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    Apr 3, 2020

    I Trained Like A Professional Athlete For 50 Days, And It Was The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

    Here's everything I did to eat and work out like the world's top athletes. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.

    I'm Spencer, and throughout the last few years I've completed a bunch of different fitness projects for BuzzFeed.

    This time, I wanted to try something that scared the hell out of me: training like a professional athlete for 50 days.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I've always been fascinated by professional athletes. There's something kind of remarkable and intimidating about them. Their bodies are their jobs, which means they're literally paid to eat, train, and live the way they do. In my mind, that means their lifestyles are pretty unrealistic and unattainable.

    But, really, when I think about professional athletes, I think about people who are so in tune with their bodies. That's something I've always struggled with, so I wanted to get a taste of that lifestyle to see if it'd help me feel more comfortable and confident in my own body.

    Aside from eating and training like a professional athlete, I also had a separate goal of completing 100 workouts in those 50 days, since most professional athletes train twice a day.

    Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed, Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Professional athletes often work out twice a day, and they have endless resources at their fingertips, so I had to be smart about how I was going to complete this challenge. In order to avoid injury, my 100 workouts were going to be a balance of high-intensity work and recovery work (a mixture of everything from weightlifting, to group fitness classes, to yoga). I also reached out to trainer and registered dietitian Albert Matheny, the founder of SoHo Strength Lab, for his approval because I wanted to make sure this project would actually be safe for me to do.

    My main objective for this fitness challenge is to be as service-y as possible to you, the reader. Obviously everyone's bodies and experiences are different, but consider this article an open and honest testimony about my journey. Here's what happened.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    I'm not a personal trainer. I often struggle with not knowing what exercises to do at the gym, and a lot of the time I run low on motivation to even work out. This 50-day challenge was going to be difficult enough, so I didn't want to add the pressure of creating a bunch of new workouts, too. I didn't need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, I planned on following a lot of the same workouts I did during my other fitness challenges.

    When I trained like a professional gymnast, I alternated between these two conditioning workouts. The first was for my upper body, and the second was for my lower body.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    These conditioning exercises really helped me build up my endurance. I was also lifting heavier than normal, so I packed on quite a bit of muscle by the time the challenge was over.

    Side note: If you're looking for a little comfort and consistency while self-isolating, social distancing, or quarantining during the coronavirus pandemic, these at-home workouts are great for all fitness levels.

    I also completed a morning warm-up during that gymnastics challenge. This was going to be the inspiration for some of my new recovery workouts.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    This routine was pretty laborious because it consisted of a lot of moving parts, so I broke it down and focused on singular exercises for my recovery workouts. These were going to help my body deal with fatigue and soreness.

    As a result, my recovery workouts revolved around things like yoga, stretching, cardio, and ab exercises (basically anything that'd help me stretch out my body, relax a bit, and give my muscles the rest they were desperately going to need).

    In addition to my gymnastics workouts, I also copied ones from when I trained like a professional model. These additional workouts would help prevent the challenge from getting monotonous and boring.

    Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

    I knew that I'd be following a strict schedule during this 50-day challenge, so I wanted to make it as fun and exciting as possible. Changing up my workouts would help keep things fresh, and it'd also help me find new ways to fall in love with fitness that'd actually make me want to work out (rather than only doing the same two workouts over and over again, which would make exercising feel more like a chore).

    There were four total workouts from that particular challenge, and you can find them all here.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    The next 50 days weren't just about the gym. After all, half of every fitness journey should take place in the kitchen.

    Meal-prepping was going to be a huge lifesaver. My mornings and nights were going to be spent at the gym, so I wouldn't have the time or energy to cook new meals every single day.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Being a professional athlete is a full-time job in itself, and I already have a full-time job at BuzzFeed (I don't take time off to do these fitness challenges), so this was going to be a complete lifestyle change. My early mornings would be spent at the gym, the rest of my days would be spent at the office, and after that I'd head back to the gym again. Meal-prepping all of my snacks and dinners meant that I didn't have to waste precious recovery and sleep time in the kitchen.

    I tried to eat at least 3,000 calories each day. This was super important for me because I'd be working out a lot more than usual.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I was already eating pretty healthily before this challenge, but I wanted to increase my carb intake because my body was going to need that extra fuel. Most of my daily carbs were consumed in the morning (before and after my higher-intensity workout) because that was when my body would need the energy the most.

