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.
Flattering as it is to think that body image must be my main reason for working out, that isn’t even on my top ten list. However I look is nothing more than an inescapable side effect of the other things I do. The main reason I work out is that when I stop, even for a day, I feel gimpy and crooked.
Top Ten List of Reasons to Work Out:
10. Getting charged rent for apartment gym and too cheap not to use it
9. Compare myself to fit people 10-50 years older than me
8. Maintain ability to sit on the floor and get back up again
7. Can run up and down stairs during power failures
6. Opportunity to catch up on magazine reading
5. Almost all clothes sold in my size actually fit me
4. Maintain necessary fitness level to go backpacking
3. Save money by owning only one size of clothing
2. Chance to burn off occasional pancakes, cookies, etc.
1. Skip a day and get a kink in my neck.
Being fit is really convenient. It’s worth it just for the annoying problems it eliminates. I took a “rest day” on Saturday and spent the whole day feeling like someone rolled me down a flight of stairs. After my workout the next day, I felt so much better, especially in my neck and shoulder, that my “rest day” was more like a “pest day.”
I’ve had problems with my neck since I was 9 years old. I woke up one morning and couldn’t move my head, and my mom took me to the doctor. A stiff neck could have been a sign of serious problems, and I feel fortunate that I didn’t have any of them. I just slept crooked. This has been a perpetual problem in my life, exacerbated by carrying heavy school bags, commuter bags, and luggage. When I took up running, I was extremely surprised and elated to discover that the thousands of micro-movements from swinging my arms had somehow finally loosened up this stiff neck of mine. Walking helps, too, although it seems to take more miles to reach the necessary amount.
I hurt my ankle in 2014, and I had to quit running for long enough that my neck has started to seize up again. Now I’m back on the elliptical trainer. I’m getting ready to get back on the road again. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but already I’m feeling the difference between workout days and sedentary days.
Loosening tight muscles and extending range of motion are reliable ways I’ve found to make my neck feel better. Another thing that I get from working out is the analgesic, or pain-killing, effect. The first time I felt a runner’s high was the first time I had felt completely pain-free in a dozen years. A radiant, glowing sort of euphoria spread through my entire body. Nothing hurt. Nothing! Nothing hurt anywhere! If it had only happened once I would have thought it was a miracle. It turned out, though, that I could get this beautiful feeling on demand.
It hits me at about the 45-minute mark of very strenuous exercise. I don’t get it from walking. It comes from running at a particular pace, including steep hill climbs and stairs. The analgesic effect tends to last for 2-3 hours after the end of my workout.
I found that running longer distances, starting at the four- to six-mile mark, would give me three or four hours a day of being completely pain-free. It wasn’t just that, though. Swinging my arms thousands of times was loosening my tight neck and shoulders. Running for at least 45 minutes was giving me a few pain-free hours. Running was also improving my posture. The importance of this can hardly be overstated. My weak upper body had my shoulders rolled forward from years of typing and doing data entry all day. New muscle strength helped me to become more upright in my posture even when I was sitting around. The difference shows up clearly in photos.
Running changed my body in other ways, too. I had better posture and more muscle. I had these 3-4 pain-free hours. My neck and shoulders were loosening up. I started to sleep better. I got more restful sleep and I started sleeping longer without waking up. I learned also that I never had an episode of night terrors on a day that I went for a run. As long as I ran at least once every three days, I was protected.
Other things in my life changed. Being pain-free makes every single thing in life look different. I generally started having more energy and being more fun to be around. Sometimes I would run up in the hills and start bellowing random songs or making up song lyrics. Everything seemed funnier. At the worst of my chronic pain problems, my daily mood was probably about a 3 out of 10. As a runner, my daily mood was more like a 9! Everything seemed awesome. I would already be planning my next run while I was still running my current route.
Then it caught up with me. My stupid refusal to spend even five minutes a day stretching, after four years, had resulted in some tight muscles and an overuse injury. I continued to train on it, because I’m stubborn, and because if you keep your exercise-induced analgesia going long enough, you don’t feel the pain you should be feeling when you push your body too hard. It wasn’t until sharp pains started waking me up in the middle of the night that I knew I had to recuperate. The realization of how dumb and self-destructive I had been added to the overall mopey feeling of not being able to run.
