Training Tuesdays: Finding your Training Purpose

Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not so good at setting and following through with small goals.  More often than not, I flake out on them or replace them with other goals, seemingly on a whim.  I am better with higher level goals, ones that are a little nebulous but that allow me to set and sometimes abandon smaller, related goals along the way.  In other words, I need more of a purpose-driven approach to my goal-setting.

My running goals are no different. I get into a zone where I’m all “I’m going to run a half marathon” or “yeah, this is the year for a marathon” or “hell, let’s try an ultra next”.  To me, these are all “small t” training goals.  I don’t mean the events themselves or the work required to get there is small.  By “small t” training goals,  I mean these goals have little meaning to me in and of themselves.  They are events.  They come and they go. They are important only because they represent or contribute to something much bigger.

What they represent are steps toward my “Big T” training goals.  What’s a “Big T” training goal, you might ask? These are the larger goals that inspire me to set “small t” training goals to pave the way.  And, even if I don’t follow through with all those smaller goals, that “Big T” training goal is still there and it matters enough to me to keep me working towards it in some way, shape or form.  It is my training purpose.

Let’s consider the difference in a running context.  My current small t goal is to run an ultra.  It’s a lot of work and it’s incredibly ambitious for me as a runner.  But it’s not my purpose.  My Big T goal, the one that my ultra goal contributes to and aligns with, is to continue to push the boundaries of what I think is physically possible for me.  This Big T training goal is the same one that caused me to set the following small t training goals over the last decade: running a half marathon, my first 40+ km day hike, and my first mountain marathon.

I am a firm believer that “Big T” training goals will drive better training results than only employing “small t” training goals.  The reasons for this are threefold (as an added bonus, using terms like “threefold” makes them sound extra worthy of your attention):

      1. Most of us are inspired not by task completion but rather by working towards something larger and more meaningful. It’s the same reason companies have visions.  For instance, I work for a technology company. I think technology is cool and all, but I’m not inspired by our actual product.  What I am inspired by is what that platform stands for, which is all about creating possibilities. I don’t think it’s any different for our lives outside of work, including our training.  Chances are there is something larger than an event or our workouts that is driving us to keep doing what we’re doing.  I believe if you identify your larger training purpose you will work even harder to pursue your smaller goals–and find more satisfaction in reaching them.

2. Big T goals are aspirational and ongoing.  If we set nothing but event-related or situational goals we can create a bit of a checklist mentality for ourselves. And what happens when the event is over? When you finish that half marathon or get that PR, you may find yourself rudderless without a larger purpose to keep you going.   Big T training goals are continuously aspirational so they provide the impetus to set smaller goals that keep you on your path.

3. If I fail to complete a small t training goal, my Big T training goal ensures that there’s still something else for me to work towards. For me, if all my eggs are in one basket (i.e. I’m just focused on a singular, small goal) and my basket breaks (I can’t complete that goal), I’m more likely to get discouraged to the point of inaction (personal resilience is clearly not my strong suit).  Or, if an injury strikes (ahem, like right now), it can feel hopeless.  But my Big T training goal keeps me moving.  If I don’t run my ultra, there’s other ways I can push myself beyond what I currently think possible.

So if you haven’t yet defined what drives you to keep training, whether it’s running or any other athletic endeavour, you may want to ask yourself what is your Big T training goal? What gets you up in the morning and what keeps you setting smaller goals along the way? What is the common thread or connection between all of your smaller training goals? What keeps you going when times are tough? In giving thought to some of these questions, you just mind find a whole new level of connection and commitment to your training.

Monday Musings: On Making Tough Calls

Please allow me to introduce myself.  I am:

stubborn

The stubborn idealist is a dangerous personality type. It combines a sometimes delusional belief that anything is possible (the idealist side) with a steadfast refusal to adjust or let go of your idea, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that your approach isn’t working (the stubborn side). Let’s not confuse this with being a persevering and tenacious dreamer.  The key difference is that the tenacious dreamer learns from mistakes and adjusts his or her course, whereas the stubborn idealist  will not let things go or change course, even when it is clearly the most rational course of action. 

My idealism and stubbornness are waging a battle right now.  On the idealist side, I want to believe that it’s possible for me to run an ultra. Moreover, I actually think it’s possible for anyone to run an ultra (presuming they want to make it happen…it is my blog name after all). On the stubborn side, I keep trying to build up running distance and to incorporate trail running only to find myself in the worst pattern of injury recurrence that I’ve experienced in five years.

