot more- every day so you gradually build up strength and stamina and get fit. People say that the mantra "pace it, don't race it" is a good way of remembering the tip.
Before we discuss the best pacing strategy let's look at 2 common relationships people have with exercise and activity when they are in pain. The first is 'the slow decline'. This is the person who quite naturally stops an activity or exercise when the pain starts. They wait till later and have another go. However with time the pain starts with less and less activity.
The second is 'the boom or bust' pattern. This is the person who tries to get a whole task done, push through, ignore the pain and keep going despite the pain. After this, they can't do anything. They might need rest for days before having another go. Improvement in fitness, strength or tolerance is minimal.
So here's a guide on how to get your pacing diaries established and your journey to greater activity and fitness started.
Step One: Write down your personal exercise and activity goals.
Everyone's goals will be very different. But think about what you would like to be able to do more of. Perhaps it is to sit for 1 hour so coffee with the girls doesn't hurt your neck? Or perhaps it is to walk up the long flight of stairs without stopping at Martin Place train station? Or to walk 5 kilometres, 3 times per week? Or to run the City to Surf without stopping? Or perhaps to beat your 10 kilometre run time by 2 minutes?
Try to have 1 or 2 goals going at a time and remember that the goal posts need to keep moving. You will eventually achieve these goals because after reading this, you will know how to get started and to safely attain them.
Step Two: Find your safe baseline on which to build.
Your correct baseline is all about finding the amount of your goal-related activity that you can do safely and without falling in a heap. Like your goals, baselines will be different for everyone. It's personal. But as an example, you might say that you can walk for 30 minutes and definitely won't have a flare up of your sore hip or back, and won't take a week to recover. You remember that last week, you were absolutely shot after your hour long walk on the weekend. In this example, your safe walking baseline is 30 minutes.
Using the walking the stairs at Martin Place example, you know from your stairs at home that you are puffed and need to pause after 20 steps. You feel dizzy and very puffed out after the whole flight of 25. 15 is easily and consistently manageable. I would suggest a baseline here of 17 or 18 steps.
Step Three: The only way is up!
Now you need to plan your progression (in advance). Using time as a guide, choose small increments to increase your baseline. For example, you could choose to walk for an extra 5 minutes each week from your 30 minute baseline, or try to walk up an extra 2 steps without stopping each week.
When you complete the set amount of activity and are feeling good, don't be tempted to push on beyond your planned progressions. Stick to the plan and be patient. Knowing that you will only be doing a small, 'safe' extra amount each time will decrease the threat level for your brain. This makes it less likely that your brain will become over protective and try and use pain to stop you from moving or working towards those goals.
As a general guideline, do not increase your progressions by more than 20% of the last level achieved. This way you will remain 'safe' and yet slowly trek upwards to your goal.
Step Four: Always keep going and reward yourself.
Remember, we all have our 'bad days' where things may hurt a little, or you feel unusually tired. If you do have a little flare up at any stage during your planned progressions, don't freak out. It's good to know that your brain is looking out for you! Your brain is doing its best to protect you and this pain does not mean that you've caused any damage. It's ok to rest for a day. Now go back one step to what you know you did before with no troubles and resume your pacing program. Try not to stop altogether. You've probably gone so far and to start again at the beginning would be more than a little frustrating and upsetting.
And don't forget to acknowledge your achievements with a reward. An imaginary pat on the back, a few quiet encouraging words to yourself, an ice cream, that favourite magazine or new dress! Take time to reflect on your goal attainment and reset those new ones.