Even though my only real exercise in the past two years has been walking 3-8 miles a day, and the occasional yoga session, I’ve kept many of the physical changes that I earned through those years of hard endurance workouts. My posture is still better. My pain threshold feels like a thousand times higher. I haven’t had a migraine in over three years. I’ve only had night terrors twice in that time period. I can still fall asleep a few minutes after going to bed and sleep a full night without melatonin. My body composition still includes more muscle, less fat, and a lower body weight. I still wear the same clothing size I wore when I ran my marathon. I haven’t managed to keep the looser muscles in my neck and shoulders, though. The message for me is still the same: work out or be crooked.
I decided to start running again. What 'again' means is that I had to quit 2.5 years ago due to an ankle injury. It took approximately a million years longer than I thought it would to wear an ankle brace, rest it, go to physical therapy, ice it for 20 minutes at a time, eat buckets of anti-inflammatories, work with a personal trainer, and finally discover the magic of shiatsu massage. Other stupid things happened, from ripping my knee open to losing a toenail on a hiking trip. Now I'm about to turn 42 and thinking more and more about how long I can refer to myself as a "marathon runner" if I'm not actively running. Sort of like whether I can think of myself as "young" anymore, or whether I could think of myself as "employed" if I don't have a job. What am I, really? What is the nature of the universe?? How old is the ocean???
Having left a bunch of skin in the sand, and probably a bunch of sand in my skin, I am now a part of the ocean and the ocean is a part of me. Think of that the next time you accidentally ingest seawater.
I had it all planned out. I bought an app called Tides that is sort of like Dark Sky's cousin who lives in Hawaii. It has all the stuff I've learned to obsess about as a distance runner: the projected high and low temperature, chance of rain, cloud cover, wind speed... and also the phase of the moon and tide charts. I never knew until I started playing with this app that the tides are different every single day. Not in a predictable manner like sunrise and sunset, either. WHAT SORCERY IS THIS? I cannot for the life of me understand how someone could predict the tides in advance. It is seriously messing with my mind. I asked my husband to explain it to me, which he could, since he is an aerospace engineer and he has a master's degree in this kind of thing. I still don't get it. The more I think about the moon hanging out there in space and moving water next to my apartment, the more it wigs me out. I try to ignore all of that and just treat it like a cool wristwatch I got in Diagon Alley. Low tide: 10:24 AM. All righty, then, sandy beach, I'm coming atcha.
I read about a dozen articles on running in sand while I was planning this whole escapade. That's how I roll. I was reading marathon books before I could finish a 5k. It turns out that the main trick is to run at low tide, because otherwise you wind up running on a slant, with one leg uphill and the other leg downhill. This is exhausting and not all that great on your knees or ankles. The books all say to run on the nice hard-packed wet sand, because the dry sand slides out from under your feet. Got it. Run on the wet sand where it's flat near the waterline. I can do this!
I knew to expect that running on sand is more tiring. That was sort of the point. My mission in life is to develop more grit, which, what could be more perfect for being gritty than something that is literally gritty? I set out to do demoralizing, dirty, and exhausting things now and then so that I'm better able to handle terrible things like putting my laundry away. I have an affinity for sand; when I was working on losing my weight, I would go on extended rants about how I would do WHATEVER IT TAKES! IT'S COMING OFF!!! I'LL WRAP MYSELF IN BARBED WIRE! I'LL EAT SAND IF I HAVE TO! Then I would go on the elliptical for 90 minutes and think about curly fries. I lost the last 25 pounds, and I didn't have to eat sand after all.
Given a choice, though, eating a little sand is probably easier than trying to slog through it while the tide is coming in.
The thing about tide charts is that they are probably intuitive to people who are familiar with the beach, but maybe not so much to people who are not. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's ignoring the obvious. I had this idea that low tide would mean the ocean went out for a lunch break, and I could have my run and be back home before it flipped the 'OPEN' sign over and unlocked the door. What I didn't realize, because I grew up 90 miles from the ocean and only visited for a few hours once a year, was that low tide is the minute the tide starts rushing back in.
