“I can tell the difference already,” he said. “You’re back up to a seven.”
I’m six weeks into my post-surgery recovery plan, long enough to notice some changes. He’s been out of town just long enough to see that things have changed since he left.
These aren’t physical changes in *me* - it’s everything else. The ripple effect.
I spent four days rearranging our apartment, including the contents of all our closets and cabinets. The place is gleaming from stem to stern. It’s the sort of thing I like to do as a surprise, or at least the sort of thing I like to do when I’m feeling energetic and upbeat.
On the opposite end, one of the first ways I can tell that I’m coming down with something is when I somehow don’t feel like I have enough energy to make the bed. It takes 45 seconds. I’m usually done before I’m even awake enough to realize I’ve done it. If this is disrupted for some reason, it’s a telltale sign that something is off.
I rate my mood and energy level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 on the low end and 10 on the “someone I like is planning a wedding” end.
After I took up distance running, I started to realize that it had worked some impressive changes in me. Not in my physique per se, but in my general attitude toward life.
“It’s like my baseline mood when I was chronically ill was a 5, or a 4 when I had a migraine. Then when I got better, it was more like a 7. When I’m running it’s like... a 9!”
It’s true. When I’m running twenty or thirty miles a week, I feel like I’m getting ready to go to a parade or something. Everything seems simple or easy and I’m brimming over with fun ideas. I used to say I had so much energy, I felt like I could kick down a fence. Sometimes I would be running, and around the 45-minute mark I would just jog along with my arms over my head in victory. Sometimes I would burst into song.
Then I blew it. I overtrained and borked my ankle.
I had to quit running because I was in so much pain. I would wake up in the middle of the night because it would feel like someone was kicking me in the ankle with a cowboy boot. I had to wear a brace. I had two MRIs and I spent six months in physical therapy. I spent a truly stupid amount of time with my foot in a bucket full of ice cubes.
I was mad at myself and mad at my ankle and mad at asphalt and mad that we had to move away from the regional park where I used to train. I used to see other runners pass by and I felt like a dog on a leash, watching other dogs chase a frisbee.
I changed sports and started getting quite fit doing martial arts. There were physical changes, yes, a different type than the changes that happened when I took up running. It seems that if you dedicate yourself to any one type of training, you can tap into a certain variety of super powers.
Running gave me mood powers and endless energy.
Martial arts permanently removed my needle phobia and the white-knuckled anxiety I used to feel on airplanes. It helped me eliminate my stage fright. Martial arts gave me an extra dimension of executive presence. I finally learned to really use command tone, and my dog suddenly started paying a lot more attention when I spoke. I learned to make a convincing war face, a crazy expression than can quickly cause people to back up a step with little more than a widening of my eyes. My arms and shoulders bulked up. I found that I could suddenly intimidate big dudes twice my size. For superpowers, these are pretty excellent!
I missed the mood effects that I got from running, though.
Then I went through a rough patch. I had minor surgery that resulted in an incision right in the middle of my torso. I couldn’t twist, bend, sit up straight, or even move my arms much. After a month of doing hot compresses every two hours, I had to start a routine of changing bandages. This was all very tiresome, but it did provide a massive surge of motivation to start working out again as soon as I legitimately could.
I got back on the elliptical. We had to sell ours when we downsized, but there is one in our dinky apartment gym. Nobody is ever down there and I get the whole room to myself. I call it the “news machine.”
An hour a night.
The first few nights were rough. Not only had I not been working out, I had barely gotten off the couch in two months. I was out of breath and I wanted to quit after twenty minutes.
I know how to distract myself, though. I had a long news queue to work through. I focused on how much I wanted to “catch up on reading.” I only let myself do this type of reading during my workout. It felt like a reward. After the first week, it was more like playing a game than exercise.
I started getting a taste of the old post-workout glow. If I work out long enough at a high enough level of intensity, I can get an endorphin rush that lasts for two hours or more. It feels awesome, wipes out soreness and fatigue, and helps me sleep better.
I didn’t really notice the change as it happened, but over the next several weeks, my baseline mood and energy level started to improve too.
A couple of months ago, I was at a real low point. I couldn’t do much of anything, three courses of antibiotics made me sick and headachy, and my incision hurt. I would definitely have agreed that my mood hovered around a five most of the time.
Now I’m heading back in the direction where I like to be. I’m starting to feel like the person I think of as the “real me” - upbeat and cheerful. I’m ready to head into Phase Two, where I start running outdoors and enjoying the scenery, hunting for the payoff that keeps all distance runners inspired and motivated. A few months from now, I could be feeling like a nine every day again.
Spending time with a group of people that includes a 40-year spread of ages is so revealing. We were talking about where we were in 2010 and where we see ourselves in 2030. One person said, “Ten years ago, I was fourteen?”
Thank goodness, I thought, I’ll never have to go through my teens or twenties again. My skin alone!
On the other hand, the most senior member of the group was a bit discomfited by the topic. That happens when you perceive yourself to be closer to the end of your life than the beginning, and at sixty-plus that’s statistically true.
(Although such a long way to a 114th birthday, which is possible though still newsworthy).
Younger people tend to be very focused on how they look and whether other people think they are good-looking. Probably because they’ve spent their entire lives being photographed. Middle-aged and elderly people tend to be more accepting, or at least philosophical, about their appearance. It can be relaxing. Older people always think you look young and refreshed.