This morning, after a weekend of debilitating pain, it took me a full ten minutes to get out of bed, and this wasn’t in a because-I-hit-the-snooze-button kind of way. Unfortunately, it was because I couldn’t actually get my body to sit or stand up without excruciating pain, no matter how I tried to make it happen (and trust me, some of the attempts probably looked pretty comical). Even an emergency physio treatment has provided little comfort or improvement to my pain and mobility.

Despite this, in my mind I am still focused on getting back to training. I’m focused on forcing myself to rest so I can properly heal (unlike last week when I continued to work out despite warnings).  I’m thinking about where I can hike this weekend and how I can start to exponentially increase my distance. In short, I’m being the consummate stubborn-idealist.  By doing so, I am failing to listen to my body and consider the very real possibility that I might have to make some tough choices in the near future. I may have to decide that running an ultra is not in my best interest–not because I can’t do it, but because it’s not worth the wear and tear on my body.

Let’s look at the facts:  I have not experienced recurring SI issues since I last trail ran.  That means I have gone roughly five years running moderately (i.e. 10-12 km at a time at most), hiking extensively, and generally staying very fit and active.  I have done this without any major body issues.  As soon as I’ve reintegrated even the most modest of distance gains (i.e. an extra 5 km/run) or any trail running whatsoever, my injuries have come back with a vengeance.

I’m not ready to make a decision yet. I want to get through this next cycle of healing, I want to focus on slowly and thoughtfully building up my distance, and I want to start working with a personal training to balance out my strength. I believe these things will make a difference (stubborn idealism rears its head again!).  What I also know, however, is that if these approaches don’t work and I continue to face painful recurring injuries, I will be forced into a very tough decision that will test my stubborn idealist ways.

To ultra or not to ultra…that will be my question, and I am not looking forward to having to seriously contemplate it.

TWIR #6

Well, things couldn’t get any worse than last week from a lack of activity perspective so let’s all bask in the awesomeness of my ‘progress’ this week.

Saturday
Activity: Spin & elliptical
Relevant Stats: 45 minutes on both
Observations:
Ugh, nothing makes the soul hurt more than being forced to spend 1.5 hours in the gym on the weekend. Despite dehydration (i.e. a hangover) and the elliptical not being as horrid as I remembered, I still left the gym discouraged and promptly dropped way too much money on unnecessary clothing. One should not go to a gym downtown.

Sunday
Activity: Unapproved hike
Relevant Stats: 8.4 km, 766 m elevation gain
Observations:
I wasn’t supposed to hike over the weekend weekend but I’ll be damned if I will let a sunny, 20-degree April day go to waste. Also, I wanted to pre-emptively burn calories for a planned fish and chips dinner at the beach. And you know what, I don’t regret a second of this hike. My SI was fine and the views were worth any risk of injury.

Monday
Activity: elliptical
Relevant Stats: 60 min.
Observations:
It was an elliptical miracle! I don’t know how I lasted an hour, especially as the one elliptical with the little adjustor for ‘climbing’ looked directly at a blank wall.

Tuesday
Activity: Spin & Elliptical
Relevant Stats: 11 min elliptical, 49 min spin (mostly sprint intervals)
Observations:
Today was a magical day of workouts fuelled by optimism because I was given the all clear to try running again. I opted for one last day of non-running training, especially since I had just got a physio adjustment, and went to the dreaded gym. Funny how knowing you can run outside again can make the gym infinitely more tolerable…so much so that I voluntarily did sprints!!!

Wednesday
Activity: OMG A RUN!!!!!!
Relevant Stats: 9.4km, average pace of 5:40/km
Observations: It was slow and it was hard after a week without running, but damn it felt good.The sun was shining. The flowers were in bloom. The water was sparkling. It was a picture perfect Vancouver Spring run.

Thursday
Activity: Planned rest day
Relevant Stats: Deep fried pickle consumption: 1/2 order, Beer Consumption: 2 passionfruit ales, Wine Consumption: 2 glasses
Observations:
I consider it a wise choice to take a rest day following my first run in a week. Although it wasn’t a long break from running, it was just long enough to notice a difference, and my muscles were more sore than usual following the fun. Look at me being thoughtful about rest and recovery. Progress. On the diet front, much less progress was demonstrated.

