The thin line

between health success and failure.


One of the keys to behaviour change is the ability to reframe ‘failure’ as learning.

Here’s an example how easy it is to fall into the trap of misconstruing real progress as abject failure.


I’m currently trialling an online group training program designed by Fitocracy’s Dick Talens.

My motivation is to improve my strength, improve my eating and get a feel for the dynamics of group coaching as compared with one-on-one coaching.

If I’m really honest, I also wouldn’t mind being a bit less Manute Bol and a bit more Buddy Franklin.

The program, as it’s been designed for me, involves a bunch of pretty high-level health skills:

  • Compound lifting 3x/week. Things like barbell squats, deadlifts and bench press alongside pull-ups, pendlay rows and tricep pulldowns.
  • Intermittent fasting. Eating food only between 12 midday and 8pm.
  • Eating to macronutrient targets. Rather than eating to stay below a calorie goal, I’m trying to eat a certain amount of protein, fat and carbohydrates each day.
  • Carb-cycling. On the three days per week I lift, I dramatically increase the amount of carbohydrates I eat, from 75g on rest days to 270g on workout days.

I’ve been doing this program for 2 weeks.


On Sunday, I ran the SF Half Marathon. On the Saturday, after a pretty well-controlled week, I opened the floodgates under the guise of ‘carbo-loading’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-e5y-3dyUs

In place of fettuccine alfredo, I went for breakfast at Craftsmen & Wolves (cookie, cheesecake, scone and financier)downing 1,000+ calories in a few minutes. Dinner was Beretta (pizza, lamb chops, bruschetta) with Humphrey Slocombe for dessert, adding another 2,000+ calories.

Then, after I’d finished the run on Sunday, I unloaded on a donut, Ginger Pancakes and Tahitian French Toast at Zazie and spent the rest of the day in bed recovering and eating ice-cream.

Monday morning came, and I was still hungry… so my intermittent fasting went out the window. I didn’t get my workout in until late on Monday. And I woke up Tuesday with the same feeling, kicking off the day at Bluebottle with a blackberry buckle and a latte and finishing it with honey and peanut butter on toast for dessert.

Now, keep in mind, behaviour change is all I’ve been thinking about for the past half-decade. And despite EVERYTHING I’ve learned, I found myself, like a freaking rookie, over-reaching, white-knuckling, bingeing to compensate, despairing and most importantly, feeling like a failure.

Earlier this week, I really thought to myself, this program just isn’t for me. I suck at this. I think I’m going to stop.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6ZkWBjgnIY

One of my favourite lyrics is from Radiohead’s ‘There There’.

Just cos’ you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.

So I took a moment last night to examine my ‘failure’ and see whether I was just feeling it or if it was really there. Here’s what I learned.

For 10 out of the 14 days so far, I’ve ~eaten to my calorie goal.

I’ve greatly increased the percentage of my diet that’s coming from protein. Even on my blowout days, I still managed to maintain my protein levels.

I’ve lifted 7 times in 15 days, doing exercises I’ve never done before and already seeing meaningful increases in my strength.

Because I was in the groove, I also did 2 yoga classes since I started the program, ran trails with the Hill Runners in Tennessee Valley and finished the SF Half Marathon in 1:43.

I successfully fasted on 9 out of the 11 weekdays I’ve been in the program. (Weekends just seemed a step too far, even at the program’s outset).

Even on the blowout weekend, I still cooked up a big pot of mince and beans and portioned it out so we had meals for the week.

And on top of all that, I have learned a crazy amount.


I understand with much greater clarity what volumes of macronutrients are in the different foods I eat… How many servings there really are in the coconut chip bag I pick up most afternoons at work… How much eating protein reduces my hunger throughout the day… How much I seek the pleasure of peanut butter and honey on toast regardless of my hunger levels… What an insane amount of calories a small handful of unsalted mixed nuts contains…

I’ve also bought a bunch of books to help me learn more — The Diet Fix, Death By Food Pyramid, Starting Strength and Becoming A Supple Leopard

And all of this relied on skills where I was going from zero to one. It’s not like I was trying increase the amount of water I was drinking from 2 to 2.25 litres per day.

I was trying to simultaneously create multiple, large, new, structural changes to my environment, habits and routines.

In that light, it would be impossible to call the last two weeks a failure, regardless of what I was feeling last night. I’ve crammed a lot of change into a fortnight. And I should be feeling like a success.


There’s plenty I could have done differently in retrospect.

And plenty I’m changing going forward, like:

  • Eating a protein minimum (150g) and a carb maximum (195g) instead of carb cycling (thanks Mr Talens for that tip).
  • Fasting as often as I can, but not stressing if I’m not 100% compliant.
  • Addressing cravings quickly and in moderation, instead of white-knuckling it until the moment it’s too much and my crack-pastry brain forces me to try and clear out a bakery in a single sitting.
  • Working with an IRL trainer to learn more about proper lifting technique.

But most of all, I’m not going to keep ignoring the very basics of change:

  • Start smaller.
  • Reward yourself as you progress.
  • Forgive yourself when you slip up and move on quickly.
  • Make time for regular review. What you feel isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of what’s really there.
  • Remember that if you don’t enjoy your life while you’re changing, there’s almost zero chance the changes will stick long-term. Your new life has to be better than your old life, or you won’t keep it.
  • Take the long view.
  • Spend less time obsessing over the destination and embrace the journey.