My experience with becoming middle-aged has been great. My body has been and looked a lot of ways over the years, enough that I know change is not just possible but inevitable.
The trick is that we can conduct body transformation willfully. We can choose to transform our bodies in so many ways.
For some reason, our culture seems to revolve around this suspicion that OTHER PEOPLE ARE STARING and that everyone is J U D G I N G.
OMG who cares
Ride mass transit long enough and you will soon feel like one of the best-looking people of world history. Visit a hospice, or just a nursing home. Just be glad at your relative healthfulness for once.
The trick is to turn inward. Direct your attention away from the external and ask yourself what you think of yourself on the inside. How does it feel to be you, to stand up and walk around as you?
If it looks culturally beautiful but feels physically terrible, then forget about it.
Look at all the paintings of medieval women with high round foreheads, no eyebrows, and big swaying pregnant-looking bellies. That’s what they found attractive. Shave your hairline up to the top of the head, hawt! Then put on a tall pointy hat.
Our century of stiletto heels is one day going to look just as ridiculous. Why did all those people limp around bow-legged, grimacing in pain? Why did they carry their shoes and walk barefoot down the sidewalk on festive occasions? What did they wear for warm outer layers? You can’t convince me they just stood in line shivering in the rain. The archaeological record must simply be missing some key garments.
This is how I feel about whatever supposed social pressure about how my body is supposed to look: Get back to me after you’ve read my monograph.
I read “body acceptance” and “body positivity” now all the time, and what I understand it to mean is “be big enough.” I don’t feel that it literally means “be proud, strong, and muddy.” I truly don’t feel that it means “thin and small is okay too.” I haven’t felt that it includes me or other women like me.
That’s okay, though, because I don’t honestly care that much!
I don’t care because I’ve felt my own body transformations over the years. I have lived a body that is different from one year to the next, sometimes by accident, sometimes through intense bouts of purpose. There is no way I’m going to trade my strong body for a weaker version just because it’s trendy.
Twenty years ago, I wore a clothing size that was six to eight sizes bigger than I wear today. Weirdly, my body weight is only about ten pounds lower. That’s because I dropped about forty pounds of body fat and built about thirty pounds of muscle.
It sounds hard to believe. I should probably dig up some old photos and spreadsheets for documentation. Again, though, it’s my body to live in and inhabit, and my body is not an object for society to critique. It’s my home.
In my early twenties, I was ill. I went to a lot of doctors who did not have a lot of answers. I felt tired and ill all the time. I fainted at the grocery store a couple times. I saw black spots when I walked up a flight of stairs. For a young woman, I felt like an old woman, one who clutched railings.
Now I’m in my forties, old enough to be the mother of my younger self. I feel like I could pick up Younger Me and carry her up the stairs. Maybe not a fireman’s carry but certainly a piggyback.
Younger Me would have been angry and hurt to feel so judged by Today Me. Get up, get up, I want to tell her. Don’t quit! There is still time for you!
I look how I look, she thought, just like I do today. At the time, though, she believed in a fixed body. That how we look is a million percent genetic. That the head of anyone who thinks differently should simply explode, because nothing is stronger than my internal rebellion or determination of my identity, of what counts as me.
It turns out that that same resistant feeling was exactly what I needed to propel me up a lot of hills, along thousands of miles, through hundreds of burpees and all the rest. My rage at anyone who dared tell me about my body or criticize my personal autonomy, that was the fire that consumed Young Me. Stubborn, I found myself a warrior of sorts.
When I was young, I felt just as judged as any other young woman. As an adult, I find it hilarious to walk around covered in mud, or carrying my kali stick. Men, even very very large men, get very squirmy and nervous when they find out I do martial arts. “Just don’t attack me and you’ll be fine,” I say, which usually makes it worse.
Posture is what makes the change. A vertical posture says a lot. A comfortable stance says more. I reside in a strong body and I can use it to do some pretty surprising things. Ten years ago, none of that was true, because I hadn’t yet seized ownership of my identity as a midlife athlete. Today, I feel that I will be stronger at sixty than I was at thirty. I know it will be true because I know how to make decisions and I know how it is done.
Not everyone realizes this, but it’s not okay to change your fitness routine. It’s not okay - it’s MANDATORY. First of all, doing the same routine over and over can eventually lead to stress injuries. Second, it’s boring. Third, the body adjusts and the law of diminishing returns sets in. Perhaps most importantly, any single routine may neglect entire areas of the body. This is why it’s so vital - and fun - to occasionally pause and pivot.
I first started switching up my workout because my college gym had strict 30-minute cardio sessions. If you tried to stay on the machine longer, a bouncer would come over with a clipboard and evict you. I used the cardio equipment while I read my homework, and a half hour wasn’t enough. I learned that I could get a better/longer workout if I signed up for adjacent time slots and simply moved from one machine to another.
I also learned that more than five minutes on the stair climber made me want to barf.
Sometimes all the cardio machines would be booked. That’s when I started learning to use the weight machines. I was getting over a bad breakup, so my girlfriends would spot me and encourage me and keep me company. That boy was no gym rat and it was one place on campus where I could sulk in peace.
I started to see the gym as a place of refuge, a solace, and a mood adjuster.
Over the next fifteen years, I learned that Gym Me had high energy and a good mood, while Default Me was mopey and got sick a lot. I also had to change what I was doing many times due to relocation, job change, injury, or forgetting who Gym Me was. For a while.
