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What I Learned From the June 2021 Mini Challenge: Work Out Nine Hours Within Four Days

In June 2021, I failed to reach my goal of completing nine hours of running or rowing at moderate intensity in the final four days of the month. Nevertheless, I learned several things from the attempt, which will probably improve my exercise performance going forward.

With only four days left in the calendar month, my Strava training calendar showed that I had done a total of 21 hours 13 minutes in June. Although I would have been quite satisfied with such a record, say, three years ago, my expectations of my health and fitness are different in mid-2021.

In the past couple of months, I managed more than 30 hours of moderately-intense exercise – running, cycling, or rowing – per month.

In the first three weeks of June, however, I experienced more fatigue than usual, which in turn limited my training volume – I had done only 21 hours 13 minutes, mainly because I took seven forced rest days. I don’t know what caused the fatigue but a hectic work schedule could have been a contributor. Fortunately, my energy levels had improved by the final week of the month and so had my motivation.

Here was my conundrum.

On the one hand, I wanted to have had at least 30 hours, recorded in Strava, under my belt before the end of the month (June), to keep the total number of hours for the month consistent with the monthly totals in April and May, i.e. for ego and bragging rights. To reach 30 hours, I would have had to squeeze in an additional 8 hours 47 minutes before midnight June 30.

On the other hand, my desire to window-dress my Strava training calendar – an entirely frivolous exercise – needed to be balanced against the risk of serious physical injury that might limit my ability to exercise going forward and the risk of over-exertion that may hamper my recovery from whatever that caused my fatigue earlier in the month.

As much as I loathed being in such a predicament, I thought this was a good opportunity to practice a little project management and self-discipline. A mini challenge.

Goal

The goal of this challenge was simple: accrue at least 30 hours of moderate exercise (i.e. running or rowing but no cycling – see why below) on my Strava training calendar in the month of June. In other words, I needed to sneak in another 8 hours 47 minutes from June 27 through 30.

Constraints

I had a few constraints: 

  1. COVID-19-Related Restrictions. Government regulations did/do not allow outdoor recreational activity between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. In addition, road cycling was prohibited during the current lockdown. In fact, only “jogging and exercise” within “one’s own neighborhood” was permitted. Therefore, I could only run (outdoors) between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. or row (indoors) at any time.
  2. Current physical conditioning. In recent months, I had only done a maximum of 1 hour 45 minutes (of running continuously) per session, and I hadn’t done so on consecutive days. My last rest day before the June 27–30 period was June 24.
  3. Weather. While not a true constraint, unbearably warm (above 28℃) or wet weather would keep me indoors and, therefore, leave me with only one option: rowing on my Concept2 ergometer.

Plan

This was my plan for the four days.

I would attempt to complete two hours of exercise per day for the first two days – 1 hour of running in the morning plus 1 hour of rowing early evening. I hoped that the rest period between sessions would have been sufficient to let my body recover from the morning activity. I would have my breakfast only after exercising in the morning because I wanted to go out as early as possible before the outdoor temperature rose to an uncomfortable level and I prefer to avoid any strenuous physical activity immediately after breakfast.

I much prefer to exercise in the evening. However, in recent weeks, due to the lockdown restrictions, I had only managed to run around in my neighborhood for about an hour before the 8 p.m. cut-off time. By running first thing in the morning, I figured I would eliminate any time limit imposed by the pandemic-related restrictions. However, I expected this “luxury” to come at the price of possibly less sleep and the perceived inconvenience of exercising while still not fully awake. I planned to start out early or mid-morning before the weather became too warm.

On Days 3 and 4, I planned to increase my workout time to 2.5 hours per day, splitting the time roughly equally between running and rowing. The idea of increasing the daily workout duration after two days, rather than keeping it the same throughout the four days, was to help my body adjust to the rather sudden and significant increase in daily exercise. 

