The joy of micro-milestones: why it’s important to celebrate small fitness wins

It’s easy to think your fitness progress doesn’t matter if you’re not running a marathon or entering a sporting competition. But celebrating your small milestones is hugely important, says senior writer Chloe Gray. 

Amid post-lockdown summer plans and a house move, it’s safe to say that exercise hasn’t been my priority. My fitness levels are feeling a little lacklustre and progressive overload is a non-existent concept. So when I finally got my mojo back and smashed my workout the other day, I was over the moon.

But celebrating these small wins can often feel a little silly. We aren’t ever encouraged to clap for the small personal bests or micro-milestones in our workouts. Particularly after the Olympic and Paralympic summer that’s now transcended into marathon season, I felt a little small for congratulating myself for simply getting my workout done. 

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That’s wrong, according to psychotherapist Jodie Cariss, founder of therapy platform Self Space. She says that taking time to acknowledge these steps, like lifting 2.5kg heavier than last week or shaving 15 seconds off your 5k time, is fully worthy of jubilation. “We can be quite aggressive about our feelings of success, but we actually respond really well when we speak to ourselves with compassion,” Cariss says. “If we’re not proud of our own achievements, we end up leaving the workout feeling really depleted rather than rejuvenated.”

I’ve been there before, getting annoyed with myself for not being able to squat the weight that I thought I should or not progressing at a speed I’d deemed ‘good’ enough. But when I think about it, I was still adding weight onto the bar, even if it was less than I’d planned. 

Big and small goals

While most fitness experts will suggest that setting small stepping stones will help you fulfil big goals (i.e. having a goal of 5k, then 10k, then a marathon), we need to be able to celebrate the small wins as their own entity as well as part of something bigger. Yet it’s never been harder to be satisfied with our small fry workout routines when it feels like everyone around you is an ironman graduate.

“Setting yourself goals is a really good way of motivating and empowering yourself. But, from a sustainability point of view, we can’t keep reaching for those really, really high points because it’s exhausting,” says Cariss. Indeed, most of us can’t be constantly training for a marathon or lifting heavier and heavier every time we step into the gym. “If we are only aiming for those huge achievements, I wonder what happens on the other side of them? What do we do if we are only able to feel good enough about ourselves after we’re reaching those big peaks?” asks Cariss. 

It’s something she’s seeing more of in her clients, who “ricochet between really high achievements and doing nothing” in their workout routines.

“There seems to be something quite manic about how people move between two different poles but don’t really create sustainable, lasting patterns,” Cariss says. “I think people are really desperate to prove to themselves that they’re powerful, especially because we had a lot of disempowering experiences through the pandemic. But we can actually get the same sense of power from just doing smaller things for ourselves, such as fulfilling our promise to go to that class or pushing ourselves that little bit further in our run. Those achievements can have as many endorphins as something that gets you a medal or applause because it’s the same process of setting out to do something and doing it – we just need to recognise those achievements for ourselves.” 

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Some people genuinely love working towards huge challenges, but seeing those things as the only reason to exercise and neglecting the day-to-day stuff can be unhelpful. Ultimately, we have to learn to cheer for ourselves. But that’s hard. While I’m totally OK with acknowledging that I’m probably never going to be an athlete and I know that my workouts are still impressive even if they aren’t record-breaking, I still find it weird to be proud of them when other people are doing much more.

Celebrating micro-goals

So when you’re not going to be handed a medal at a finish line, how do you celebrate your achievements? 

Cross it off

There’s nothing as satisfying as crossing something off your to-do list, so Cariss recommends doing the same with your fitness wins too. That could be ticking off the workout you had scheduled in your diary or writing a list of your personal bests and adding to them every time you smash a new goal. The physical confirmation of achieving your goals really sends home the message that you’ve done something great.

Celebrate the small wins, whether it’s shaving seconds off your PB or lifting 1kg heavier.

Treat yourself

You probably won’t get handed a bunch of flowers while standing on a podium after a good workout. That doesn’t mean you can’t hand yourself your own prize. “Give yourself something really nourishing or fancy to acknowledge your progress,” says Cariss. Importantly, she notes that it shouldn’t be food-related, as “using food as a reward can make it easy to get into a mindset of ‘treat’ food or seeing eating as ‘good and bad’.”

Instead, it could be investing in activewear that you really love or using your luxury bath treats to wash off your post-workout sweat instead of your usual quick shower and bar of soap.

Tell someone

If you still find it pointless to clap for yourself, get someone else to do it for you. “My friend always sends me a selfie of herself after a workout and I always reply with ‘good job’ or ‘you’re amazing’. These little exchanges can help you and your achievements feel acknowledged or validated,” says Cariss.

Take stock

Having huge crowds (or your Instagram followers) cheer you on is great. But what’s the point if you can’t find a way to appreciate your own milestones, asks Cariss? “Give yourself space to recognise what you did and how you feel after, rather than just sweep it under the carpet as irrelevant,” she says. 

After I took that moment to really appreciate how I felt after my first great workout in a long time, I not only had more motivation to get back into a good routine, but I also just felt good. There are not enough things in the world that are purely about joy – make exercise one of them. 

Images: Getty / Pexels

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