Being fit has a tendency to reveal mysterious superpowers that weren’t even what you were training for. I’ve astonished myself with the suddenly revealed ability to climb a rope, do a headstand, or whip out a new hula hoop trick after watching someone else do it for a few seconds. The fun stuff!
The fun stuff, like toppling a 250-pound huge dude with a jiu jitsu throw.
I’m doing a pause and pivot right now. It’s been really emotional and difficult, because I’m stubborn as all-get-out, but it has to be done. I recognize this. It’s my own idea and my own plan, and still I’m struggling with my traitorous emotions. My feelings, always getting in my way and trying to ruin my strategic vision.
I’ve been enrolled in a martial arts school for nearly a year and a half. I convinced my husband to join, and we’ve been going to kickboxing classes together, a lot of the time at least.
There have been problems, though.
On his end, he’s lost nearly twenty pounds. His neck mobility has vastly improved and his chronic back pain is almost completely gone. He revels in fighting and he’s been getting the blue belts to teach him higher level secrets. He’s in the best shape of the fourteen years I’ve known him. He’s as happy and excited as a little kid with his first skateboard.
On my end, I’ve been going through several months of health struggles. I got a bad cold in the beginning of August, and that somehow turned into being sick 40% of the time between August and January. I missed (and paid for) weeks of classes, which unfortunately cost 25% more because I had just leveled up to the advanced classes. I went to the doctor to find out why I kept getting sick, fearing the worst, and she said she had known a fellow doctor who had the same problem. She wasn’t getting enough sleep during her residency, her stress level was high, and she could never quite recover fully before she was exposed to another cold. This doctor told me I would probably keep getting sick until the end of this year’s cold and flu season.
I mean, at least my blood work is good.
I did some research on my own end. It turns out that intense exercise can lead to being more vulnerable to colds and flu. Yeah. It makes sense. I would keep pushing myself a little too hard and trying to get back into classes a little too soon. I’d start going out and trying to work out at my normal intensity every time I reached 80% recovery. It was like trying to shut a door and having a mosquito fly in. Again and again and again.
After literally the twelfth time I got sick in eight months, I finally realized I had had enough. I need to give myself a break before I wind up on an inhaler. I paused my gym membership and told everyone I’d be back in six months or so.
This has nothing to do with grit or perseverance or fortitude. Those are the qualities that got me into this mess.
This also has nothing to do with abdicating on my body and burrowing into a recliner. I know I can’t do that because sedentary behavior impacts my thyroid, and I feel far, far worse when I sit around all the time.
This is a sabbatical, a pause and a pivot.
The first thing I’m going to do is to get over this most recent cold. I’ve been organizing my digital files, catching up on email, reading, and sleeping as much as I can between my neighbors’ centaur races or whatever they’re doing up there.
My pivot is to focus more on cardio over the summer. My husband and I talked it out, and remembered that when I was training for my marathon, I felt great all the time and I never got sick. I didn’t get sick that entire year! The only reason I quit was that I overtrained my ankle and wound up in physical therapy for six months.
I know more about stretching and cross-training now. I also know the warning signs. There’s no way I’ll do that to myself again.
The other thing is that I gained fifteen pounds in my shift from endurance running to boxing. Granted, some of it is muscle, but it doesn’t seem to be doing me many favors. My weight regain is perfectly correlated with the return of my night terrors, migraines, and vulnerability to seemingly every passing airborne virus. It’s gotta go.
The great thing about testing weight gain or loss as a variable is that it’s temporary. If you don’t like the results, you can always go back in the other direction. If I lose “too much weight” I can just eat more and put it back on over the weekend. *shrug*
The most important factor in a pause and pivot is the feeling of returning to center, of fully inhabiting one’s physical vessel. I am my body and my body is me. High energy is my birthright. I’ll do whatever I need to do to take care of myself and give myself the utmost strength and mobility.
On social media, a lot of people spend a lot of time saying a lot of things that make them indistinguishable from bots. There could be entire predictive text buttons with these bumper-sticker sentiments. You could even write a script that posted them for you while you went off to make a sandwich. Of all these repetitive, commonplace reactions, Quit Posting Your Workouts is one of the most common. After consideration, I tend to agree. I used to post my workouts to Facebook, and I quit... Facebook. If you’ve been frustrated by this particular issue, pro or con, maybe my outlook will be interesting.
Here’s the thing. Everyone does something that is interesting to some friends, irrelevant to others, and annoying to yet others. If we remove all of these topics, what could there possibly be left to talk about?
My workout is a significant chunk of my day and my life. It’s an enormous part of who I am. It’s how I beat illness, it’s a constant research topic, it’s an area where I explore and learn new things, it’s where I see and hear much of what I find interesting. It’s also where I now make most of my friends. Asking me never to share about this part of my life is precisely like asking someone else never to talk about their kids, their job, their home remodel, or any of their hobbies. Wouldn’t it be nicer to just unfollow, scroll past, or otherwise ignore posts that don’t interest you?
Maybe, like me, you’ve posted about workouts in the hopes of connecting with your other friends who also work out. Maybe, like me, some of your friends cross-train, and thus can’t capture everything we’re doing through an app like RunKeeper. Maybe, like me, you have a years-long running conversation with a small group of friends who are constantly exploring different types of workout. Maybe those conversations are one of your main reasons for ever logging on to social media at all. If there’s ever a more suitable social media platform for us, one without all the non-workout BS, we’ll all stampede toward it and never look back.