Friday
Activity: Spin & Elliptical
Relevant Stats: 35 minutes elliptical, 10 minute spin
Observations:
Thursday’s diet indiscretions, not surprisingly, led to a sluggish and unproductive workout. I planned to run but I was feeling some tightness around my tailbone that was concerning so I opted for yet another elliptical/spin session. I estimate I burned maybe 250 calories and spent 100% of the time staring at the clock ticking down minutes. At least it’s Friday right?

Consensus on this week? A half-hearted:
twir 6

Throwback Thursday: A Tale of the First (in a long line of) Ankle Injury

Since it’s been a week of injury, I thought I’d recount the tale of how I first acquired one of my most persistent and annoying injuries: my short-on-functioning-ligaments ankle.  I would recount the origins of my current SI injury, but sadly I can’t even remember which of the many trail runs and falls caused it.  And so, ankle story it is!  We can all celebrate the wonder of human body parts and their ability to totally crap out on us in the strangest of ways.

There is also a very important moral to this injury story, which is as follows:

Injuries are not always acquired in glamorous ways, nor do they give us stories that we are proud to tell.  No, sometimes our most persistent of injuries have their roots in the most mundane of activities. 

With that out of the way, let us begin.

I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve sprained one of my ankles quite a few times.  Well, it’s been nine to be exact. Yes, nine. I’m not hopelessly clumsy, though it may appear that way. Apparently, once the ligaments start to stretch , ankles will just keep on rollin’. Mine turns if I hit a pebble the wrong way. It’s rather impressive. It no longer swells, hurts, or bruises when I sprain it. At first I thought that was a good thing, a sign that I had developed superhuman ankles, until one of my many physiotherapists said it’s essentially because about 10% of my ligaments are functioning normally. I like the way my physiotherapists have a knack for sharing sobering thoughts.

But once upon a time my ankle was still going 100% strong. That was back in the year 2000 (hopefully someone out there appreciates the link to that gem), or at least somewhere around the year 2000 because who actually documents these things? Regardless of exact timing, let me recount the ridiculously short and simple incident which has triggered nearly 2 decades worth of ankle trauma.

It all started out at UBC, one evening when I was sitting outside of Fairview Townhomes, eating some sort of frozen treat on a stick while talking to a dear friend.  I got up to throw away my popsicle stick and made a very ungraceful attempt to jump from the parking lot to the sidewalk. In the process, I tripped over one of those short, concrete parking blocks and my ankle folded over in a way no ankle should.

Yes, that is the entire story.  One moment of miscalculated distance and an attempt to save mother Earth really can lead to a lifelong injury.  Of course, I was also woefully ignorant of what to do with such an injury. It never occurred to me to see a doctor or physiotherapist, and there was certainly no RICE-ing it. In fact, though the bruising and swelling were truly a spectacular sight, and though the pain was quite substantial, I continued to walk on it as if there were no problem at all.

Who knows what would be different if I’d had the foresight to seek medical attention. I rarely take the time to ponder that.  Instead, I spend my time pondering what it would be like to have an infinitely cooler story to explain the injury. Like what would it be like if I had sprained my ankle fighting off and then outrunning a grizzly bear, escaping it only by throwing my injured body into a raging river and somehow grabbing onto the one tree trunk making its way down the river to keep myself afloat. Now that would be a story that would make an injury easier to swallow.

Mid-Week Inspiration…or Is It?

Anyone who follows running knows the Boston Marathon was Monday. I don’t actually follow running, but Twitter and the blogosphere were all abuzz about it. Because of this, I read far more about the event than I ever planned.

My biggest takeaway from my (albeit limited) reading is that,  generally speaking, people find the winners to be very inspiring.  I want to preface what I am about to say by emphatically stating that it is no way meant to show disrespect for the training and athleticism of the winners.

With that out of the way, here we go. I do not find elite marathon race winners inspiring.  Phew, that felt good to get off my chest, but also a little bit uncomfortable because there is a lot of talk out there about how inspirational these runners are. But, if you have been reading since my very first post, you’ll recall that I don’t go for the typical brand of inspiration.  Also, this is my own personal opinion.

So let me explain the very simple reason I do not find these marathon winners inspiring: they make me feel badly about my running and their times are so completely unattainable to me that they have virtually no meaning.  I mean, seriously, the top female finished in 2:29:18 and the top male finished in 2:12:45 (which, by the way, one press outlet described as a “very modest” time to which I say “are you kidding me????”).  These times are only marginally longer than my half marathon time.

