Fitness frenemies: the 5 people secretly competing with you in the gym

The late French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre believed that life was a series of struggles; that everywhere we look, someone is engaged in a struggle of some kind.

Sartre was a boxer, but if he stepped into the gym today he’d (maybe) smile and say ‘I told you so!’

Think you’re going into the gym to do some exercise, shape up and boost your health and well being? Think you’re not there to compete with anyone?

You’re soooooo wrong, the esteemed Mr Sartre would say. Everyone is competing with you. You just haven’t realised it yet. They have.

Here are the five frenemies you’re secretly going head to head when you set foot in your local gym or health club.

Star Wars figures from the Dark Side in competition in the gym
Is the person next to you training to fight the Rebel Alliance?

The person lifting weights next to you

Is your chest looking a little flabby? No problem, we’ll soon fix that with some bench presses, a few pec-deck flys and, hell, why not throw a few dips into the mix. Let’s start with 3 x 8 at 40 kilos on the count of three.



Wait a cotton-picking minute? Who’s that just swanned over to the bench next to you. Oh look, now they’re lifting double the weight on your barbell, just to show that 40 kilos is for wimps.

They might look as if they’re sailing through it, but inside they’re dying. They want you to hurry up and move on to the next machine. So take your time and relax with the weights. The longer you sit there, the more sets they have to eek out, or the heavier weight they have to lift, to call your bluff.

The person on the treadmill next to you

You go on the treadmill to increase your cardiovascular fitness and shed a few excess pounds. You happily canter along, focused and motivated, while the screens in the gym display some sport, the news or, if MTV is on, some reality TV rubbish or Britney Spears for the 10 millionth time (MTV officially crushed my spirit with ‘Oops!I Did It Again’ once for a while, back in the 90s, but anyway…)

So far, so good. You’re feeling like Mo Farah until someone steps onto the treadmill next to you. At first, they seem disinterested as they start the machine up, key in their speed, program, etc., but that’s all about to change!

It all starts that moment they discreetly look at your machine, either to see how fast you’re running or how long you’ve been running and the distance you’ve covered.

Five minutes ago, you were running to banish a kebab from your waistline. Now you’re just trying to outrun the other person, and they’re trying to outrun you. Can you keep running for longer than them, and at the same speed, or will you bow down to their superior fitness?

It’s a battle of wills. Tread(mill) carefully!

Girl on a treadmill in the gym
This looks like a nice, quiet spot, so just you keep your distance you two secret competitors at the back…

The person swimming in the lane next to you

Perhaps you’re giving the weights or the cardiovascular workout a miss because you’ve overindulged the day or night before and, eager to keep up your fitness and still be active, you’ve opted to do some swimming instead. (Speaking directly from personal experience on this one, as I still struggle with chocolate…!)

The cool, invigorating water is working wonders while you swim your way up and down the lane at a moderate pace. The session is going swimmingly (sorry not sorry for the pun!).

But then out of the corner of your eye you see the person in the neighbouring lane power past you! They don’t even look at you when they reach the end of the lane. It’s almost as if you’re not there (how insulting!).

Watch how you suddenly find that extra bit of strength to swim alongside them, head to head, stroke for stroke.

Don’t worry if you can’t keep up the pace. If they’re wearing Speedos, it’s you who has the last laugh. !

Close up of someone holding a pair of Speedo swimming trunks to the camera
Speedos – recommended by all good dentists for hygienic flossing (PS. They’re not mine)

The people in the sauna

Worn out from your workout, it’s time to pamper yourself with some relaxing sauna time.

How very wrong you are!

Taking a sauna is a real war of attrition! It’s not about improving the circulation, loosening the muscles, cleansing the skin and all those other inviting benefits, no. It’s about who can stand the heat the longest.

That little glance you give the egg timer as you walk in, and the greeting you get from the other sauna users already in there, is the setting for a sauna showdown. They may have been sitting in there for 120 days already, but it’s 120 days too few now that you’ve declared war open them with a polite ‘Hello’. From that point on, it’s going to get ugly.

Getting up to leave the sauna first is like doing the walk of shame on The Weakest Link. But not only are you the weakest link: you’re also the sweatiest. Take a shower, you smelly skunk.

The other people in the changing rooms

You’ve given it your all on all fronts of battle and you’re either savouring the sweet elixir of victory, or trying to wash the bitter taste of defeat out of your mouth (Colgate Plax is quite good for that). Now it’s time to just have a shower, get dried and dressed, and then work out where it all went wrong.

But if someone else is about to step into the showers at the same time, the race is back on! Who will be the the quickest to get washed, dressed and be out of the door?

My advice if you want to snatch this final moment of pointless glory: cut to the chase and wash your body, and don’t bother with the conditioner, or even with the shampoo, but do take the bottles in there. They won’t be expecting you to transition so fast to the second stage of this changing room triathlon (getting dried).

There’s a lot to be said for the element of surprise! Oh how we love psychological warfare at the health club!

Like Sherlock Holmes said: Suspect no one, yet suspect everyone. Your fellow members are your friends and your rivals; they’re your frenemies! You’re just sweating too hard to notice and being the best you can be for yourself. If you end up trying to go one better and it doesn’t come off, there’s always another battle just around the corner. Oh, and I almost forgot: enjoy your workout!

Close up of me after exercising
Why, who’s this sweaty gym warrior? It’s meeeee! *collapses*

Images by W_Minshull, Health Gauge, jollyUK and Tom Newby, used under Creative Commons licence, and my own gentle hands

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