Or maybe you’re one of the forty percent of Americans who never do any kind of exercise whatsoever, not even walking for fifteen minutes. Maybe all this talk just irritates you to no end. I dunno.
What I found was that sharing my workouts tended to generate friction for a variety of reasons. It brought up disagreements and mean comments from people who I had previously liked, people I considered my actual friends before social media came along and ruined it. I exercise because when I don’t, I suffer physically, and I don’t really feel like I have an option. For whatever reason, other people interpret this as body shaming, as buying into the beauty myth, as some kind of psychological problem, as proselytizing, or as just being a terminal bore. I started to realize that it really wasn’t worth my time to engage in discussions where words were put in my mouth. Why go there if my character was going to be brought into question or my motives were misinterpreted?
This is part of the picture when people say that when your energy changes, your friends change. It’s not always that you become some sort of social climber and abandon your previous loyalties. It’s more that your new thoughts, behaviors, and conversation topics annoy your old friends, who can no longer stand you and don’t want to socialize with you unless you go back to your old ways.
If you want to know, my weekday workout typically looks like this: Ride bike along the beach to martial arts gym while listening to an audio book. See my friends. Crush it for an hour, learning new things, surprising myself with what my body can do that it couldn’t do a month ago, bonding with people from all walks of life. Gossip in the changing room. Ride home along the beach again. Walk the dog. Do an hour on the elliptical, reading articles about space, biomimicry, and robotics for my tech newsletter. Stretch for half an hour. Shower. Sometimes this all starts in the morning, sometimes in the evening.
Some days I work out for nearly three hours. That might sound extreme, but I do longer workouts a few times a year. Distance days for marathon training were two to three hours once a week. Martial arts belt promotions go for four hours. I’ve gone on four-hour bike rides many times. When I go backpacking, we typically hike for six hours or more. On vacation I walk eight to ten miles a day, basically from morning til night except for meal breaks. For someone who enjoys endurance sports, “time on feet” is a valuable training metric. I’ve had several jobs where I stood for forty hours a week. I think back to our pioneer ancestors, who walked thirty miles a day on the Oregon Trail, and I seriously question a modern society that thinks sitting or lying down for 20-22 hours a day is somehow normal. The more I find that I can do routinely, the more I wonder how much is out there for me.
In my life, what I do for exercise is equivalent to what I do for reading. I see both as exploration and adventure, as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. Both are endlessly fascinating and irresistibly attractive to me. The alternative to both I see as “sitting in front of a television for five hours a day,” which is something I did throughout childhood and now find impossibly boring.
I took everyone’s advice and quit posting my workouts. I write about them, sure, and if someone wants to touch base with me and find out what I’m doing these days, Wednesdays are the day for that. Otherwise, some of my most interesting conversations are happening in person, live, in my gym. For those of you who are likewise confounded by constant social pushback, don’t let it get to you. Just move the conversation to a place where it’s appreciated and leave everyone else to go about their business.
This is bad. THIS is the kind of thing that makes me feel old. Here I am trying to do the splits, and I can barely get my legs in a V. How am I ever supposed to turn a cartwheel at this rate? I’m looking at this book with a bunch of granny ladies grinning while they stretch, elbows on the floor, and feeling like I have barely half their agility. Darn it! I’m reading Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits, and right now it feels like I’m going to need a lot more than four weeks.
I’m a pretty bendy person. Other people may have trouble touching their toes, but I can fold over and put my palms on the floor. I can sit down, stretch my legs in front of me, and grab the arches of my feet. No problem! I can reach one hand over my shoulder and the other up my back and clasp my fingers. I can do a headstand and I can spin two hula hoops at once. I like to think of myself as more agile than most.
So why is it so hard to do the splits?
This is a non-trivial problem, dumb as it may sound. My tight hips are likely behind some chronic problems. My current working hypothesis is that spending a month (or six) stretching and improving my mobility in this area will help to resolve these other issues. If I’m wrong, well, I probably won’t be any worse off, and I’ll be able to do the splits, which is rad.
What are these tight hip problems?
For one, my glutes on one side or the other will sometimes seize up so much that I start limping. This is bad for someone in her forties, and I imagine it would only get worse with each decade that goes by. I do NOT want to find out what it’s like to have a permanent limp.
Next, I sometimes have some pretty fierce plantar fasciitis pain in my heel or the arch of my foot. This is weirdly worse when I’ve been sedentary; it didn’t bother me at all during my months of marathon training, and it’s more likely to flare up after my second rest day in a row. It was worst the first year after I quit my day job, when I basically slept all day. It disappeared after I became obsessed with the hula hoop. Right now it seems to have been reactivated by my martial arts training. A couple of times it’s woken me up in the middle of the night.
I was sidelined from running by persistent ankle pain. Two MRIs and six months of physical therapy didn’t really resolve it. Talking to a personal trainer at the gym revealed some insights, and two months of weekly shiatsu massage focusing on my shins finally eliminated the ankle pain. The trainer said it originated in hip instability, and that endurance running tends to lead to weak hip flexors, glutes, quads, and core. True, that feels true.
Martial arts training is definitely, visibly building these areas. Hundreds of snap kicks and jump squats will do a lot for your hip flexors, if nothing else! I’m finding, though, that I have a lot of trouble with roundhouse kicks, and that I feel a pinch when I do it at the correct angle that my classmates don’t seem to be experiencing. Even if I get nothing else from working on the splits, it seems obvious that it will help improve my roundhouse kick.