    I'd also drink one ProMix protein shake (this isn't sponsored or anything – I just genuinely love the taste of them) before my first workout and a second protein shake after that workout. This helped me hit my protein goal of one gram of protein per pound that I weigh, so about 160 grams.

    Here's what a typical day's worth of food would look like:

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    The biggest thing for me was making sure that I didn't go to the gym on an empty stomach. I also continued to stay away from alcohol and soda (I've personally never been a fan of either, but if you're working on your own fitness journey then I'd definitely suggest cutting them down or out completely), and I drank a lotttttt of water.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed
    Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

    It doesn't escape me for one moment that my body is already closer to the "ideal" men's body type, so I want to take this moment to acknowledge my own privilege. However, I think it's important to note that my fitness journey is never-ending, and so are my goals. Doing these projects helps me push my body and stay motivated, and I'm always looking for new ways to challenge myself, so I'm excited to get started.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    I started my fitness challenge on January 1, 2020, the first day of the new year and decade. I knew most people on Instagram would be setting their own goals, so I hoped that my challenge would align with their resolutions. That way we'd all be able to hold each other accountable and keep each other motivated while also moving at our own paces.

    I was nervous and excited to get started, but it quickly dawned on me how overwhelming and exhausting this project would be. This was going to be a complete lifestyle change.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I've never been the type of person who half-asses anything – if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it well – and I certainly wasn't going to make an exception for this fitness challenge. If I wanted to succeed, I knew that I'd have to shape my whole life around my workouts. After all, professional athletes devote everything to their sports.

    It's also important to note that the key to any fitness journey is making sure your body gets enough rest. I knew this would be a little more difficult for me since I'd be working out twice a day for 50 days without any time off. My recovery workouts were going to play a huge factor in this, and I was also shooting for eight hours of sleep every night.

    I'd done enough fitness challenges to know that my body would be sore during the first few days, but I was so unprepared for just how sore I'd actually be. Everything hurt.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    The great thing about this challenge was that it pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and try exercises I hadn't done in a while or wasn't super familiar with. This also meant that my body got really, really sore during the first week. My challenges usually only revolve around one particular body part (like when I did 100 squats a day for a month or 100 pull-ups a day for a month), so feeling a full-body soreness like this was a new experience that made me second-guess everything.

    But as my soreness subsided, the challenge started to get more manageable. I'm also type-A and a creature of habit, so I found comfort in having to follow such a precise schedule. This made it easier for me to stay on track.

    I also underestimated how packed the gym would be at night. It was actually kind of discouraging and made working out a lot harder.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I'm 100% a morning person. I like going to the gym before work because it's normally empty, and that gives me extra time and space to focus on my own thing. I also make healthier decisions throughout the day after I work out: I'm less tempted to eat bad snacks at work, I'm more likely to walk or take the stairs, and I substitute healthier options into my meals.

    But doing two gym sessions each day meant that I also had to work out at night. This quickly became my nightmare, as the gym was always so packed. Part of me was happy that so many people were keeping up with their resolutions and staying active, but the selfish side of me felt overwhelmed and discouraged and out of place due to its crowdedness.

    These second workouts also meant that I didn't get home until 8 p.m. on most nights. The last thing I wanted to do after a long day was cook a new dinner from scratch, so I was glad I'd meal-prepped earlier in the week. Still, by the time I re-heated my dinner and ate everything, it was basically time for bed. This challenge was exhausting.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    The occasional lack of space and equipment at the gym was kind of disheartening, but it forced me to get creative with some of my workouts, especially when I wasn't feeling motivated.

    The second week of the challenge was the hardest. I was so physically and emotionally drained, and that seriously impacted the little motivation I had left to work out.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    A lot of people ask me how I stay motivated to work out, but the truth is that I really struggle with it. I sometimes have to force myself to go to the gym, and other times I skip it entirely.

    It'd be unrealistic for me to assume that every single workout (especially if I'm doing 100 in 50 days) was going to be great. This experience has been incredibly humbling because it reminded me that sometimes my heart just won't be in it, and that's totally okay. I didn't need to focus on my bad workouts because the next day I had two more that I could try to make better.

