Ask Stew: Learning from Fitness Mistakes

Soldier trains for combat fitness test.
U.S. Army Maj. Elijah McMahan, assigned to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, trains to get the Level II Army combat fitness test certification at Hohenfels, Germany, on April 1, 2020. (Spc. Audrequez Evans/U.S. Army photo)

Whether you are a young athlete, a military member, veteran or retired from military service, you likely have experienced athletic triumphs as well as mistakes. Too often, we focus on our next fitness challenge without first learning from our past mistakes. Here is a question we asked our readers and their responses:

I think we can all be experts in making mistakes, as we are all human. During your fitness journeys throughout your life, where did you make mistakes?

Former athlete story: As a former strength/power athlete in my high school/college days, I lifted and ate whatever I wanted to get bigger -- large quantities. After sports, I kept lifting and eating well into my 30s until I was 50 pounds overweight. So the mistake was letting myself gain 50-plus pounds of fat, thinking I was gaining muscle and staying strong. It was hell to get it off in my late 30s - but lesson learned, and now I am fitter in my 40s than in my 20s.

Former athlete into special ops: I started the journey with multiple early teen sports, lifting for sports and getting bigger, then joining the military and preparing for special ops. This required changing the type of workouts into high-rep calisthenics, high-mileage running, rucking and swimming, but still mixing in lifting year-round. I was capable of handling this volume in my late teens and early 20s, spent my 20s in special-ops training/job and was broken by 30. I needed to get smarter with training. Now use Periodization models designed for tactical athletes and added variety seasonally, versus on top of other programming.

Intensity over consistency: Too often because of work schedules, time in the field, deployments, operational tempo and consistency in a program can suffer. So I would try to play catch-up on days or weeks missed with workouts and double -- even triple up workouts during the time I could train.  Also, I thought the answers to the questions posed by pursuing the performance of a tactical athlete can be found in one (type of) discipline. For example: CrossFit, triathlons, rucking/running, body weight-only training and others. A balance of these is great, and mixing them all in a macrocycle system works better for me now.

Come to the dark side -- periodization: I was afraid of periodization. I thought if I wasn’t lifting heavy and running 30 miles a week, every week, I’d lose everything I worked for. Also, it is OK to take a week off from time to time. What you choose not to do matters. Periodization is actually a great way to maintain a high level of performance year after year. You just have to arrange the cycles of athletic focus to fit your life, work and training schedule, and personal goals.

Spending money: I thought I needed a flashy gym membership at a premier gym, cool gear and challenging events as goals to get fit again. I also thought that I needed to invest $2K into a personal trainer. I just had a bad experience, which makes fitness a big turnoff.  

Didn’t push hard enough: I took it easy when getting back in shape for sports. I worked out if I felt like it and not when I should have. Whether you are an athlete or just trying to lose weight, sometimes natural athletes can be just as opposed to adding workouts to their preparation for the season as beginners are opposed to adding workouts to lose weight, get fit and healthier.

Pushed too hard. As you start progressing in fitness, the problem of trying to break plateaus and pushing limitations can border on overtraining/injury. Breaking limits is one thing, but there’s such a thing as going way too far. Plus, if a beginner or someone who has not done a fitness program in many months or even years, doing too much, too soon and too fast can have the same effects: pain, injury and demotivation.

You cannot outwork your bad diet. A bad diet will affect energy levels and performance, but also prevent weight-loss goals. My problem was thinking my diet wasn’t as essential as it actually is, with regard to maintaining my weight, health and fitness. Nutrition has to be a meal-by-meal, snack-by-snack choice for the better. Also, underestimating hydration, sleep and recovery was a big mistake.

Work smarter, not harder. I ran back-to-back 26.2[-mile] marathons and pretty much ended my running career. I wish I would have cross-trained. Also, as an athlete, I should have worked smarter, not harder. I should have also worked on the little things such as mental focus and better recovery. As a coach, like most coaches -- taking better care of myself. I definitely neglected my own health and well-being.

Adding mobility and flexibility: Not making flexibility/mobility a priority and not listening to my body was my mistake. Also, not focusing on warmup or cooldown alongside exercise as much as necessary.

These are just a few of the common mistakes made by us all throughout our journey into better health. The takeaway from this is to lighten up on yourself. We will make mistakes. Try to learn from your mistakes but even from other people’s mistakes and avoid others yourself.  

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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