I gotta tell you, though, it hurts. I was able to train into the headstand in only two weeks, and that just felt like fun. (Except for the one night when I toppled over, smacked my caboose on the floor, and woke up in the morning with a limp that lasted about three hours). Doing the recommended stretches to work into the splits? Is NOT fun. It’s so sore.
Where do tight hips come from? Sitting, I imagine. I spent almost all my time sitting from my teenage years through my early thirties, partly due to my secretarial job. Or driving. I think driving causes more tightness on one side because we’re pressing on the gas pedal and leaning to one side to shift gears. Also we’re wearing seatbelts that cross over one side, and we tend to wear our bags on the same shoulder all the time, weighing one side down more than the other. These are extremely common issues, and they suggest that a lot of people are having some of the same issues that I am.
I can also claim years of running and cycling as contributors. As much as I love racking up the miles in my endurance sports, they cause repetitive movement along only one axis. Forward forward forward. I want to do a fifty-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday, and it makes sense to work on my hip tightness before setting out on that type of training. I’ll be super annoyed if I have to cancel my plans due to a recurrence of the same ankle problem I had before. This is what I think about while I’m sitting on the floor, trying to coax my unwilling muscles to loosen up. Legs, I need more from you!
This is where I remind myself that twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I had trouble just getting through the day, and sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without help. I’ve come a long way! I can’t help but wonder if doing this type of stretching back then would have helped. I sure wish I had, because with twenty years of daily practice anybody could probably do pretty much anything. Isn’t that what physical therapy is, after all?
Daily practice, daily practice. My fitness role models are all over sixty years of age, and many are over eighty. This is because I’m very concerned that Old Me should be able to get around, climb stairs, sit on the floor and get up again, and carry things. She deserves to keep her independence. I remind myself that if I live to my eighties, I’ll have fifteen thousand days to get down and stretch. If that isn’t enough time for my muscles and tendons to adapt, maybe by then I can just download my consciousness into a robotic avatar and sign off on the whole project.
I set my first PR this year, completely by accident. (That means ‘personal record,’ which I didn’t know when I first started running). I hadn’t been training. It’s worse than that. Not only had I not done anything special to train for my race, I hadn’t even been running all year! I went out literally once in 2018, a few days before my trip, to see if I could even cover an 8k distance. My big worry wasn’t speed, it was embarrassing myself by having to walk what used to be my easy day workout.
I was a non-athlete until I turned 35. Last picked for every team. One of the smallest, slowest, weakest, least coordinated kids in every group. The idea of physical exertion filled me with dread. I’m not competitive by nature, either, which is why I never earned any ribbons or trophies. Even if I’d had the unfathomable desire to pick up a sport, I wouldn’t have had any idea how to train for it or improve my performance. I think I would have felt attacked by the very concept. Can’t I just run?
I learned to love running, but I had to quit when I overtrained for my marathon and sustained an ankle injury. Two MRIs, months of ice baths and physical therapy, no real improvement, finally they just cut me off. I fell out of the habit. I still identified as “a runner” even though I no longer had a running behavior.
I paid for a race. In my experience, deadlines are very motivating, and so are cash deposits. I have never once missed a race I’ve paid to enter. I convinced my brothers to sign up with me, including my brother’s girlfriend, who is training for her sixth marathon. Pressure on.
My family knows I’ve been out of commission. It’s not like I would have been disinherited for not running, or like they would have driven off without me if I fell behind and had to walk the last mile or two. I had only my own pride hanging in the balance.
I kept meaning to train, to get out there and start running at least five or ten miles a week. It didn’t sound like a big deal. The dog would have loved it. I just... did other things instead.
What I did was to sign up for martial arts lessons. I’m still so tired after workouts that I often go home after class and sleep for two hours. All these great plans I had to “jog home from the gym” never materialized.
This is where my accidental running improvement apparently kicked in.
Distance runners who do nothing but run tend to develop predictable issues. We’re comparatively weak in the quadriceps and glutes, which would be the front of the thighs and those famously flat runner’s butts. The reason my trainer gave for my persistent ankle problems was hip instability. I also trained to muscle failure in my left hip flexor, and if you’ve never experienced muscle failure, it’s when you send an order to a body part and it refuses to obey. I couldn’t even lift my foot over the one-inch threshold into my parents’ shower. I had to pick up my thigh with my hands and lift my own leg up. For all the thousands of miles I had run, all I really had to show for it was lean legs and sweaty shorts.
Martial arts training is the exact opposite of distance running in many ways. For starters, we warm up with HIIT workouts, which is high-intensity interval training. It’s anaerobic instead of aerobic. We use body weight resistance to build strength. I wasn’t getting the endorphin rush that I get from cardio workouts; in fact, I would just feel trudgingly, bag-draggingly tired afterward. I was slowly but surely adding muscle mass. Kickboxing works the muscle groups that are neglected in the running habit. Hundreds of training kicks were building my hip flexors, my glutes, my quads. Instead of racking up the miles, I was building new super-legs.
Something weird happened. I was running for the bus one morning. There’s a park next to my apartment that has a fairly steep uphill climb, but it’s the shortest route to the closest bus stop. Suddenly it felt like I wasn’t running, I was just a human-shaped streak cruising up the sidewalk. I know I’ve never sprinted so fast in all my life. It was effortless. I didn’t even feel like I was doing anything, just magically moving along the pavement. I didn’t even lose my breath.