I actually made it a few yards before the waves started lapping over my feet.
A few minutes later, it was coming in up to my knees. I started angling up toward the dry sand.
Running in sand with the ocean on top of it is nothing like hard-packed sand, which I figured would be a lot like pavement. It's not even like running on mud, which is quite nice until you start to skate sideways on it. Running underwater in sand is more like running in... pudding. Like, pudding with minced pistachios in it.
I started doing high-knees, which is great for the hip flexors, but quite tiring for a brief intro run. The sand kept slipping and sliding under me, and my feet would plunge in ankle-deep. I could feel the abrasive pull of the sand roughing up my skin. Then I came to the section where all the pebbles and shells wash up.
By the time I made it to the jetty, I was trashed. My heart was pounding and I had a stitch in my side. I checked my Watch.
POINT FOUR SEVEN? THAT'S NOT EVEN HALF A MILE!
I stood there and collected myself, by which I mean that I waited until my chest quit heaving and I was no longer thinking about flopping over like a sea lion. I watched a young woman on a surfboard, wearing nothing but a bikini and a long-sleeved t-shirt, and I thought, "If my butt looked like that for one single day, I could take over the world." I thought about how fit I would have to be to stand up on a surfboard. Then I watched a grinning man of my own age blunder out of the water in a swimming cap and a tiny Speedo patterned with the California flag, the sort of swimsuit a woman of his size would never dream of wearing in public. I thought randomly of body image and self-acceptance and strength and aging and bucket lists and fitness goals. I recalled that I had already run farther than I did on my very first day, aged 35, and how proud I would have been to have made it nearly half a mile without stopping.
I turned around and "ran" back to where I started. According to my stats, I ran about a 15-minute mile pace, which is a tiny bit faster than my walking pace. Ahem. I also burned... 89 calories. So much for that protein bar I ate to fuel my run, coming in at 270 calories. Another way to put this is that my energy needs were completely covered by my morning oatmeal, and that if I were making an attempt at weight loss, I would have been better off skipping both the run and the glorified candy bar. Fortunately, my goals are simply to rebuild my fitness level and to avoid gaining back the 35 pounds it took me so much effort to lose. These are things I know how to do.
I'll just wear socks and shoes and stay on the pavement. Running on the beach is a beautiful fantasy I can use to threaten myself if I ever have a lazy day. Better hit that sidewalk or you're running on sand tomorrow!
Glory days, they'll pass you by. My husband and I are middle-aged empty nesters now. He used to play football. Like the majority of former football players, he is not in the physical condition of a professional athlete, and neither are any of the other guys from his team. Even though my husband hasn't played football in many years, he still identifies as A Football Player in some ways, and A Hockey Player as well. I haven't ridden a bicycle so much as one wheel length in several years, yet I still identify as A Bicycle Commuter. It gets into you. The only trouble is when the image no longer matches the reality. The biggest pitfall of the athletic identity is when it masks the truth, convincing us that we still have something even as it is slipping away.
I ran a marathon. I ran a marathon in October 2014, which you probably already know, because I talk about it all the time. It was a defining moment in my life. Since then, I have barely run a cumulative four miles, although you'd never know it to hear me talk. I still plan to run "fifty for fifty," completing a fifty-mile ultra-marathon for my fiftieth birthday. That birthday is getting closer every day. I don't have a training plan. Right now, my plan looks like it will work out about as well as my 1997 plan to fit in my grandmother's wedding dress for my first wedding. I decided I would fit in the dress and made no further plans. Result: hire tailor to add five inches of panels to expand waistline of gown. I could very well have a waistline five inches wider by my fiftieth birthday. Perhaps much wider still. These things "happen" when there is no plan to avoid them.