Rules

My self-imposed rules were:

  1. No disruption of my work schedule or productivity.
  2. Exercise at my usual intensity; no reduction in intensity, which may help to prolong workout time.
  3. Abort this mini challenge if I feel I am at risk of hurting myself or if I am not enjoying the exercise.

Outcome

In short, I didn’t hit my goal of 8 hours 47 minutes in the four-day period (June 27–30, 2021). I managed “only” 5 hours 45 minutes, about 3 hours short of target.

On the first two days, I followed my plan – I ran for about 65 minutes in the morning before breakfast and rowed for 60 minutes in the evening. So, at the end of Day 2, I was on track. However, on Day 3, it rained heavily in the morning, which deterred me from going out for the scheduled run. Late afternoon on Day 3, I thought of rowing for an hour, taking a short break and then going out for a run, therefore completing the 2.5 hours I had planned. But after about a minute on the rower, I realized I was too fatigued to do any exercise on the day. On Day 4, I ran for about 65 minutes in the morning – as I had done on Days 1 and 2 – and rowed only 30 minutes in the evening. By the start of that day (Day 4), I knew I was too far behind to fully catch up on Strava hours, i.e. 30 hours in June, and I feared causing long-term harm to my body.

Throughout the four days, I was able to work as usual. I believe I was more productive during this period, compared to the weeks before this challenge.

I felt fatigued on Day 3 but I avoided injuring myself.

My diet remained the same as it has been for the past few months.

Lessons

Though I failed to reach my goal, I learned several things during last four days (June 27-30, 2021) and the subsequent three (July 1-3, 2021):

  • At my current level of fitness, two hours of moderate-intensity exercise, in the form of running and rowing, per day, even if divided into two sessions with an interval of several hours, is probably unsustainable beyond two consecutive days because I would likely need a day’s rest to recover in that scenario. In retrospect, trying to do nearly nine hours of exercise at my usual intensity within four days was unrealistic; if sustained, I would be able to do in excess of 55 hours in a month (an incredible feat!).
  • However, if I ran in the morning for about an hour (e.g. 11 kilometers in 65 minutes) and rowed for 30 minutes late afternoon or early evening, I could continue exercising every day, the limit of consecutive days yet to be determined. In the first four days of July, I’ve done between 1 hour and 1 hour 36 minutes per day for a total of 5 hours 7 minutes. At this rate, I should easily clock in more than 30 hours this month (July), while requiring fewer rest days. If possible, I would prefer to exercise every day.
  • Waking up earlier than what I had been accustomed to – so that I could go out for a run – was probably the most important test of change made to my exercise routine in the past two years. I still take about an hour to become fully awake, but I do enjoy the run soon afterwards plus I am noticeably more productive for the rest of the day. Furthermore, I have been going to bed earlier than before, i.e. around midnight, not because I know I have to wake up earlier in the morning (compared to what I had been used to) but because of somnolence. In this way, I believe introduction of a mid-morning run has somewhat corrected my circadian rhythm, though I have not noticed any improvement in sleep quality.
  • The plan to run in the morning and row in the evening worked out well. The idea was not only to give my body a rest between sessions, but also to engage two different sets of muscles. In the near-term, I intend to only run in the morning and only row in the evening. For example, I won’t try to make up for a missed run in the morning by trying to run and row in the evening. Therefore, whether I run or row, I will do the same form of exercise at least 24 hours apart, maximizing the interval between the same exercise and, therefore, giving the relevant muscles the best chance of recovery.

Conclusion

I made the mistake of setting a lofty goal that was almost impossible to attain or, if achieved, could have led to quite serious harm to my body. However, I was lucky, in that I was given the opportunity to abandon my initial plan, to learn from the attempt, and to take a more strategic approach. If this were a chess game, I miscalculated in the opening, but found a way to sacrifice a piece (ditching the idea of doing nine hours of exercise in four days) for a long-term positional advantage. By the end of June, taking stock of what I had learned from observations during my failed endeavor, I had devised a new exercise regimen that may well improve my health, fitness, and overall sense of well-being for months or even years to come.