Then something else weird happened. My husband and I were going to the movies, and there are some steep staircases where we’ve always made a game of racing each other to the top. He has always beaten me, probably because he has over forty years of sports training in the bag. This time, I floated up two steps at a time and made it to the top before he was halfway up. Huh? How did that even happen? I felt like a video game character. It was almost too confusing to gloat.
I ran my 8k race with one single five-mile training run behind me in the previous three months. I ran with my brother. The last time I had run this particular race was six years earlier, at a time when I ran several days a week and thought about little else. Somehow, in spite of the intervening years, the ankle injury, and the total lack of training, I shaved over four minutes off my time.
This is my argument in favor of cross-training. I still love running, and I still get an incredible analgesic response from distance runs. Nothing will get you high, help you sleep, improve your mood, and help to overcome chronic pain and fatigue like a long cardio workout. Ah, but the almost instant improvement I saw in my running performance from HIIT training and kickboxing has me convinced. Run less and train more at something else. Maybe it’s dancing, maybe it’s weight training, maybe it’s martial arts like I’ve been doing. Avoid overuse injuries (and try shiatsu massage if that’s an issue). Explore something that fills in the gaps, builds muscle mass, and has an anaerobic component. Then sign up for a race and see what it does for your running time.
It’s my run-a-versary! Oh, no, you don’t have to get me anything - I’d just get it all sweaty and I like to keep my hands free, anyway. I just want to celebrate the way that literally the worst exercise I could think of became one of the major loves of my life.
I went on my first voluntary run on December 28, 2010. I was starting in advance of my New Year’s Resolution. Already at that time, I was in the habit of planning fact-finding missions, lifestyle upgrades, and life renovation projects. One day earlier that winter, the idea of running just popped into my head. It was so weird and out of character for me that I might compare it to the idea of... a root canal, say, or wrestling an alligator.
I turned to my husband and said, “You know how I do a big thing for New Year’s every year?”
“This year I think it’s going to be running.”
His head swiveled. “Really?”
Like, “You’re going to adopt a polar bear cub?” Or, “You’re getting a neck tattoo?”
I had already spoken the words and the intention had already been formed, I’m going to say 99% without my active participation. Maybe someone had a voodoo doll of me? A battery-powered one that ran on a treadmill? I nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”
Once the idea was in my head, it started to make sense. I wanted to manipulate my husband to lose some weight and this seemed like a pretty tricksy way to do it. He’s been an athlete since he was four years old, a person of large build who pursues active, collision-oriented sports such as football, hockey, and armored martial arts. I knew that he’d run with me, or do any other form of exercise, if I made my pitch well enough.
It’s true that my morale for running was low and that my cardio endurance was even lower. It’s true that among my many skills, navigation and map-reading rank lowest. It’s even true that I’m sometimes wary of running in certain areas or at certain times of day. I just wouldn’t have let any of those things stop me from anything else I wanted to do, like procure a pie or get hold of a new book I wanted. I just kinda turned up the dial on those weak feelings and batted my feminine wiles.
He mapped my route and went out with me on a rainy morning. I couldn’t make it 1/3 of a mile. When I made it home, several minutes behind him and our dog, I had to lie on the floor for a while and watch the spinning black spots in my vision.
I ran the first mile of my life at age 35. By the end of the year, I was running four miles at a stretch.
That whole thing about tricking my husband into running? I tricked myself. Four years later, I ran a marathon.
I still identified as a runner after I sustained an overuse injury in my ankle and had to take three years off.
I started out reluctant, easily winded, slouching, and slow. I’d never thought of myself as an athlete in my life. I hated EVERY. SINGLE. STEP. For the first three weeks, anyway. Wheezing and suffering stabbing pains from the stitch in my side. Ugh. Running is the worst.
It crept up on me, until I didn’t feel right if I ran fewer than thirty miles a week.
I’m back up to four miles, just like in Year One. I’m team captain for a race this March, an 8k I’ll be running with my brothers and my nephew. My big goal is to run a fifty-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday. I still have eight years to train, so I’d better get after it!
Technically, I’m on Day 369, but who’s counting? I don’t have to count how many days in a row I make my activity goals. For one thing, I wear a fitness tracker. More importantly, my body counts. My muscles and my heart and lungs are tracking every step I take. I can’t lie to my own insides.
There is something really satisfying about scrolling back and seeing all of these completed activity rings. The design worked. When I first received this Apple Watch as a gift for my fortieth birthday, I was still gimping around after an ankle injury. My athletic pursuits included sitting around and muttering to myself while reading ultramarathon manuals. On the first day, the record shows that I walked 1,044 steps and burned 30 calories. Fantastic! ...for a baby...
I got my first pedometer over a decade ago. They were pretty primitive in the early days. All they did was track motion. You could game them by shaking them back and forth. They also reset if they got dropped, and mine fell out of my pocket so many times that I had to start using a safety pin. I got one with a clip and that kept falling off, too. Memories... I remember the first day I hit what I thought was an important fitness milestone, and I ran off to show my friends.
A THOUSAND STEPS!
Um, the goal is TEN thousand steps. A thousand steps is like a quarter mile.
Let’s just say I’ve come a long way in twelve years. When I started out, it took me months to build to walking a thousand steps in a day. My daily average for 2017 is 11,055 steps, 4.9 miles, four flights of stairs, and 48 minutes working out.
