Challenge Yourself (But Choose Your Challenge Wisely)

I got this idea from Clarence Bass, in his book Challenge Yourself. It can be much easier to motivate yourself to be physically active if there is some challenge you’re pointing towards. But we can tend to have a “bigger is better” mentality and choose tests like marathons, century rides, or climbing Mt. Whitney. These can be good “bucket list” items. In my misspent youth I did 3 marathons, a couple of century (100 mile) bike rides, hiked several 14’ers (14,000 foot mountains), rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon, and numerous other long challenges. I fondly look back on all of them. In retrospect, though, I’m glad I did one marathon, but not so sure about three. The problem with doing a lot of these is that in trying to build up to a big goal, you can cross the line into “chronic cardio”, or high volume training (often at MISS pace). This can get you very fit but not necessarily healthier.

It might be better to have a goal that motivates you to do more optimal training that supports good health. When I first read how Clarence uses a two minute session on the Concept2 rower as his challenge, I tried the bicycling equivalent: trying to get faster climbing some short but steep hills in my town, and comparing my result with my age group on Strava. This was a humbling experience, there are a lot of fit people in my area. One of the local “king of the mountain” titles belongs to the great mountain biker Ned Overend who is in my age group, so I’m obviously never going to get close to that. But it still challenges me to do better and motivates me when I’m doing my bike intervals. When Clarence read this in an excerpt from my book, he commented “Key is to remember that the only competitor that counts is YOU”. Thanks for the reminder, Clarence. The idea is to motivate us to keep striving, not compare ourselves to others.

Lots of people thrive on longer challenges, including marathons, ultramarathons, and long triathlons. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from that, but for many of us excitement, fun, and good health can come from shorter events. Julie Carter, a British champion fellrunner, discusses the philosophy of inspiring ourselves with challenges in her inspiring book Running The Red Line. In her opinion, which I share, the key is to explore beyond your current comfort zone. This can be by going longer that you’re comfortable with or harder. I do sometimes like to push myself longer than I’m used to, for example on hikes. This can earn you superb views in places you’ve never seen before. But more often I’m going harder than currently comfortable in shorter challenges. These are not mutually exclusive and you can pursue both without overtraining. For example, once a week go longer at a brisk but comfortable pace, and one or two other times go harder for shorter.

Suggestions for shorter challenges (time yourself on these to get a baseline then try to improve over time). These are all suitable for walking, hiking, biking unless otherwise noted.

  • Find a local hill and time yourself going up it.
  • Find shorter local Strava segments to time yourself on
  • Biking: set up a short time trial route. Out and back helps so the wind is not a factor. For example, how fast can you ride a mile, or a kilometer? Find a lightly trafficked local road that it’s safe to do a u-turn on, mark off half the route so that out and back is the full distance. You can figure out the distance in advance using sites like Strava or RideWithGPS, or use a gps app on your phone or fitness tracker.
  • Paddling or rowing: a similar time trial, like how long does it take me to go to the dam and back on Lake Vasona? This may not be a nice round distance number but that doesn’t matter, you’re just seeing how you improve over time
  • Walking, time yourself up a few flights of stairs
  • On stationary machines, elliptical, treadmill, cycle, rowing machine, ski machine, etc, you can also do time trials, e.g. How long does it take you to walk a kilometer on the treadmill at 10% incline.

You get the idea, the options are endless.

Is challenging yourself necessary?

What if you already have an activity you enjoy and are getting a decent amount of physical activity doing it. Do you need to challenge yourself? Only if it motivates you or makes it more fun. If you already have a nice walk in the park you like to do and are enjoying it, don’t let me ruin it by saying you have to work on going farther or faster. As I mentioned in “Fitness motivation: making it enjoyable“, my first fitness role model was my Uncle Din who used to walk a brisk hour a day and lived to be 92. As far as I know he never intentionally worked on getting faster, he just enjoyed his walk.

On the other hand, I know some people in hiking groups that are frustrated because they are always at the back of the pack. Even though they hike often and get good exercise from it, they always go at the same speed and never improve. Maybe they’d enjoy it more if they pushed themselves a bit on some uphill sections and ended up getting a little faster.

Also, it would be really beneficial to your health if you find a challenge that motivates your to do higher intensity training: the ability to exercise at least for short periods at higher MET levels is a strong predictor of longevity. A “metabolic equivalent” or MET of 1 is how much energy you’re using sitting in a recliner. Good longevity is predicted for those who can exercise at a level that uses at least 8 times that much (or 8 METs, equivalent to running or brisk cycling) compared to people who can only achieve a more moderate level of 5 Mets [1]. Higher intensity exercise in the form of interval training also improves arterial flexibility [2], lowering risk for stroke and heart attack.


  1. Balady, G, “Survival of the Fittest- More Evidence”, NEJM, 2002
  2. Guimaraes, G, et al, “Effects of continuous vs. interval exercise training on blood pressure and arterial stiffness in treated hypertension”, Hypertension Research, 2010

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