While the details of how we do it vary tremendously, the essential purpose of training is universal.

Chances are that if you are reading this article you are already an avid fitness junkie. Now I’m not here to judge you, in fact I have been accused of the very same crime myself. Unfortunately it is quite easy for those of us who have a love for fitness to lose perspective and forget why we train in the first place.

Whether we desire our future self to be leaner, more muscular, faster, stronger, or more skilled, the ultimate implication is this: what we do in the gym today matters only in so much as it will positively influence who we are or what we are capable of in the future. We train so that we can be better tomorrow than we are today.

There is one problem–human beings are remarkably shortsighted creatures. We often care more about what we accomplish in the gym today than what benefits we will reap tomorrow. There is a time and place for this type of mentality. It’s called competition and its rules are different from those of training. In competition the goal is simple: to move faster, lift more weight, or score more points than the opposition. Success is measured in wins and losses and there’s very little room for worrying about improving future performance.

Trying to move faster, lift more weight, or scoring more points may still sound like training, but there is one difference. Competition has many rules, but training has only one–be better tomorrow than you are today.

Let’s say you’re a marathon runner 21 miles into your biggest race of the year. You are fatigued and gradually becoming more and more aware of your declining technique. Your pelvis is swaying side to side and you feel your feet slap against the ground with every stride. Do you stop running? Not if you have any desire to be a competitive athlete. But what should you do if you confront this same scenario in training? To find your answer simply ask yourself “will continuing on make me a better runner?” If you’re simply a little fatigued the answer may be “yes”, but if your running mechanics are a train wreck, your joints are taking a beating, and you’ve still got another 10 miles scheduled today it might be worth reconsidering your plans.

Let’s switch sports. Imagine that you are a competitive power lifter and lately those heavy back squats have been really bothering your lower back. You are scheduled to squat in a competition this weekend and you have two choices: forfeit and lose all chance of winning, or compete and risk aggravating your injury. But what if you are scheduled to perform heavy back squats in training rather than competition? Now instead of two options you have a nearly infinite number of choices. You could lighten the load and perform a higher rep workout, you could switch to a front squat or high bar back squat which loads the spine in a more upright posture, or you could perform any number of other leg or back exercises to strengthen your weak areas while avoiding an exacerbation of your injury.

One more switch. Now you’re a CrossFit Athlete. Your sport emphasizes power and work capacity. You train against the clock so that every workout can be compared to your past performances and to the performance of everyone within the community that you train with. In competition you will have to use the same load as every other athlete in your division. But do the same rules apply to your training? Do you have to use the same weight as everyone else? Do you have to do the same volume of training? Do you even have to worry about the time on the clock? The answer to each of these questions is simple: say  yes, if it will make for a better future you, and no, if it will not.

Please don’t get me wrong. My message is not that every athlete and fitness enthusiast needs to slow down or shy away from heavy weight. Quite the contrary, if you ask yourself “What will make me better tomorrow than I am today?” the answer is often to push harder and force yourself to confront your weaknesses. If you are honest with yourself, however, you will find that the answer to this question is ever changing. Sometimes we need to slow down, other times we need to speed up. Training should not be easy, but it should be adaptable. It should challenge you beyond what you thought possible, but it should always allow for one thing: to be better tomorrow than you are today.

Ready to train with purpose? Read this:

How Do You Choose A Good Coach?

I Came to be Awesome at Crossfit, Not Skinny

How to Play Nice in a Competitive Relationship