Exercise vs Training

The dictionary defines exercise as “bodily or mental exertion, especially for the sake of training or improvement of health”. To keep this definition simple, let’s break it down to two things:

  • exertion: Stress applied for an adaptive response (being uncomfortable)
  • health: A state of body balance, without disease or injury (feeling good)

As with typically skewed RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) values for macro and micro nutrients in food, it is said that 30 minutes of “exercise” per day is required for optimal health. What does 30 minutes of exercise mean?

Walking to pickup the paper? A spinning class? Some running? Gardening for a while? Choosing stairs? Climbing a mountain? Swinging kettlebells?

Often in the trail running community I hear (or read on social media) this typical progression towards some races:

“I entered Fashionable Challenge X 2014 to see if I improved. It’s been difficult to train more than twice a week the last 3 months, but we will do a course recognition on Sunday and then I should be ready. I stationary biked and used the treadmill as weather’s been pretty bad.”

Epic fail.


Lets analyze exertion within the context of two common personas – the happy-go-lucky weekend warrior and a fitness fanatic. They’re both looking to run ultras.

Tim, 36 year old weekend warrior

Tim stand up paddles, bikes, runs and little bits of other things inbetween. Because cross training, it works. He’s injured often.

He sacrificed a Sunday with family for the synergy of mud, sweat and … 23 selfies power hiking the 47km course he’d be running next week. Competitively. 8 hours, 7 sandwiches and 4 cokes, check. 200% of the weekly RDA for exercise.

Sustained weekly exertion: not enough for an aerobic development response. Sometimes potent enough to get hurt.

Telmo, 27 year old that doesn’t know moderation

Telmo trains 17 hours a week – runs 11 and 6 hours crossfit. Because you get fit on WODs. Gets by on kinesio tape.

He feels utter crap on Sunday morning after his 2 hour tempo run on Friday and his 11 x 7 minutes intervals the day after. Yoda said shit bricks, you shall. 3 espressos and 2 Voltarens and he’s out on the trail. 30km, insanely high HR, but he’s happy with his pace for next week. Broken, but “happy”.

Sustained weekly exertion: predominantly anaerobic development for aerobic challenges. He’s chronically overtrained with busted adrenal glands.

Both are applying a stimulus, but towards the opposite ends of beneficial and healthy.


Our body is a network of complex subsystems that lends itself very well to adaption. Hit the weights often enough and muscle and bone density increases, practice aerobic sports and the heart and circulatory system also changes. Do nothing, acquire a spare tire.

HOWEVER, adaption is a double edged sword.

Tim (weekend warrior) won’t ever near his athletic potential because he doesn’t stress his body enough for a steady adaptive response. When he does “exercise”, it’s either for too long at too low an intensity or too fast out of the blocks that he gets injured. He’s exercising, but not improving or getting healthier.

Telmo also won’t ever reach his peak, but for VERY different reasons. His body is adapting though, but towards that of an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter, without any skills. He’s exercising, but also not improving or getting healthier.

There’s this misconception that fit individuals are always healthy. The state of the body at the time of the stress response always dictates development. If your legs are heavy, your heart rate is sky high but you’re at your normal tempo run, you’re long not doing a tempo run anymore.

Both are exercising, but exertion does not improve health for either and they’re not aligned with their goals of running ultras. There’s a better way.



We all have different motivations for gearing up and moving. Fresh air, being in nature, having some quiet time, burning excess calories, vitamin D, improving physical condition and a whole lot more. However, the danger of habit lies in just doing the same thing over for whatever reason you’re motivated for getting laced up in the first place.

That, however, is all still just exercise. It’s short term focussed, for today, not necessarily part of a bigger picture.

Training on the other hand implies a more systematic and measurable approach to being able to progress. The dictionary agrees:

“the education, instruction, or discipline of a person or thing that is being trained”

Training is about a process, not a single workout or bout of “exercise”. There’s thus a much longer investment in time towards a better defined goal. For some that goal is a faster finishing time, others loosing weight. What’s very important though is a focus on improvement AND a relatively well defined goal. Finish Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in 25 hours. Loose 5kg during the next month.

Exercise should line up with an embrace those goals. YOU HAVE TO HAVE A POINT. And you have to be able to prove a progression towards that point, not on any given day, but over a period of time.

It’s possible to excel in exercise, yet totally suck at training.

Telling the difference

It’s almost 2015 and that time of the year where pavements and trails are packed, until January 7. Everyone that sucked in air during that first week and stopped, exercised. Ditto for gyms, new memberships and equipment queues.

What do you want to achieve?

Any metric, be it bodyweight, how high you can jump, far or fast you can run, is game. As long as you work towards that goal. And systematically get there. Happy training!

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