    The easiest way to combat my low motivation was to switch things up by taking group fitness classes and working out with friends.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Professional athletes get paid millions of dollars to do their jobs. That's a huge part of their motivation. They also see immediate results every day during practice and while playing against other teams. That obviously wasn't the case for me, so I tried to simulate it as much as possible by taking group fitness classes and working out with friends.

    I grew up in a family where academic excellence and athletic excellence weren't optional, so I'm grossly competitive. That's why I liked working out with friends. On days when I felt particularly unmotivated, I was able to rely on them to hold me accountable and push me at the gym. This supplied me with a sense of security and consistency.

    Group fitness classes also offered this similar change of pace. Even though no one really focused on what other people did during class, the group setting made me work harder. It also helped me clear my head because I didn't have to totally rely on myself at the gym – I could do whatever the instructors said and then zone out.

    I also reminded myself that it's totally possible to complete some great workouts without even being inside a gym.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I truly hate running. I've never liked it, and I don't think I ever will. But the trick is to find some aspect of fitness that you do enjoy, otherwise you're probably not going to keep up with it. That's why I caved a few months ago and bought a Citi Bike membership (they had a Black Friday deal, okay?!).

    Biking is a fun and mindless activity that keeps me active, whether I'm on a short commute to the office or on a weekend trek around the entire city. I also don't want my workouts to feel like workouts, so this was a great substitute to running on the treadmill at a crowded gym.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    I personally don't think it does any good to obsess over the numbers on a scale, so I don't like weighing myself. But by Week Three I was lifting heavier and my shirts felt a little tighter on me, so I could tell that the challenge was working.

    I wanted to see how much stronger I'd actually gotten, so I set out to do 100 pull-ups as fast as possible. Somehow I broke my record by five minutes!

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    It’s great to have an overall fitness goal, but I also like setting mini goals that are more easily attainable and don’t take as long to complete. That way I can celebrate those smaller victories. My favorite exercise at the gym is the pull-up, so I like timing myself to see how quickly I can do 100 of them. My previous record was 100 pull-ups in 21 minutes, but this time I somehow did them in just 16 minutes. I was so proud of myself, and this was proof that I was getting stronger.

    It's so important to set goals for yourself that don’t strictly revolve around the number of pounds you’ve lost or gained. Like, I couldn’t do a single pull-up a couple years ago. I started off by setting small and smart goals for myself, and then I went bigger. My first goal was to do a single pull-up. Then five. Then 10. And now I just did 100 in 16 minutes.

    I also started following random yoga flows on YouTube so I could do some at-home recovery workouts. I'm a beginner when it comes to yoga, but no one was going to judge me in my apartment.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Gyms can be intimidating. It's totally normal to not feel comfortable in them. That's exactly how I felt when I first started working out. But as I got more familiar with different exercises, I felt more confident and was more open to working out in front of people. Something that really helped me was watching tutorials on YouTube.

    I'm not a beginner anymore when it comes to lifting weights, but I'm definitely a beginner with yoga. I don't know the names of most poses, and I'm not super flexible, but doing at-home workouts from YouTube videos has helped me get better.

    By the end of Week Three, it really hit me how unrealistic this challenge is. Completing 100 workouts in 50 days is something only professional athletes and top fitness trainers do, and I’m neither of those things.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    The project is still fun for me, but it's also very overwhelming. My body is sore most of the time, and I’m physically and emotionally drained. Even doing 100 workouts in 100 days would be a lot, so completing them in half the time is kind of wild and unnecessary.

    These fitness projects are very hard work, and even though I complain a lot during them I do genuinely love seeing how far I can healthily push my body. Still, this is not an everyday-person kind of challenge, and I don’t suggest you do it. I also don’t want anyone to think that they need to work out this much in order to see results. I don’t want to give people unrealistic expectations and have them think that this is a quick fix to whatever fitness goals they’re shooting for. That’s not the point of this project.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a lot of additional resources that helped me through this (i.e. getting clearance from a trainer and registered dietician before I even started this project). Everyone’s bodies are different, so set your own realistic goals and go at your own pace.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    A lot of people determine their success based on how they look. I don't think that's particularly healthy. I've learned over the years that you need to be on your fitness journey for the right reasons, or else you probably won't be able to stick with it. I like to look at my success in terms of what I can accomplish: Am I completing more reps? Am I lifting heavier weights? Am I running faster or for longer periods of time?