Let’s take a closer look at this. If I do the math on these types of marathon times, I would have to run almost twice as fast over twice the distance. No matter how hard I train, this will never happen for me.  Ever. I get that these are elite athletes whereas I am a casual runner but even Malcolm Gladwell’s 10000 hours isn’t meant to lead from my level of marginal running competence to that level of running mastery.

Who do I find inspiring then? I am more inspired by the person who picks up running one day and less than a year later runs a 4:30 marathon. I’m amazed by the working mother who finds time to train and run a sub-3 marathon. I’m in awe of the 60-year old who trains for and completes his or her first marathon.  I like the underdog and the everyperson.  Entirely unattainable feats of human endurance, on the other hand, make me want to give up running entirely in favour of a more realistic competitive endeavor for my talents which, if I had to guess, would likely land in the camp of competitive ice cream eating.

And so, while I say hats off to the Boston Marathon champions and deeply respect their discipline and obvious talent, I am keeping my inspirational figures a little closer to my own level of capability. Here’s to being inspired by the every-day runner who dares to tackle the marathon or ultra!

Training Tuesdays: on training when you’re not a spring chicken

First off, I fully acknowledge that I am by no means old. However, over the last five years I have noticed a marked difference in my ability to jump into activities, build up stamina, and recover from the more epic of my adventures. My parents warned me about this, and I stubbornly tuned them out. After all, I’m only in my late thirties, which means I’m still young, which means that I should be able to roll out of bed after a few measly hours of sleep and a bottle of wine and launch into an effortless morning training run. Right?

Wrong.

Those luxuries seemed to have set sail back in my 20s. In their place I have only delightful things like tiredness, stiff morning muscles that take time to wake up, and the need to see physiotherapists weekly just to keep the body in order.

Don’t worry. This is not a woe-is-me sob story about aging or how you can’t stay fit when you’re older. I do not believe that aging means letting go of fitness. I do, however, believe that your body needs a little bit more…TLC as it gets older.  I’ve learned the hard way and consequently dread the state my body may be in by the time I’m in my 40s. So learn from the error of my ways, and heed my advice with these five simple rules:

1. Take recovery seriously: I spent most of my life scoffing at things like stretching, rest days, and recovering from injuries.  I used to blatantly ignore injuries. Why not run on a sprained ankle? I used to try to work out seven days a week because I thought it would make me healthier. I sort of assumed you could just get up, hike or run 20-30km and then sit down for the rest of the day and be ok. Who needs warm ups, cool downs or stretching??? Over the years, my body has victoriously retaliated in a variety of ways (recurring ankle injuries, SI injuries, IT band issues, shoulder issues, etc. etc.)  I’m still working on the whole stretching thing, but I’ve learned to cherish rest days and respect recovery.

2. Shake it up:  You know that expression ‘everything in moderation’? It applies to running too.  I used to believe that to run well I should do nothing but run.  That resulted in a plethora of issues (see above), not to mention some severe running burnout. Over the years, I’ve learned to shake up my routine, not only to save my sanity but also to build strength and keep my body from literally falling apart at the seams.

3. For the love of God, hydrate!!!: The translation here is don’t think you can drink like the world is ending one night and still wake up feeling pumped for a hike or training run.  If you’re under the age of 30 you are probably rolling your eyes right now. Let me tell you, I used to be able to hike or run with a hangover like it was nothing at all.  Mark my words, one day you too will start the downward slide into progressively lower tolerance for alcohol-related shenanigans. And it will come suddenly and quickly. Just trust me and stick to two glasses of wine before a big day of running. And seriously, whether alcohol is involved or not, just drink a ton of water!!!!

4. Go to sleep!: I remember when the thought of going to sleep wasn’t exciting and I’m fairly certain the last time I felt that way was university. Ever since, I’ve found sleep to be a magical elixir for life.  In the last few years, I’ve found its powers to be even stronger when it comes to workout success. With a bad night’s sleep, I am a ball of muscle exhaustion, laziness, and excuses for ending workouts early. With a good night’s sleep, I am like a freaking gazelle (okay, only in my mind) with a seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm for my training.