Another interesting tidbit is that my daily average calorie burn from physical activity is: 407. This is why it’s impossible to “lose weight” simply through exercise. A bagel is about 245 calories, and a Costco muffin is almost 650. I could literally add ONE snack or make ONE lousy, inefficient food choice each day and completely wipe out whatever I burned from my workout.
(Flip this by thinking like a marathon runner. “If I eat this muffin that is nearly as big as my head, I can run at least 6 miles later”)
I used to think I could just skip this whole thing, you know, standing up and moving around. After all, doctors had told me all sorts of things about my health that included “exercise intolerant.” There is nothing like a diagnosed thyroid condition to give one a get-out-of-gym-free card for life, am I right? Then I went to the mall with my Nana, who was 75 at the time, and I watched in dismay as she struggled to get on the escalator. She was still working, still driving, still living a full life in every way. But stepping onto an automatic staircase with a handrail was physically challenging and intimidating for her. Suddenly, I saw myself in this context, as a younger version of my mother and grandmother. This was to be my future, too.
Unless I did something about it.
The kind of exercise that I do today would not have been possible for my female ancestors. By that I mean that they would not have been allowed. Women were legally excluded from competing in races like I do, we were legally excluded from gym memberships like I have had, we could not legally go out in public wearing the kind of workout clothes that I wear today. This probably has a lot to do with why there was no feminine tradition of strenuous exercise in my family. I had no examples and I had no idea what to do.
Start by walking. Walk 1% farther and 1% faster.
Start by paying attention to what you do during the day. Not what you “do” as in how busy you are, but what you DO, as in how much you physically move your body around. Notice your range of motion. Visualize your path through life. Where do you go and what do you see? Same stuff all the time? Hmm, seems boring.
Looking back at my activity level in my twenties, I feel embarrassed. I don’t move around twice as much as I did twenty years ago, I move around more than ten times as much! Middle-aged me could kick younger me’s butt without hardly trying. I just wish, I wish, I wish, I wish there were a way that I could go back in time and teach Twenties Me everything that Forties Me knows. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time feeling tired, ill, and trapped in chronic pain. We had a happy ending, though. The future arrived and brought some pretty great technology with it.
Just a few years from now, activity trackers are going to be available for everything. They’re going to test blood glucose and monitor our skin for sun damage. I predict that one day, gamers will be the fittest people of all, because they’ll be controlling their avatars with haptic body suits or some kind of hologram thing that requires leaping, rolling, and backflips. Until then, what we have now has been enough to get at least one sedentary, obese thyroid patient with fibromyalgia up and moving.
The lid comes off. Cookies! Each kind has its own specially shaped compartment. Chocolate covered cookies! Butter cookies! Rectangles! Tubes! Circles! I haven’t had lunch yet and they are just right there, a few inches from my hand. Free, chocolate, cookies. It’s not just that I could eat them, I’m supposed to eat them. Someone brought them in as a gift. They’re for sharing. Who would I be to reject such a thoughtful, chocolate-covered gesture?
I don’t eat any of the cookies.
Clearly I am a grinch. Guilty as charged. What kind of joyless, belligerent, terrible excuse for a human being would refuse free holiday cookies? I must hate having fun. Or maybe I hate watching other people have fun. Also, I must hate my body. Right?
The truth is, I don’t really care for chocolate all that much. Plain and simple. It doesn’t do much for me. Inexpensive chocolate is just gross. The last time I ate a grocery-store candy bar, it tasted like candles. Crayons, maybe.
There’s a lot more to my mutant ability to pass by a free box of cookies. I’m sharing because it was key to my total physical transformation. The reason for that is that cookies were one of my top trigger foods.
A trigger food is something that gives you a total case of swirly eyes. You don’t even make a decision whether or not to eat it; basically you take one look at it and it’s inside your mouth before you even realize your hand was in motion. You’ll eat it even if it’s low-quality or it’s been sitting around for a while, just as people in research studies will snarf down three-day-old stale popcorn while complaining about how stale it is.
My trigger foods were cookies, breakfast cereal, and rainbow-colored candies. My husband’s are white bread, pie, corn chips, and any kind of homemade baked goods. We were both serious cola drinkers, and we agreed to quit together, and fell off the wagon together, several times when we were dating.
The funny thing about trigger foods is that one person’s trigger is uninteresting to someone else. For instance, my hubby likes pita chips and I think they are gross. I used to date a guy who was obsessed with black licorice. I would eat cookies or cake for breakfast, a habit most people are much too smart to engage in. Now it gives me a headache just thinking about it.
Once upon a time, I worked for a bank in a big skyscraper downtown. In the lobby was a well-stocked convenience store. I would glance at it as I came and went, and I couldn’t help but notice the large, well-lit display of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. Oh dear. Ineluctably, I felt myself drawn inside, where I slowly took in each individual label. Gosh, there are so many different kinds of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. So many delicious flavors and all of them look absolutely awesome. We never got these when I was a kid. I bought a package and took them upstairs to my desk. No roommates or boyfriends would ask to share my nice expensive cookies!
I opened the package and carefully ate every crumb of one of these fine cookies, Milanos if you’re interested. Then I closed the package and put it in my desk drawer.
About a minute later, I opened the drawer, opened the package, and got out another cookie.
In the back of my mind was an intention that these cookies would last me a week or two. I thought of them as very expensive luxury items.
Needless to say, even after I moved the Milanos to the back of the drawer and locked it with a key, I got the mechanics of retrieving and opening the bag down to about two seconds. They were gone in two days.