    I definitely built up my endurance over the last month, so I wanted to test my progress by taking back-to-back fitness classes. I was even able to survive the torture without needing an inhaler.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I love HIIT (high-intensity interval training) classes because they're tough full-body workouts. I'm always drenched in sweat by the time class is over, and that makes me feel like I put in a lot of hard work.

    I decided to do back-to-back HIIT classes, just to test my body's limits. The first class was a mixture of treadmill work and cable machines. I took the class with a friend, so we turned it into a competition and went mile for mile and pound for pound against each other. This pushed me to run the fastest I'd ever run before: 15 mph.

    I then rushed to my second class where I met a different friend. I thought my body would be exhausted and I'd need to take it easy, but I had built up my endurance so much throughout this challenge that I was able to complete everything without needing my inhaler. It was oddly fun to do both classes in a row, and I was especially happy because it meant I could skip my nightly gym session and go straight home after work.

    It was surprisingly easy to keep up with my 3,000-calorie goal. I ate whenever my body was hungry, and I didn't deprive myself of any cravings.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I don't like the word "diet." It has a negative connotation to me and also feels super limiting. I also don't like when people suggest that you have to "earn" your cravings, i.e. "I worked out today, so I deserve this pizza." I think that can be super detrimental to someone's fitness journey. This isn't a diet, it's a lifestyle change, so understand that it's okay to eat ice cream or pasta or a bagel whether you worked out or not. It's all about moderation and portion control.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    I finally crossed Day 30, which usually marked the final day of my fitness challenges. It surprisingly went by quickly. I'd never seen anyone do this type of challenge before, so I didn't really know what the results were supposed to look like. All I knew was that I was feeling stronger and lifting heavier, and I liked that.

    I wasn't off to the best start with Week Five. I was sick throughout one night and knew I'd have to skip my morning workout.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself throughout this challenge. Completing 100 workouts in 50 days seemed like a fun goal, but getting sick really messed with that plan. My body was physically telling me "no," so I knew I had to listen to it. I ultimately skipped both workouts that day, resulting in one of the best night's sleep I'd gotten in a long time.

    I first felt guilty about having to skip those workouts, but then I reminded myself that life happens, and some things are out of my control. Even though I was behind by two workouts, I knew I could make them up over the weekend. Rest was way more important.

    Event though Week Five didn't start off the best, I ended it on a high note: I finally did my first muscle-up!

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I was working out with a friend and saw him do a muscle-up. I hadn't attempted one in years, but he inspired me to try again. Somehow I was able to do it on my first try. Even more, I did four consecutive muscle-ups the following day. I knew that I had built up my strength over the years, but I never really tested it. I was ecstatic.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    I planned this challenge at a time when I had nothing holding me back in my personal life. That way I could devote everything to it. But outside of this project, it'd be completely unrealistic to keep up with this lifestyle unless your job revolved around fitness.

    The hardest part was going to the gym in the morning when it was still dark outside, and then leaving the gym at night when it was dark again. Even though I had a full day between those workouts, it all started to blur together and felt like nothing really happened.

    There were days when I truly did not want to be in the gym. When that happened, I'd put time limits on my workouts.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Putting a time limit on my workout made everything feel more like a game instead of something I was forced to do. I also felt compelled to push myself even harder since I'd be at the gym for a shorter amount of time.

    One night I only gave myself 30 minutes to get in the best workout I could. I started with weighted push-ups with an extra 25 pounds. I completed the first 50 in nine minutes, and then I did a second 50 in another nine minutes. I ended the workout with 50 pull-ups just before my timer went off. I may not have wanted to be at the gym when I started that workout, but by the time I left I was happy I put in the work.

    I usually saved my bigger and longer workouts for weekend mornings. That's when the gym was almost completely empty.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    My body wasn't capable of sleeping in, so I'd go to the gym on weekends as soon as it opened. It was always empty, which meant there weren't any distractions, and I didn't have to wait to use any equipment. I usually took advantage of this by squatting, deadlifting, or doing weighted pull-ups.

