Training Tuesdays: being at peace with your version of fit

This weekend, I went on a 9.2 km return winter hike.  It’s the longest hike I’ve been on in what feels like forever (but in reality has been about 1.5 years). On the car ride back from our weekend getaway, my friends were talking about how I used to not consider anything below 20 km as a ‘real hike’.  Oh how the tides of turned. But it got me thinking about the importance of being at peace with how you define fitness for yourself right now, not how others define it, and not even necessarily how you might have defined it for yourself in the past.

You may have heard the expression comparison is the thief of joy.  When we compare ourselves to others or to our past self, we are essentially telling ourselves that wherever we are right now is not good enough.  We all have that friend or colleague who runs marathons. We all know that person who swears that Crossfit is the be all and end all.  We all probably even know that person who, like I used to, tries to hide their eye roll when you talk about the 2 km hike you went on this weekend because that’s obviously not a ‘real’ hike.

For every activity that you do, there will always be someone who does it better, faster, longer, or harder.  Even the marathoner has to contend with those pesky ultra marathoners (she says as someone whose whole blog was brought about by signing up for an ultra marathon…).  It’s far too easy to feel as though you’re not doing enough with your fitness.  It’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with sticking to small hikes, barely ever running, and even the small things like having to avoid burpees, mountain climbers and split squat jumps because they aggravate my injury. Will it be this way forever? Maybe not. Or maybe it will be.  It doesn’t really matter because right now this is my fitness reality.

Does that make being at peace with my current fitness easy? Not at all. I still struggle at times to be okay with my current fitness. I spot people at the gym doing all the things I used to do, see runners bounding past me like gazelles, read a trail description for a 40 km hike and at least half the time my initial reaction is “ugh, I used to be able to do that”. If I hear people talk about their half marathon or marathon training, I sometimes have to bite my tongue to keep myself from pointing out that I’ve run a damn marathon too.  This is despite being stronger than I’ve ever been, despite having built muscle, and despite (mostly) having kept my injury in check for the last 1.5 years.  I still have moments where I let myself feel down about not being ‘as fit’ as I used to be or as I perceive others to be.

Here’s what I’m learning, though: I don’t need to justify that I can barely run 5 km these days. I don’t need to justify that I choose not to hike 30+ km every Saturday and Sunday. I certainly don’t need to beat myself up because jumping split squats throw my SI out of whack.  I am the fit that’s right for my injury to heal. I am fit for being able to lead the type of life I want to lead. I am fit enough to allow myself donuts every Saturday (don’t underestimate the importance of this in my world) without fearing I will swell to unnatural sizes.

What’s my point to all this? Find a way to be at peace with whatever your version of fit is, whether it’s walking a half hour as often as you can, taking a spin class a few times a week, lifting weights in your basement, or even running an ultra marathon. If it’s what feels right to you and your body, and it allows you to live the type of life you want, let all those comparisons you’re making slide right off your back. Your version of fit is good enough.

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Training Tuesdays: what are you committed to?

Bear with me: this is a bit of a long one.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what gets in the way of achieving fitness goals, even when they’re incredibly important to us. Unfortunately, it’s not a simple issue to unpack.

I don’t talk a lot about my work in this space, and when I do I tend to be complaining. This isn’t really fair to my work as there are parts of it I’m supremely passionate about, like the concept of commitment or, more accurately, competing commitments.  What fascinates me about human behavior is that we can have goals that are really and genuinely important to us, yet still fail to make progress towards those goals because we act in subtle (and not so subtle) ways that work against us.  In my work, I am looking at this paradox of human behavior through the lens of leadership, but it’s equally applicable to fitness goals.

How many of us have set out to improve our health at some point, to exercise more, eat less, get in better shape, run a marathon, the list truly goes on and on?  Research shows that most of us suck at achieving our goals and resolutions, with studies showing success rates ranging from 8-40%. Those are strikingly poor numbers.  It’s easy to simply assume that the reason we fail with these goals is because they really don’t matter to us and, following with that logic, if the goals mattered more we’d be more successful.  Well, as it turns out, that’s not actually the way that our brains are wired. We can be firmly committed to a goal and still find ourselves making zero progress towards it.  Enter: the competing commitment.

I have been consistently committed to my fitness for the last 12 years or so, but prior to that I struggled with sticking to fitness routines. I’d start then stop like it was my job. Was my health important to me? Absolutely and without question. So what was the problem?  At the time, I had no idea. But as I’ve spent time delving into the world of human behavior, I’ve been able to shed light on this question.  I share this in hopes that if you’re struggling with making progress towards fitness goals, this might help you too.

The Quick & Dirty

Here’s the thing: humans are protectionist little creatures. We are hard-wired to resist change and avoid perceived risk–and note the use of the word ‘perceived’ because in the case of assessing risk, perception is reality. The odds are stacked against us to make progress when our actions might ignite the little threat centers in our brains.

