Before you even say it, no, the title isn’t a jab at CrossFitters. This has nothing to do with what sport or activity you choose to pursue, only how you pursue it. It could be CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting or golf.
With the proliferation of information and exposure to different training methodologies on the internet that we’ve seen in the last couple years in particular, the lines between athletes and exercisers is often blurred or forgotten (or not even understood to exist).
So what makes you an athlete, and what makes you an exerciser? If you compete, you must be an athlete, right? But what if you train twice weekly and do a local weightlifting meet or a CrossFit competition in your gym twice a year? I don’t think competing is the defining characteristic of an athlete, although I do think it’s an important element. What matters is how you manage training within life and your mindset and intentions.
Why does it matter which you are? Because even if both athletes and exercisers do many of the same things, HOW they do them is often different, and without knowing which you are, you may be going about your business in a way that’s not ideal. Keep in mind as you read that these labels are not value judgments—exercisers aren’t bad people or inferior to athletes, they simply have different priorities and goals. The point of the article is to help you determine how to do what you’re doing in the best possible way.
An athlete builds the rest of his or her life around training and competition; an exerciser fits training in around the rest of his or her life. Obviously there is a gradient here, not just polar opposites. Weightlifting is a good example of this—except the handful at the Olympic training center, weightlifters have to worry about jobs and find ways to balance them with their training, but work is secondary to training and competition for the athlete rather than primary as it is for the exerciser. But if you believe yourself to be an athlete (or want to be), training, recovery and competition need to be your first priorities, not considerations you make after everything else in your life is already settled.
Purpose & Goals
An athlete’s purpose and goals are entirely performance-oriented. Their training is geared toward reaching certain performance goals such as weights, times or scores. There isn’t direct work for appearance or health; this doesn’t mean athletes don’t value these things, but it does mean they’re incidental to the real purpose of training. Exercisers may have performance goals, but there is more of a concern for health, fitness and likely appearance. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course—who thinks being healthy is a stupid goal?—but the mindset is totally different. This will also factor in to other elements, such as expectations for pain and injury and the way those things are managed (see below). Determine what your priorities are—are you willing to set everything else aside in order to achieve a performance goal, or is something like long term health or your appearance important enough to you that you need to modify the performance-oriented parts of your training to accommodate these other goals?
Progress & Ability
An exerciser shouldn’t expect to make progress at the same rate as an athlete, and should expect his or her ultimate ability to never reach the same level as his or her athlete counterpart. This is really just the product of the time and effort differential. An athlete training 20 or more hours/week whose lifestyle is conducive to that training and the recovery there from will be able to accomplish more than the exerciser who squeezes an hour or so of training in a few days each week when work, family and vacation schedules happen to allow. Some of you exercisers may actually have more potential than some of you athletes, but you won’t reach it if it isn’t a priority for you and you don’t do what’s needed to.
Pain, Injuries & Treatment
Anyone who does anything physical at some point will experience pain and at least minor injuries. Generally athletes will experience pain and injury more frequently and of a greater degree, but serious injury among exercisers seems to be more common these days.
Personally, I believe exercisers should expect to stay healthier than athletes, although among a seemingly growing population in the CrossFit community, this mindset is changing—that is, non-competitive individuals who train only for recreation, fun and/or health/fitness are accepting serious and regular injury as part of their training more and more. I don’t think this represents the majority by any means, but it’s definitely more than it was a few years ago.
Athletes are willing to risk injury and cope with pain more in order to reach their performance goals, and this is much more reasonable and rational than an exerciser doing the same. If your goals are to be healthy, fit and reasonably physically attractive, slings, surgeries and limps don’t make a lot of sense. If you’re an athlete, you want to avoid these things also, but not because they’re unhealthy, because they slow you down from reaching your performance goals. And when injuries do occur, athletes will manage them differently than exercisers.
For an exerciser, managing an injury is about truly healing and preventing any further damage—it’s a long-term perspective that includes considerations like whether or not they’ll be able to chase their grandkids around or get on and off the toilet without assistance. For an athlete, managing an injury is more about getting back to training as quickly as possible with as little loss of progress as possible—the perspective is more immediate, with considerations focused more on competition performances and the training leading up to them than how their knees might feel in twenty years if they continue to push this hard.
Things like ice and drugs come into play here. In my opinion, the exerciser should make it a goal to use anti-inflammatories as little as possible. First, as I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t make sense to be driving so hard that you find yourself in need of them on any regular basis. Second, if health is a primary concern, don’t subject your body to the effects of drugs. If something is hurting, take care of the source of the problem, heal it up and don’t repeat it. You have the option to do this in the most thorough way and not have to be in a big rush.
Athletes, on the other hand, often will have to manage pain and injuries in ways that are not the healthiest but can get them back to training faster or keep them training through a problem well enough to get them through an upcoming competition. In these cases, the healing part is deferred in a sense, and coping is the goal. This is where anti-inflammatories in often large doses and icing for inflammation and pain reduction for the purpose of continued training make sense—you do what you need to do to get through the injury temporarily, and then take care of it the right way when your competition and training schedule allows it.
Where Do You Fall on the Spectrum?
Figure out where you fall on the spectrum of athlete to exerciser. Clearly understand your purpose and your priorities. Once you do, you’ll be able to make smart choices and train, recover and think in the way that best supports your goals.