    One morning I decided to do 100 pull-ups with an extra 50 pounds of weight on me. I was pretty much the only one in the gym, so I didn't give myself a time limit. Also, I truly didn't know if I'd be able to do it. I took things slowly and did supersets with reps of two (two weighted pull-ups, then two push-ups) until I completed 100 of each. My arms felt like Jell-O by the end of the workout, but I loved it.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    It was finally the last week of the challenge. I couldn't wait for it to be over. I wanted my life back, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    I really struggled during the final week of the challenge because I wanted to finish strong and push myself extra hard, but I also knew that I had to do what was healthy.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    These challenges put me in a peculiar position because most people who click into my fitness articles only care about what my "before and after" pictures look like. They skim through what I've written or disregard it entirely, and they judge my success based solely on those two photos. The comments usually read "I don't even see a difference" or "he should have lifted legs more" or "this guy is so full of himself," which completely undermine all of my hard work.

    I'm not saying this to make myself sound like a victim (listen, I totally understand how privileged I am to be fit and have an able body and afford a gym membership), but it does present an interesting moral dilemma: Do I kill myself at the gym during this final week just to increase my chances of a better "after" picture for the readers, or do I listen to my body that's telling me to go at a healthy pace? Every single time, I choose the latter.

    The challenge was almost over, so I wanted to test my strength and endurance one last time by trying to beat my personal record with pull-ups again.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I kept crushing my PR for pull-ups throughout the month. Before starting, my record was 100 pull-ups in 21 minutes. A few weeks ago I got that down to 16 minutes. Then 15 minutes. This time, I got it down to 12 minutes and 38 seconds, something I truly never thought my body would be capable of doing.

    This is why I do these challenges. It’s not really for the physical transformations. I like to set goals and break my own personal records. I like feeling faster and stronger and healthier.

    I completed my 100th workout on the final day of the challenge. This was a full-circle moment for me because it was also the four-year anniversary of when I first started my fitness journey.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I made sure my 100th workout was a group fitness class with friends. Over the years, I learned that I didn't have to be on my fitness journey alone, so I wanted to end the challenge with some of the people who supported me along the way.

    The last four years (and especially the last 50 days) have been incredibly difficult for me. This challenge was one of the most physically and emotionally taxing things I've ever done, and I couldn't have completed it by myself. I'm so proud of how far I've come, and I can't wait to see what the next four years look like.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed
    Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

    To be honest, 50 days isn't a lot of time to see giant physical transformations in someone's body. I personally see some changes though. I also took a bioimpedence test before and after the challenge to get a more accurate reading of my body's progress. My arms and shoulders definitely got bigger, my abs look way more defined, and even my chicken legs put on a little muscle. Even though my weight stayed the same throughout the project (157 pounds), my body fat percentage decreased from 13% to 10.2%, so I actually lost some fat but added quite a bit of muscle.

    Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

    Besides the physical changes, I accomplished so many things throughout this fitness project. I built up my endurance to the point where I could take back-to-back HIIT classes without needing an inhaler, I completed my first muscle-up, I ran the fastest I'd ever run before, I beat my record by doing 100 pull-ups in under 13 minutes, and I got a lot more flexible and in tune with my body. Overall, I feel a lot stronger and healthier, and I'd call that a success.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    This was my sixth fitness challenge for BuzzFeed, and it was also the most unrealistic. I was sore and tired and overwhelmed most of the time, and I think that proves just how unattainable it is to live and train like a professional athlete.

    I truly love to see what my body is capable of and how far I can healthily push myself, but everyone wants to see results quickly, and that's just not how it works. It takes a lot of time and determination and consistency to see progress, whether you want to run your first marathon or just take the stairs without getting out of breath. I've worked very hard for several years to get to where I am now, and I still struggle quite a bit, so don’t be disheartened if you don't hit your goals or see progress as quickly as you'd like to.

    Overall, this whole experience was incredibly humbling. It reminded me that I don't need to determine my self-worth by comparing myself to other people (especially professional athletes who train for several hours every day, have unlimited resources at their disposal, and are paid to look that way). All I can do is compare my current self to my older self.

    If you want to keep up with the rest of my fitness journey and BuzzFeed challenges, you can follow me on Instagram @SpencerAlthouse.