The next fifteen years would demonstrate a conclusive link between my cookie consumption and my thirty-five pound weight gain.
There were other food habits I had to learn and unlearn before I finally figured out how to eat like an athlete. Pretty much mostly cookies, though.
I lost my taste for cookies, breakfast cereal, and other trigger foods at some point during my marathon training. I had assumed that cookies would fuel me past the finish line, and I definitely ate a lot of Nutter Butters and vanilla fig bars in the early days. Somehow, though, I lost my taste for sweets. Even sweetened dried fruit started tasting too sticky and treacly. Cereal tastes like baby food to me now. I just don’t want that stuff any more.
I still have strong associations between foods and celebrations. I still love to eat just as much as I ever did. My tastes have changed, that’s all. Sometimes I eat a cookie, and I look at it, feeling betrayed. “Cookie! Why u taste so boring!” I have to remind myself that my excitement over a particular food is not always matched by my actual experience. Usually it takes like three hundred attempts.
Now, the way I connect food to celebrations is to plan and cook a fine meal. I know I’ve won when I see someone pop up to get thirds. I know I’ve done well when someone insists on the recipe, and then cooks it next time I’m in town. I know I’ve done well when I can sit down, enjoy what’s on my plate, and not feel a sense of FoMO. I’m not missing out; there is always going to be a box of cookies within my reach, round the clock, twenty-four hours a day. I can if I want to, and most of the time, I choose something else.
It’s not that I like running in the rain and mud. It’s not that I particularly enjoy pondering whether that is hail, or just needle-sharp icy cold raindrops in the wind. It’s not even that I have some kind of willpower or motivation, which I don’t, because nobody does. What is it? It’s the result of a decision. At some point, I decided that I would do difficult things for the sake of doing difficult things. A workout is just a physical symbol of an internal commitment. My commitment is to condition the whiner out of myself.
Okay, granted, I run in general because it feels good. Not every run does, though. When you haven’t been out there for a while, in fact, it feels terrible. Running bounces your joints, makes your muscles tired, gives you a stitch in your side. Plus, you’re reminded of how easy it used to be, and you have the added layer of humiliation that your body won’t do what your ego thinks it should.
In my mind, I’m exactly as fit as Hollywood stunt people, back-flipping off of moving trains and doing parkour all over the joint. I also have clearly defined, lean, shadowed muscles and I can punch through a wall. Can’t you?
My actual body, unlike my mental model, gets wheezy and tired. It also looks a lot different in profile than it does from the front.
I want both my body and my mind to live in the real world. Spatial awareness, proprioception, these are ways my brain learns to keep my body from walking into poles, stumbling off of curbs, and getting banged up on physical objects. My mind would always rather be thinking about something more interesting or receiving passive entertainment than navigating this world of concrete, wood, and steel. Or especially the world of mud and gravel that I traverse when I train.
Where I live, I can choose between running in the heat or in the not-heat. It turns out to be much easier to run in a jacket and tights on a rainy, cold day than it is to run in shorts on a blazing hot day. I have to remind myself, though. It’s not like my body is going to remember what it was doing six months ago. Body lives in the now.
That’s something else my mind can do for my body. I can remind myself that I’ll be done in mere moments. An hour from now, half an hour from now, ten minutes from now, I’ll be standing in a hot shower. The time will be over before I know it.
Working out in bad weather has done a lot for me. It’s made me unflappable. Standing in line, being put on hold, dealing with bureaucratic problems, are as nothing compared to running uphill with mud splattering to my knees. Soggy socks, there’s a problem. Anything I do indoors in clean, dry clothing is a non-issue.
Training in bad weather is almost completely predictable. I run the same routes, so unless a tree blows down, I know what to expect. I’ve figured out which layers I need to wear at which temperatures. I have a hat with a brim for rainy days. I check the weather report first thing in the morning, and often I can schedule a block when the clouds will have broken up a bit. Still, this training helps me to deal with the unpredictable. Rain or snow that I didn’t expect acts just like the rain or snow that I did expect. The sky is on my mind a lot more than it was when I was a sedentary, indoor person.
Grit, that’s the goal. Grit is extremely useful as a characteristic. I’m persistent and tenacious. When I want something, if I’m convinced that it’s a good idea, I’ll just keep going and going for it until I get it. It’s helped me to handle criticism, since almost anyone will mock a person for spending an hour running up a muddy hill in the rain. Your mockery means nothing to me, not unless you have a valid point you were trying to make? Valid by my standards, that is? Most of our obstacles in life are emotional and social, not physical. We’re stopped by anxiety, inertia, and commentary, and almost all of the commentary comes from imaginary scenarios we developed entirely alone. Pushing yourself in the physical world of weather and natural terrain tends to shift your consciousness and develop a bias toward action.
Is this person’s sneering critique as intimidating as a fifteen-mile run? Pshaw, sir, you are as a mere pebble in my shoe. Madam, I remove your attempted influence just as I shake out a bit of gravel.
Why do I work out in bad weather? I do it because I know how, first of all. More importantly, I do it because the weather is almost never, virtually never, going to be the way I want it. If I wait for the perfect conditions, I’ll never do anything at all. If I rely on being in the mood, when I “feel like it” and everything is perfect, I’ll live my life as a lump in a chair. I push myself to get out there in rough conditions because LIFE is a rough condition. I’ll want what I want and get after what I want to get, and I’m not going to let a little rain or mud stop me.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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