Why You Should Choose Health Before Fitness


, by Matt Fitzgerald

Photography by: Alexis S/ peopleimages.com

Endurance training affects nearly every organ and system of the body, which is pretty cool. But what’s even cooler is that these changes have positive effects on both health and fitness.

For example, endurance training increases VO2max, or the body’s capacity to derive energy from oxygen, which is proven to boost endurance performance and longevity. The same training strengthens the body’s immune and antioxidant systems as well, enhancing post-workout recovery and increasing training tolerance while also protecting the body against infectious diseases and certain cancers. And it even promotes neuroplasticity and enhances brain function, reducing age-related cognitive decline and lowering dementia risk at the same time it improves mental focus and endurance during exercise.

MORE FROM MATT: Get Better Faster: Master the Fundamentals Before Seeking “Marginal Gains”

I could go on, but you get the point. Most athletes think of health and fitness as two separate things—related but distinct. But it’s more accurate to say that fitness is an extension of health. As an athlete, you simply cannot be fitter than you are healthy because fitness is nothing more than an extra scoop of health, so to speak. Too many athletes lose sight of this fact and make choices that sabotage their health in the pursuit of fitness. These shortcuts may sometimes pay off in the short term, but in the long run they inevitably lead to negative consequences for both fitness and health.

Here are four common health-harming fitness shortcuts to avoid:


To get fit you have to train hard. But it’s possible to train too hard, and highly motivated athletes often do as a result of missing signs that they’re overtaxing their body. The simple fact is that athletes should feel pretty good in the majority of their workouts. The most reliable early indicator of overtraining is a trend toward feeling merely okay in training sessions.

Photography by: peopleimages.com

Take a cue from two-time Olympic marathon gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge, who told one interviewer, “I try not to run 100 percent. I perform 80 percent on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and then at 50 percent Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.” If it works for history’s greatest male marathoner, it will work for you!


Believing that lighter is better, many athletes reduce their food intake to a level that is insufficient to support the energy demands of intensive training, a condition known as relative energy deficiency in sport, or RED-S. Although such restrictions do sometimes yield immediate performance benefits, athletes always regret them in the end. Just ask Jake Riley, who was the top American at the 2019 Chicago Marathon and placed second at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon before falling off a cliff, finishing 29th at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and dropping out of the 2022 Boston Marathon, which led to his being diagnosed with RED-S.

RELATED: Understanding Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-s)

If you wish to make dietary changes that improve your athletic performance now and in the long run, start by increasing the quality of your food choices instead of reducing the quantity of food you eat.


Training for endurance events can be quite time-consuming. Where does the time come from? Athletes often make room for extra training in their busy day by setting an early wake-up alarm, trusting that replacing an hour of sleep with an hour exercise will put them ahead fitness-wise. Alas, science suggests this is a fool’s bargain.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your athletic performance is to care a little less about your athletic performance.

In one study, competitive cyclists and triathletes completed time trials after sleeping either their normal amount, 30 percent less than normal, or 30 percent more than normal for three nights. On average, these athletes performed 3 percent worse after reduced sleep compared to normal sleep, and 3 percent better after extended sleep than after normal sleep.

The lesson is clear: Don’t put training before sleep. Either limit your training to the hours available after a full night’s rest or combine early wakeups with an earlier bedtime that creates space for extra training without sacrificing time in the sack.

RELATED: Beyond Mileage: Embracing an Holistic Approach to Training

Sport-life Imbalance

The mental component of overall health is as important as any other. Athletes who become overly obsessed with their sport may compromise their mental health by neglecting other important aspects of their life. Ironically, athletes who maintain a healthy sport-life balance not only are happier than those who put all their eggs in one basket but also perform better.

Photography by: Jacob Lund

A case in point is professional runner Grayson Murphy, who gave up a highly coveted roster slot on the NAZ Elite team due to anxiety caused by the one-sided lifestyle she felt compelled to adopt. “For better or worse, I am a person that needs more than running in my life to be fulfilled and feel happy,” she explained on her blog. So Murphy moved home to Utah and took up a more balanced lifestyle that included entrepreneurship, socializing, mental health advocacy, and mountain climbing. The effect on her running was profoundly positive, leading Murphy to four national championship titles and two world championship gold medals in mountain running.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your athletic performance is to care a little less about your athletic performance.

Having It All

The message of this article is not that athletes like you should choose health over fitness. It’s that you shouldn’t choose fitness over health. When you put fitness first, you get neither. But when you prioritize health, you get both.