5. Eat your damn veggies:  I have always liked vegetables, but I did go through periods of my life where I existed solely on veggie dogs and tater tots.  When I was younger it made no difference.  I could have a brilliant run fuelled by ice cream and a 1/2 pound of chocolate (no lie). Now I notice a distinct correlation between junk food consumption and bad workouts. Take my word for it, doubling down on Easter candy to “get rid of it” will not provide quality running fuel. Simply put: garbage in, garbage out. Also, believe the hype, kale is your friend.

I welcome any and all additional tips that will spare me by poor body further damage and injury. I offer kale salads as payment for tips, and I assure you I make a mean kale salad.

Monday Musings: On Coping with Setbacks & Chronic Injuries

I have been on a good streak of slowing building up my distance and incorporating more and more hill runs. I’ve been seeing a physiotherapist weekly as a preventative measure. I’ve had some slight stiffness around my SI, but nothing that’s kept me from running or from continuing to increase my mileage.

Until Thursday.

8.4 km into my run it all went to crap and, despite a well-timed physio appointment that allowed for almost immediate treatment, I was advised to stop running (and hiking) until things get sorted.  I was also advised that I might need to consider prolotherapy, and that running an ultra may not be in my best interest. Turns out these chronic, recurring injuries from running might be a sign I am not meant for running distance.

Needless to say, Thursday was not a good day so I did what any stubborn FOME sufferer would do: I had a good cry on the walk back from physiotherapy, and then proceeded to be an absolute grumpus for the remainder of the day.

I cannot remember a time when I didn’t react to injury-related setbacks this way.  I am always overly emotional and a little chicken little about them.

chicken little

I am, in short, quite insufferable to be around.

Once I can put things in perspective, I can usually get past the extreme and unproductive thinking. However, there are very real consequences of chronic injuries:

  • Training setbacks are legit.  Running is one of those things that you have to do all the time. Nothing else is a suitable replacement. I find even a couple of weeks off running tends to significantly impact running stamina.
  • Boredom. I usually spend a combined total of 6-10 hours on the trail on weekends, longer in the summer.  Without epic trail runs or hikes, I don’t even know what to do with myself. I am my father’s daughter and am incapable of relaxing.
  • Gym burnout. I don’t actually like the gym.  I use it purely for strength training and spin.  The rest of my workouts are usually outside.  When my activities are restricted to the elliptical and spin bikes, thus making the gym my only choice, my soul dies a little. I don’t think I can capture in words just how much I loathe the elliptical. And don’t even talk to me about swimming…
  • Crankiness. My workouts are what keep me sane and I find running and hiking to be particularly good outlets for all my crankiness, as well as being as close to meditation as I can personally get. I fear for my friends and loved ones when I’m forced to rest and recover.

I’m thankful this is a relatively minor setback in the grand scheme of things.  But, let’s be honest, no matter how you slice it chronic injuries suck.  I’ve suffered enough short and long-term injury-related setbacks over the years to have developed a list of advice for myself, which I now share with you.

1. Focus on what you CAN do. As much as I mocked swimming, there have been times when it’s all I could do for exercise.  So, despite hating it with the fire of a thousand suns, I swam an hour and 15 minutes several days per week to maintain my fitness. It was better than nothing and, as an added bonus, my arms never looked better.

2. Treatment is your friend. I am very pro-physiotherapy. I see mine weekly for preventative care and more often when injured. If you have a good one, he or she will be a fountain of knowledge and resources to address your issues…and maybe even keep you from developing new ones.

3. Listen to your body. As much as I love my physiotherapist, I’m also stubborn. I trust my own intuition and ability to gauge my body’s progress.  But I have learned (mostly the hard way) not to let my stubbornness get out of hand.  If activities hurt or cause my condition to worsen, I will stop immediately. It’s just not worth it. On the other hand, if I feel like I’m ready to get back at it, I’ll step outside of recommended activities or intensity and see how it goes.

4. Take advantage of the extra time. The one plus of injuries is more time for friends. And things like getting your life back in order (i.e. cleaning up my disaster of a home, laundry, grocery shopping). And afternoon beers.  Mostly the afternoon beers.  If you can’t train, you might as well have some fun, right?

5. Let yourself be frustrated. I am a big fan of the occasional wallow.  I believe if you indulge in some good, old-fashioned self-pity, you’ll get past it faster.  Embrace your inner sad panda.

sad panda

Now if only someone could teach me how to follow my own advice…