Among exercising individuals, there are basically two types of people: those who are training for some defined goal at a designated future time and those who are merely exercising with a focus on fitness and health rather than performance. There is nothing wrong with being either one of those people, but it is necessary that your training habits align with the camp you have assigned yourself to.
First, let’s define just what is meant in each instance. Training is a purpose-driven endeavor aimed at a specific target and normally both highly rigorous and highly regimented. Working out, on the other hand, is characterized by a more casual and less focused approach to exercise. It is impossible to establish an objective criteria stipulating where we draw the line, as the distinction is more about attitude than volume. It is quite possible that someone who only “works out” exercises more frequently and with greater vigor than another person “trains.” How is this possible, you might ask?
A beginning athlete may be earnestly pursuing his/her first goal, whether it is a bike race, triathlon or century, and has a focused plan designed to work within the constraints of his schedule. Another athlete may be the stereotypical “group ride junkie” or “mileage hound” who rides, runs or does whatever else nearly every day. Even though the latter athlete may be spending more time exercising at a higher overall intensity, he is still just working out because his efforts lack focus.
I suspect that many of you are reading this with some event goal in mind. If that is the case, be sure that you do not use too much of your time “working out” without ever really training. This is not to say that training should be devoid of enjoyment or needs to be filled with intensity. There are certainly times when the most appropriate manner of progressing toward your goal is taking it a bit easier, and within any plan there is a bit of room for fun diversions. However, what you will need to be sure of is that you (or your coach) have considered the demands of your event along with your current ability and designed a progression that will end with appropriate amounts of fitness and ability when the event arrives.
If this doesn’t sound like you, that’s fine. If you derive all the enjoyment and fitness you want from going out with the morning group ride or completing a midday jog, you can certainly continue down this road and remain happy and fit. Nevertheless, if you do have aspirations of challenging yourself in some bigger way, it is important to understand that there are limits to the improvement that can be made from such a routine over time. This is the point where you have to step back, take a look at what you’re doing and then adjust your training habits to become more systematic and carry you down the path toward your goal.
As a parting thought, I want to make a quick mention of outcome goals vs. process goals. Training tends to emphasize the outcome with little value placed on the benefits of the process. Working out is process-heavy, while the outcome is somewhat inconsequential. Whichever case, it is worth considering adopting the opposite goal. For driven individuals, a process goal in a foreign activity can be a great way to simultaneously maintain fitness and gain some mental refreshment from the change of pace. Those who look at exercise as a means of fitness will often benefit from putting an event on the calendar--doesn’t need to be extreme, just needs to stretch a bit. Such an event helps to focus exercise and maintain motivation when other factors threaten to interfere.
Give some thought to your own training habits, as well as your ultimate goals. Do you find yourself working hard with no set purpose or striving toward a specific endpoint? In either case, be sure that your physical efforts are in line with your psychological motivators and you should find fulfillment in your athletic pursuits.