Stronger than you knowSometimes I look back on my younger self and wish I could tell myself: GET WITH THE PROGRAM!

Especially when it comes to fitness (and yes, maybe a few life decisions too, but those are stories best left untold, at least online).

Basically, I hope you can benefit from my mistakes.

In my own defense, I am a product of my time. I came of age fitness-wise in the 80s.

This meant I ate Snackwell cookies because fat was bad and carbs were good. It meant I was a carb-loading vegetarian for years (there is nothing wrong with this, necessarily, but I didn’t always do it the right way).

It meant I did a lot of cardio and had a set of dumbbells at home weighing all the way up to 8 pounds. I did eventually get some 20s, but only after being warned against it by the guy at the sporting goods store who sold them to me, and I only ever used them for bent-over rows.

And I thought some of my workouts were extremely badass. And it’s not that they weren’t challenging but maybe the workouts weren’t as badass as I thought, because I had no idea what I was capable of.

Here are my three things. What are yours?

I wish I had gotten my diet figured out earlier.

I was lucky enough to grow up eating three squares a day – protein, starch, veggies. Because my dad had Type 1 diabetes our family ate a very balanced diet. Every dinner had some kind of meat or protein (eggs, steak, fish, whatever), starch (potatoes!) and veggies. For lunch maybe it was a sandwich and an apple. It was pretty perfect, actually.

But then in my late teens I decided to become a vegetarian. I had no blueprint for this kind of eating except the one offered in the book Diet for A Small Planet, which suggested mixing different kinds of foods to build a complete amino acid profile in each meal, ensuring adequate protein.

Basically this meant I ate a lot of pasta with veggies and parmesan cheese. According to the book, I was on-track, especially if the veggies included peas, a legume.

And for staying relatively healthy and fit I probably was getting the protein I needed, but I wasn’t getting enough to meet my goals or necessarily even thrive. I was tired a lot and if I didn’t eat at regular intervals I’d get dizzy and I had a lot of headaches.

Eventually I reintroduced chicken, fish and then even beef into my diet. I read magazines that told me to eat “enough” or “more” protein, and I thought I was until took some classes and I actually analyzed my food intake.

Oops. Like a lot of women who are into fitness, I thought I was doing better with my protein intake than I actually was. Once I figured out how eat for my body type/activities, things fell into place.

But while I’m happy with where I’m at now fitness-wise, I can’t help but occasionally wonder if things would have been different if I’d gotten the diet sorted earlier, especially because at the same time …

I focused too much on cardio.

In fact, I was focusing entirely on cardio.

It was the era of cardio, after all. Except we called it aerobics. I tried to get at least 45 minutes of cardio every single day, and it was pretty much entirely of the steady-state variety (hard enough so I couldn’t sing but easy enough so I could talk without getting too winded).

Don’t get me wrong: I love feeling cardiovascularly fit. It makes me happy to be able to break into a run whenever I want, or sprint up some stairs or even do weighted burpees. I take great joy in being able to catch air during the leaps when I teach my Sh’bam dance cardio classes. It is fun to be able to move freely without gasping for breath or feeling sluggish.

It’s just that I feel like I missed out on the best muscle-building years of my life. I did occasionally pick up some dumbbells and was especially proud of my biceps curls with the 6 pounders. Which were awesome, but the thing is, I didn’t have any idea I could (or perhaps should) lift heavier weights than that.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I wish I could whisper in my youthful ear: GO TO THE GYM AND TRY THE 10s (or the 15s or 20s or more). Which leads me to the most important one ….

I am stronger/tougher than I thought

This one could be several posts (maybe even several books) all on its own, but I will keep it brief and save the long version for another day.

The bottom line is I didn’t do a workout that really profoundly challenged me till I was 45 years old. This workout changed my whole attitude and my fitness has never been the same since.

I had just finished my first figure competition but what I really wanted to do was a fitness show (you know, the competitions that include routines featuring planches, one-arm pushups, high kicks and jumps). I started training to do all that stuff.

One morning I attacked a crazy workout my coach had sent me – there were split jumps, 360-degree jumps, plyo pushups, there was bounding, static holds, all in a row. And then there were more of them. And then it finished with some sprints, which I did outside because I hate treadmill sprints.

I remember during the workout that I felt awesome – in fact, I wondered how I uncovered all this power and endurance.

After the cool down I was really proud of what I’d accomplished. I’d never played sports as a kid so I wasn’t used to pushing like that, and I realized I liked it.

But then I didn’t feel so good. I got dizzy, I broke a sweat, and I felt like I was going to throw up or pass out or maybe both at the same time. In fact, I thought there was a high likelihood I was going to die. And I was too embarrassed to tell anyone.

I imagined the newspaper headline: Trainer Dies After Workout. Not cool.

So I went outside and sat on the curb and stared off into the distance (my little trick for feeling better after a hard workout). But no matter what I couldn’t get my bearings, and I wondered if I was going to have to ask someone call 911 for me. Then I started to panic, and that made everything worse – and then my feet and hands went numb.

At that point I realized I was psyching myself out. I didn’t trust my body – or even, on some level, myself.

So I shakily got myself up, walked inside the gym, drank some water and then a little Gatorade, talked to some friends and before long I was feeling back to normal.

But after that workout I knew I had been holding myself back when it came to my workouts. I didn’t want to go through the awful post-workout feeling I’d had that day, but I also knew that over the years I had been unintentionally sandbagging.

The workout helped change my mindset from: “There’s no way I can lift/jump/do that!” to “I wonder if I can lift/jump/do that?”

The second version is a lot more fun.

What are your three things? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re looking for some accountability and support in your fitness pursuits, join my free private Facebook group — Wendy’s Warriors – and join like-minded people working on their own fitness.