Recess for athletes

Most part-time athletes are overscheduled, overplanned, and overworked. Sessions at the gym are sometimes your only personal time of the day. “Even then, in our workouts, there’s supposed to be a structure and you’re supposed to follow a plan to meet your target,” says Matt Berenc, the director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. And, while of course you’ll get the results you want with a tailored strategy, there are other elements that could help you get there faster and with less work. Specifically, the element of play. “When you experiment with new movements or techniques, it’s a way to ask more from your body, finding a wider range of movement, varying performance, and improving its ability for better adaptation in workouts, sports, and daily life,” Berenc says. (In fact, it's so important that Equinox opened The Playground for adults at a few of its locations.)

Add in play.

Berenc suggests categorizing your regular workouts into three types: playing, practicing, and training. “Playing is the initial foundation: experiencing it when it’s new and figuring it out,” he says. “Practice is when you’re working to own it and not worrying about intensity but just getting the movement down, and training is when you chase the intensity with reps, sets, and weight.” Most of us get the second two in the natural process of getting settled into a new program. But play is where we miss out.

Don't forget the toys.

As we get older, playing can actually seem like work. An easy way to start is, fittingly, at the beginning of your workout. Try some new movements in your warm-up, experiment with stretches or yoga moves, or even explore a workout “toy” you’re less familiar with, such as a kettlebell, medicine ball, or ViPR. Move it around, use it in some of the exercises or movement patterns you already do, get a feel for it. (If you’re really stumped, ask a trainer for some advice.)

Structure your fun (if you wish).

Freeform play isn’t for everyone, and when there are some rules to follow, it can be easier to let loose. Fartlek running, for example, when you chose landmarks (say, mailboxes or light posts) at which to speed up and slow down, gives just enough of a guideline that you don’t feel adrift. Dance classes can add desired structure while also being playful.

Recruit a fit friend.

One of the best ways to play while you work out is to bring a friend. “Play a game with your workout partner, such as medicine ball throws back and forth, or something like tag, which is the equivalent of interval sprints,” Berenc suggests.

Make it your “recovery day.”

If you’re truly a stickler for your workout routine, you don’t have to sacrifice anything in order to play: Simply use your active recovery day for an activity that’s new to you. This could be anything from a hike to an indoor rock climbing session to a pickup game of touch football—to actually playing with kids in your life. “Kids learn from play—it’s how they learn how to move, react, and socialize,” Berenc says. “There’s no reason why those benefits can’t translate for an adult.”