What does this have to do with fitness goals?  For some of us, the reason we’re not making progress is because, in some way, the thought of taking action towards our health is perceived as a risk to our sense of self or our way of seeing the world.  When that happens, we suddenly find ourselves committed to minimizing that risk. Unfortunately, in order to minimize the risk, we sabotage any and all efforts to achieve our initial fitness goal.  In other words, we are committed to our health goal but we are also equally committed to reducing any risk or threat to our way of seeing our self and the world. When two competing commitments collide, the end result is that things come to a grinding halt and we make no progress towards our goal.

Digging Deeper

I’m sure some of you are thinking ‘okay, how could I possibly see getting fit as a threat?’ I hear you. It sounds ridiculous.  I invite you to walk yourself through this bit of a process.  I’d like you to consider the last health or fitness related goal that you had (or maybe have) for which you’re not making progress.

With that goal in mind, ask yourself what are you doing, or perhaps not doing, that is working against the goal? For me, when I’ve failed to stay on the fitness track in that past, my list included things like: telling myself I’d work out tomorrow instead of today, choosing TV or plans with friends over my workout, hitting snooze so many times that I’d run out of time to workout before work, “forgetting” my workout clothes at home, trying to run fast and frustrating myself instead of starting slow and building up.  And those are just a few of the ways I was getting in my own way.  When answering this question, it’s important to list actions or inactions without judging them.  They are neither good nor bad. They simply reflect what you’ve done or not done.

Here’s where things get interesting. My natural reaction in the past would’ve been to assume I could just do the opposite of whatever I’d listed and my problems would be solved. Just stop hitting that damn snooze button and fitness will be mine! Sadly, when we focus on the actions themselves, we miss the underlying beliefs that are the real source of our action and inaction.

Instead, try this: for everything you’ve listed in your list of things you are doing or not doing, contemplate having to do the opposite. When you think about having to do the opposite, what worries does that raise for you? If I’m honest with myself, the thought of working out made me worry that I’d look foolish, that people would judge me for being unfit, that it would feel hard and uncomfortable, that I would lose out on time with my friends.  These aren’t pretty to look at, nor should they be. Our worries and anxieties are rarely pretty, but they give us powerful insight into what’s really going on under the surface.

We have to ask ourselves: if these are my worries, what am I committed to?  If we look at my worries, I was committed to never looking foolish, I was committed to avoiding discomfort. I was committed to being seen only as capable and skilled.  So what’s the problem with that? Well, unfortunately getting fit was going to require me to be uncomfortable at times. My muscles would have to hurt. I’d have to struggle to build up cardiovascular fitness. I’d potentially look foolish trying out new exercise moves and not being able to master them first time around.  My competing commitments were working against my health goals and keeping me in a steady state of being unfit.

Our work doesn’t stop here, though, because our hidden commitments are the manifestation of underlying assumptions and beliefs. The question becomes, for my competing commitments to be true, what must I believe to be true about myself or the world around me?  In my case, I believed that people pay attention to and judge those that are trying to get fit; I believed that getting fit should be easier for me; I believed I would struggle to rebound if I embarrassed myself in the process of getting fit. Were these beliefs true? Of course not, or at least not in all cases. That’s the thing with our beliefs, though. They don’t have to be true for us to believe them at a very deep level, and to let them dictate our behaviour.

Once we start to see the underlying beliefs that are holding us back from our goals, we’re in a much better place to start to question those beliefs with small and safe-enough actions (i.e. actions that are a bit of a stretch but not so much of a stretch that they sent us into amygdala hijack).

What’s the point of all this?

If you’ve got a health or fitness goal that’s really important to you, but you’re not making the progress you want to make. Perhaps you feel frustrated or stuck and like you just can’t ‘make yourself’ do what you know you should be doing, work your way through these questions. Challenge yourself to really dig deep, to pay attention to your feelings. If you do this, you’ll notice when you’ve hit on a belief that’s been really powerful in holding you back.

Is this going to get you on track with your health goals in one fell swoop? Not at all, but it might give you a different perspective on how to make progress. So, really, what are you committed to?

**Full Disclosure: The concepts discussed in this post are from the Immunity to Change model created by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. I’m an Immunity to Change facilitator and use this model extensively in my work and coaching.  It’s based on sound research by smarter people than I, so if you don’t believe me, check out their work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Musings: what I learned on my first 5k run in 5 months

I ran yesterday. For the first time in at least five months. And I ran 5 km. Well, actually, I ran 5.7 km thankyouverymuch. Actually, it’s more accurate to say I ran 6-7 minutes at a time sprinkled with some walking breaks because apparently you’re not supposed to go from not running at all to running 5 km, especially when you’re injury prone, which I think we can all agree that I am. But I am starting to digress.

