Humbly admitting to yourself that you don’t know as much as you thought you did is one of the very toughest experiences for the ego. It’s almost as tough as giving a sincere apology. When I think of this practice of dumping inaccurate, mistaken, preconceived, or unhelpful information, I refer to it as emptying the cup. It comes from a Zen story about a know-it-all novice monk who wouldn’t listen. I see my personal mental teacup as one of the traditional Asian variety; it only holds a couple of tablespoons! If I want fresh, hot tea, I need to routinely drain my cup and make room for more. It takes discipline to Snopes yourself all the time and let go of incorrect stories. I’m going to walk through my process of doing this, specifically for the category of physical fitness.
A “factual statement” purports something to be objectively verifiable. “The Moon is made of green cheese.” “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” There are probably a million times more pseudo-facts than there are actual facts. Misinformation is much easier to find than accurate information. My first task is to lay out what I think I know. Then I need to pick through what’s working and what isn’t working.
Unfortunately, I know from experience that I tend to cling desperately to the least effective things I’ve been doing, while strongly resisting exactly the new information that would be most helpful. Resistance tends to pop up in response to unfamiliar new information, not incorrect or inaccurate information. It feels like boredom or disgust. That’s my flag. Resistance means I’m onto something! Resistance means it’s time to activate the ignition on my curiosity. As I learn around the edges of a new topic, it starts to become more familiar, more interesting, and more appealing. Some of the very things that are most interesting to me now began as things that totally repelled me before. (Cooking, mud runs, the world of finance).
My original attitude toward physical fitness was that it was the consolation of idiots. I thought certain people were born smart and others weren’t, and that the drive to work out or play any kind of sports was a signal of cognitive deficiency. I was so smart I wound up spending years trapped in chronic pain and fatigue. It was my comeuppance. You think you know so much? Here, have a four-day migraine! Discovering that I could control my illness through physical inputs really knocked me down several pegs. I was finally ready to listen.
I started running on a whim. The decision came out of nowhere. I just turned to my husband and said, “You know how I do something new at the New Year?” “Yeah?” “Next year, I think it’s going to be running.” His head rocked back. “Really?” I felt a little sick as I realized what I was doing, but I felt the commitment in my gut. “Yeah, I think so.” I started a couple weeks early. On the first day, I literally couldn’t run around the block without stopping. I had to lie on the floor until I stopped seeing black spots. At that point, I understood in a visceral way something that I never could understand in an intellectual way. I was NOT in good shape for a 35-year-old. (I try to think of my body from the perspective of 80-year-old Future Me).
“I guess I know what I’m doing tomorrow,” I thought.
I learned a lot over the next four years. I learned how to fit workout time into my schedule. I learned that it didn’t matter whether I ran in the morning, afternoon, or late at night. I learned to plan routes and gradually increase my distance. I learned that my weight was determined 98% by what I ate, and that my workout had virtually nothing at all to do with whether I lost or gained. I learned how to sign up for races and attach a race bib. I learned that the time I saw on the clock as I crossed the finish line was not my actual time, and that I could check for my true time online. I learned what arrangements of workout clothes worked for me in different weather conditions. I had to re-learn how to tie my shoelaces, and if you ever want an exercise in being more humble, that is a good one.
My dog learned to distinguish the word RUN in normal ape conversation, such as, “I’m going to run some laundry.” He would come around the corner so fast he would skid out on the tile. He would show up ready to RUN even when he’d already RUN six miles that day. (He’s a master at recovery; he sprawls on the floor after a workout and sleeps).
I became one of Those People. I started fantasizing about running. I would think about my next run while I was still on the trail during my current run. I would look out a window, see someone running, and want to jump up and join her. I scoped out people’s gear. I read running magazines and books. I watched running documentaries. I took pictures of my race medals. I secretly hoarded my worn-out running shoes. I had lucky socks.
Then the almost-inevitable happened. I got sidelined by an overuse injury. It happens to 8 out of 10 runners at some point.
The pain in my ankle became so intense that it would wake me in the night. It felt like someone was kicking me in a specific spot with a cowboy boot. I learned that the analgesic effect of distance running that had helped me overcome chronic pain could also mask the pain of injury. I didn’t notice something was wrong until it was really, really wrong. I learned all about physical therapy, foam rollers, ice massage, kinesiotherapy tape, and ace bandages.
I’m starting from zero now. Well, not zero, because my base fitness level is in the stratosphere compared to where it was when I started. I think of myself as a runner now, rather than Not Applicable or Haha, No. Where I’m starting now is the place of the empty cup.
My prior routine was to suit up, run whatever route suited the distance I felt like running that day, shower, change clothes, and Eat All the Things. I had read that stretching had either no discernible effect or could actually lead to injury, so I didn’t do any warmup or cool-down. I knew there was this thing called “cross-training,” and that there were specific strength training exercises that runners could do to help their performance, but I shrugged that stuff off. Not interested. I had seen such amazing changes in my body from running that I didn’t think I needed more. What I’m doing works for me, so shut up. My cup was full.
It turns out that I was in a dangerous position. I had personal experience up to a certain point on the growth curve. I thought I knew everything I needed to know. I wasn’t a coach or a trainer. I had no experience in organized athletics. What I was doing “worked” until it quit working. I was like a novice driver with a new car, going along great until the engine ran out of oil. In retrospect, if I wasn’t going to work with a trainer, I should have come up with a more organized plan before I began training for a marathon. I doubled my distance, changed my shoes, and started training on a different surface all at the same time. Too many variables. When the injury started surfacing, I didn’t recognize it for what it was.
Fast forward 18 months.
I’m desperate to get back out there. Default Me is downbeat, moody, and tightly wound. Running Me is cheerful and energetic. Running Me sleeps better. Running Me is more productive. Running Me is less triggered by interpersonal drama, more forgiving, better at listening. There is no substitute for cardio. If it came in a pill it would be more revolutionary than antibiotics. That’s why I want to be doing it in the long term. I want to run another marathon, and next time, I’m going to do it without having to drag my leg the last 8 miles.
I took careful notes in physical therapy. I learned that I have weak glutes. This corresponded with how I felt after my marathon. I was sore in certain areas but not others. I worked one hip flexor to failure, and this helped me understand that I was probably running a little heavier on one side. Strengthening my glutes and hip flexors should help steady my stride. I also learned that my calves are extremely tight, something that probably affects that tendon in my ankle. I need to work my core and my quads. Now I have independent sources corroborating the same information: running manuals, a physical therapist, and sensations in isolated muscle groups that I can physically feel in my own body. It’s easy to nod along and think, “Duh, obviously.” It’s unforgettable when you try to step into the shower and have to grab your thigh with your hands and pick up your leg because your foot won’t respond to your command.
I have another couple of weeks before my toenail finishes growing back (long story) and I’m going to use that as study time. I’m starting from the perspective of a Sadder But Wiser Person Who Wants to Avoid Injury. Fortunately/unfortunately, there is a cottage industry for middle-aged athletes who want to come back after various overuse injuries. Not only do I want to proceed without my ankle acting up again, I want to make sure I avoid developing any “new and different” injuries to other parts of my body. Rather than skimming or skipping the diagrams and chapters on sports physiology, I’m going to read with a highlighter behind each ear. I’m going to stick post-its everywhere. I’m going to take written notes in an actual notepad. I’m going to slap myself whenever I catch myself feeling resistance or lack of focus. If I really think I’m so smart, I’m smart enough to pay attention and recognize I can benefit from learning more.
The first day I show my dog his harness and ask if he’s READY to RUN, I’m going to make sure I’m really ready, too.
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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.