Attempts at athletic prowess are worth it, if for no other reason than their ability to humble us and put our fragile egos in place. Learning the limitations of the body and enduring pain to expand those limits is an excellent spiritual battleground. Lo, we are but mortal. Almost any athletic discipline can burn the arrogance out of a person if it is strenuous enough. (An exception might be posing strenuously in front of a mirror). If you have ever worked a muscle to the point of failure, you know what I mean. You say, "Leg, I command thee, move forward." Leg replies, "Nuh-uh." You say, "Attend me now, lowly limb, move ye thence!" Leg says, "I ain't doing it." You realize that if you are going to step over this shower threshold, you are physically going to have to grasp your own thigh and lift your foot the extra inch needed. Experiencing muscle mutiny is a little taste of how things could be if we just start to slack off and quit trying. Use it or lose it.
What I've learned is that I'm only as good as the workout I've done within the last 24 hours. Not tomorrow's workout or last week's workout, and certainly not the workout I did three years ago. I'm guaranteed to think of myself as weighing my lowest weight (before breakfast, stark naked), eating my healthiest day of food choices ever, and having the most strength, speed, and visible muscle definition I ever had. I'm also likely to think of myself as having the best grasp of punctuation and the best potato salad recipe, although that last thought is simply objective fact. It's testable. It's testable in the same exact way that my strength, speed, agility, and body composition are testable. What I'm probably going to find when I test them will be hard for my conscious mind and my poor little ego to accept.
I tried to do a pull-up the other day in the gym. I compromised by doing lat pulls, because guess what? I couldn't pull up an inch, much less clear the bar. Any more. This is something I was good at when I was training for my first (and so far, only) adventure race. I'll probably also find that I can only run a mile without getting a stitch in my side and that I'm about 30% slower now. Of course, if I continue to do what I've been doing, and avoid testing my abilities, I can retain my athletic identity and continue to believe that I am in peak training condition.
Why do I even care? Can't I just continue to think of myself as intellectually superior and have total contempt and disdain for the athletes of the world, as I used to do? Well, no, not really, not any more. Now that I know how much discipline and sacrifice are involved, now that I know a little about everything that Spartan rigor has to offer, I can't help but respect the effort. Also, I have a firm personal conviction that my food intake, body composition, and physical conditioning are directly related to my past issues with thyroid disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraine, and night terrors. Why on EARTH would I want any of that back? Better the pain that I can control, better the pain that benefits me in greater strength, than the unpredictable pain that lays me flat and breaks my spirit.
I prefer my life when I can do functional things with less effort. Strength training makes it easier for me to carry laundry and groceries, to open jars and windows, to put my own luggage in the overhead bin. Running makes me mellow and cheerful. Overall physical fitness makes it easier to do the things I love to do, like travel to places with tons of stairs or high-elevation viewpoints. Fit Me is Fun Me.
My identity now is aligned more with self-honesty. Nobody cares but me. Not even my doctor cares all that much whether I suffer or overcome. Nobody else wakes up in my body or lives my life but me myself. Present Me and Future Me. I try to see myself less as "Athletic Person" than as "Person who recognizes weakness, strategizes, and works hard to make tomorrow better than today." Also, Person Who Eats Hills for Breakfast.
There are a million myths about exercise. One of them is that it leads to weight loss, which is silly. Another is that you just go to the gym and "work out" and live happily ever after. The truth is far more complicated. Our bodies are very efficient in adapting to anything we ask them to do. That means that whatever workout we choose, within a few months, it will seem relatively easy. That's why it's called a routine. It's true what they say, that today's challenge is tomorrow's warmup. We want to periodically reevaluate our physical activities and make sure we're getting the most of our sweaty-fun-times.
The best time to start a new habit is right after you move or change jobs. That way, it just seems like starting a new chapter, or a new book. There was that time when I lived at 123 Main Street, lounged around on the couch watching Game of Thrones, and ate a lot of cereal for dinner. Then I moved to 1212 Shakethatbootay Street and suddenly I was in training.
'Training' is somewhat like working out, except for something very specific, in the same way that shopping for a wedding dress is somewhat like regular shopping.
Two and a half years ago, I ran a marathon. I over-trained and injured my ankle, and the road to recovery was long, significantly longer than 26.2 miles. This is one of the many reasons that we must periodically reevaluate our workouts, so that we don't hurt ourselves. I had heard of cross-training, but I didn't truly understand what it was. It means that no matter how often you dream you are wearing a unitard and a handlebar mustache while crossing a finish line at the Olympics, you do have to mix it up and not run every single day.