I came out of that run feeling the most positive about a run that I’ve felt in a long time, which I assure you is not my usual state. I’m usually one to be highly self-critical, to beat myself up about how far I have to go, how much slower and less fit I am now than I used to be.  To be sure, those thoughts crossed my mind throughout my run.  In fact, a running tally of my thoughts would have looked something like this:

Okay, here we go. We are doing this. Yes we are.  Oh my god, have I really only run two blocks? This is not a good sign. Okay, wait, this downhill stretch is kind of nice. I got this.  No wait, I was wrong, this ever-so-slight incline sucks. I don’t got this. Just slow your roll. This is your first run in months. There’s no hurry. You’re not going to win any races. Ah crap, other runners, I better pick up my pace so I don’t look completely incapable. How did I used to run these hills like they were nothing? This is the shortest hill ever and I am dying. I think that man is walking faster than I am running.  I think I could walk faster than I am running. Thank god that hill is over. Back to a reasonable incline and pace. Yeah, yeah I really do got this.  Another hill. WTF. Okay, okay, this is starting to feel okay. This is so much harder than it used to be. I am so slow now. You haven’t run in 5 months. What do you expect? It should feel hard. You know what, it’s not bad that it feels hard. This feels great. I am running again, people. Running. This is awesome. I wanted to do this today and I am doing it. Breathe in. Breathe out.  Keep moving. I forgot what this feels like. I did it. I am awesome. 

See? There’s a whole lotta negative in there. But if you’ll notice, and you will because I’m about to point out, I ended with positive thoughts.  This is the part that’s atypical for me.  I’m proud to say that I’ve been working with my coach on letting go.   What I mean by letting go is noticing all the pesky little unhelpful thoughts that go flitting through my head constantly, and proverbially letting them go in one ear and out the other.  I’m still a major (major) work in progress in this area, but I noticed on my run that once I let go of the thoughts about how much faster, fitter, and better I should be at running, suddenly the run was great. I finished feeling accomplished rather than discouraged. I want to try to run again (after suitable recovery days and making sure my SI doesn’t act up).  I felt good.

It’s hard to get into something, or get back into something, after time away, whether it’s running, working out in some other way, eating better, writing more, the list really does go on and on. What I learned from this run is that I am capable of letting go of all the negative chatter that makes me feel worse about a situation rather than better.  I can run 5.7 km in 40 minutes and feel good about it even though I know that I used to run 8 km in the same amount of time, even though every other runner out there was going faster than me, even though I had to work in walking breaks.  Instead, I can focus on the fact that I did it. I kept going.

If you’re trying to tackle new challenges in your life or recommit to old behaviors that you’ve let slide, I challenge you to pay attention to the critical, negative chatter inside your own head and see when and where it may be causing you to feel badly about your progress instead of celebrating your efforts.  If you’re putting one foot in front of the other, literally or metaphorically, you don’t have time for that chatter. Let it go.

Real-Talk Thursdays: on being wrong & Father’s Day

I hate being wrong. Is anyone really okay with being wrong? For me, it depends on how much I think I’m right or how much I care about the subject at hand. Was I wrong about what we had for dinner last week? That’s fine, I don’t really care. But was I wrong about who sang that song on the radio just now? No, no I was not, and I will Shazam the hell out of it right now to prove how right I am.  So yes, I don’t like to be wrong when I’m certain I’m right.

What does any of this have to do with Father’s Day?  Well, this week, I had to tell my father he was right. It wasn’t about anything terribly consequential, mind you, but it was still so very hard. Like many father/daughter dynamics (I think), my father and I love each other very much but also annoy the hell out of each other on the regular. At times, it feels I’m pre-programmed to disregard his suggestions and he seems pre-programmed to expect me to do just that. I like to think it’s endearing, though I’m sure he’d have another word for it.

Earlier this week, I was telling my parents about my shower-door-soap-scum-removing concoction, one I’d found via Google, which was a combination of Dawn dish soap and vinegar. I’d had to wrap an old scarf around my nose and mouth while using it to avoid some very unpleasant vinegar-induced coughing. My father was not pleased with my selected method, and told me to stop using it immediately. His advice: baking soda. He told me it would easily clean the shower doors without any of the harmful fumes.  Like most of my father’s suggestions, in the moment it fell on deaf ears. I mean, I got my suggestion from Google, and Google does not let you down. Besides, it had sort of worked after an hour of scrubbing, so why not just keep going with it?

When I went to revisit the shower door a couple days later, I admit that I wasn’t looking forward to breathing vinegar for an hour, not to mention it hadn’t worked as swimmingly as the internet promised.  Sheepishly, I went to my kitchen cabinet and pulled out my baking soda.  Sure enough, armed with nothing but a damp rag and a sprinkle of baking soda, soap scum started to come off easily. Damn it, he was right.

So today, a few days shy of Father’s Day, I got to give my dad what was probably the best gift he’s ever received from me: I called him and told him that he was right. After recovering from the shock of it, I believe he appreciated knowing that I had listened to his suggestion, and really, really appreciated hearing that he had been right. Sometimes, the best gift you can give someone is admitting, without preface nor justification, that you were wrong. You’re welcome, dad.