Cross-training means that some days of the week you do one activity, and other days of the week you do something very different. Ideally, this will be a mix of cardio, strength training, and flexibility. There is no end to the information out there on physical culture. What tends to happen is that you dabble a little and read an article here and there, and then you get sucked into the vortex. The more you read, the fitter you get, with the catch that you are also more aware of how slouchy and slow you really are. Well, I don't know about you. You might be able to deadlift a tractor tire. I myself look very much like the bookworm I have been since I was two years old.
If I were a man, I would probably be more embarrassed about my lack of upper body strength, although it's pretty typical for a runner. As a middle-aged lady, it just means I can pass for a schoolmarm. I would say 'librarian' but most of the librarians I know can kick my butt.
Here I am, finally unpacked in my new apartment. Despite the past few weeks of packing and hauling and unpacking boxes, I haven't been working out much lately. By 'lately' I mean two years. My daily workout has been walking three or four miles, punctuated by the occasional yoga class. I'm feeling tense, crooked, slouchy, sloppy, weak, and tired. Welcome to your forties, right? WRONG! I refuse to feel like an old lady until I'm at least eighty. I know how good it feels to be in great physical condition, and I want that back. Now it's time to reevaluate my workout.
It starts with the brutal truth. All the truly rewarding journeys in life do. If you want to be wealthy, it starts by confronting your financial balance sheet, including any and all debts. If you want to be organized, it starts by confronting all your disorder, including anything you've procrastinated or hidden from yourself, such as a cluttered storage unit. If you want to be strong, well, that starts by finding your weak points. In my case, that includes chronic neck and shoulder tension, a weak core, and a sadly flat marathoner butt. I know from working with a trainer that I need to strengthen my core, glutes, and quads, and I need to work on hip stability. The strength training exercises that I do will therefore be different than what another athlete would do, such as a swimmer or tennis player.
Check that 'need to.' Whenever we find ourselves saying 'need to' or 'have to' or 'should,' we're telling ourselves and others that we're trying to fulfill a duty or obligation or responsibility. It's helpful to reframe it as 'want to.' IF I want to run another marathon, THEN it will be helpful if I do high-knees to strengthen my hip flexors. IF I want to release my shoulder pain, THEN I ought to start running again, because the micro-movements of pumping my arms really help with that. I WANT TO cross-train effectively so I can do what I love (or used to) without hurting myself. Faster and farther than ever before.
If I scrape the barrel, I can remember how happy I was when I ran all the time. I felt like my mood was at a 9 out of 10 most days. Regular Me runs at more of a 7. Chronic Illness Me runs at more of a 4. I've fluctuated back and forth through health and illness, happiness and pain, enough times to confirm for myself that Workout Me is the version I prefer.
One of the most interesting questions is not "Why should I do this?" It is actually "What is the most I can do, and how do I find out?"
I used to feel defensive about my activity level, and I felt the need to painstakingly lecture people and train them all about my various health problems, so I could prove (to them? to myself?) that I not only didn't have to exercise, but that I could not. Ever. Then I gradually realized that my state of health involved variables that I could control. One day I woke up pain-free, and I finally understood. If I was careful, if I kept records and tracked data, if I paid attention - I could stay pain-free. When the novelty wore off, I started to wonder what else I could do, and so far I haven't found anything that I could not. Why be satisfied with 'good enough' or 'oh well'? Why not try for HECK YEAH?
My plan is to run on the beach at least one day a week, as soon as I can figure out the tide charts. I'm also looking for a pleasant hilly area for my other training days. Next is two days a week when my husband can strength-train with me in the apartment gym. We're getting our bikes fixed, so we'll play around with that, and maybe I'll drop in on some classes around town. Whatever I do over the next few weeks probably will not bear much resemblance to what I wind up doing a few months further down the road. The important part is to continue to reevaluate, making sure I'm making the most of this earthly body while I still can.
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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.