Fittest by Fifty? Who’s the Competition? She is!

If it’s my goal to be my personal fittest by fifty, then I need to know where the bar is set. Who do I have to beat?

As Tracy and I have mentioned neither of us had particularly athletic childhoods. We have no sports trophies gathering dust or teenage personal bests to conquer. Thank God.

For me, there are two possible candidates for my competition.

Here’s contender number 1. Meet the me that resulted from my last fitness run-up to a significant decade. It’s me at 40. Say hello to Sam, circa 2004, photos below.  She’s in the yellow tank, wearing a number on her chest, no shoulder tattoo yet. She’s thinner and fitter than I am now, if we use running as a measure of fitness. I think she’s probably slower on the bike. She’s certainly not as strong nor as muscular. Shhh. But either way she’s not as fit as I will be at 50.

No thinness goals this time round. From 2002 to 2004,  I went from 230 to 160 lbs but while I stayed reasonably fit I didn’t manage the keep all the weight off. This time my focus is fitness. Though like Tracy, I’d also like to have a better fat-muscle ratio. (Read why here.)

I love these photos because it was such a happy day. I came 14th out of the 40 women in my age group at the Waterloo duathlon. What a terrific race. 5 km run, 40 km bike, 3 km run. Much better than the one I’d done before which ended with a 5 km run. Like all duathletes who turn out to be really be cyclists, I loathe the 2nd run.

A few other things about that day stand out.

I competed with my good friend Martin with whom I’d trained for the race. We actually sort of cheated, just a little bit. He was in the wave ahead of me and so when he’d finished he came back and ran the last run again, with me, for moral support.

You are not supposed to do that, no outside help allowed, and it’s true his nagging– “See that girl ahead in the blue shorts, you can pass her”–helped. If it makes you doubt my ethics, and I’m an ethics professor (geesh), it might help to know that I had no idea this was breaking a rule at the time. It was my second duathlon and it was all new to me.

The hills were also my kind of hills, rolling, steep and short. I could power up and over them without much need to change gears and I’m happy to aggressively pedal down them.

But I’m not sure running is a good way for to measure fitness now, two stress fractures later. That said, in a combined run/bike/run event, I think I could take her by 2014.

Contender number 2 is cycling me, me after 10 months of training with the Vikings Cycling Club in Canberra, Australia and a lot of racing: road races, time trials, and criteriums. She’s below in the blue and white bike jersey, looking very happy just having finished a race. I use a photo from that era as main image on this sight for inspiration. Those were very happy, and very fit, times. I miss the Stromlo Crit course and the weekly club level racing. Miss all the women cyclists and all of my friends on bikes, both there in New Zealand. Need to get more women riding here and I wish we had more recreational racing but that’s a  problem and a post for another time. I was very bike fit by July 2008 when I came home from Australia and I’ve got loads of good data to use in a comparison.

Maybe I’ll need to beat them both but we’ll see how my running holds out. This project would be seriously setback by another stress fracture.

 

Good Pain, Bad Pain

Sam posted earlier about why athletes love pain or rather, love painful workouts.  I do not consider myself an athlete. And I don’t love pain. But I am pretty good at ignoring it sometimes.

My yoga teacher has often talked about good pain and bad pain. Good pain challenges us beyond our comfort level but doesn’t push us too far, like the pain involved in pushing out that last rep, or the pain of staying in warrior I for longer than you would without a teacher calling upon you to lunge deeper, or that pain of sprinting during those running intervals. Bad pain says “STOP! You’re about to injure yourself (or you just did).”

Last week I felt a little sore in my right hip after my first serious run since being out of town for a couple of weeks.  The pain wasn’t new — it was the same pain that drove me out of running about twenty-five years ago.  Bad pain.  I backed off from running and set my mind instead to the final 12 days of the 30-day hot yoga challenge.  Towards the end of last week (after just 5 days), my lower back started to feel, well, uncomfortable.  It needed stretching out more frequently than usual.  Some of the yoga poses became more challenging.  By Monday, I wanted to take a day off yoga but, hey, I was in the middle of a challenge! I pushed on.

But the pain was BAD pain.  I didn’t heed its warning. On the contrary, I went to not one, but two yoga classes on Tuesday (one hot, one not).  And instead of taking it easy, I felt spurred on by the challenging class and by being beside someone I knew and by my ego saying what a good, strong yogi I am. I wrenched myself more strenuously into the twists than I sometimes do.  I jumped back with vigor from my forward bends into high plank.  I kept meticulous form in each vinyasa flow (and there were many because it was a flow class), moving from high plank to chatturanga and through to upward dog without resting on the ground for even a split second between.

On a day when I felt 100%, pushing myself like this would be a good thing. But that day, already feeling tired and already feeling a low back flare up, it required that I ignore very clear signals from my body.  Ignoring like that was a big mistake.

When I went to my personal training session yesterday morning, I got two burpees into it when I could not continue.  We spent the next fifteen minutes stretching. The subsequent workout was the easiest one I’ve had ever with my trainer.  I didn’t even break a sweat. Contrary to his usual advice, he asked me to back off of any activity for the next two days, rest my back, and apply heat to the (apparently) spasming muscles.

I have a super tender lower back today and wouldn’t even dream of going to a yoga class.  Thankfully, standing and walking are the two most comfortable things I can do right now (other than lying down).  I walked all over the city yesterday and my back felt good.

I think the combination of the challenge and the competitive and even show-offy spirit worked me into a state of denial where I ignored bad pain.  It’s especially easy for people who are used to being alienated from their bodily signals to do this.  I have a history of distorted body image, chronic dieting, and disordered eating patterns that left me unable even to determine when I was hungry. I have since dealt with that, but it is still easy for me not to listen to my body.

What I learned from this is that hard training requires a really good relationship with my body.  The old adage, popular around the gyms I worked out in in the early nineties, “no pain, no gain” called upon us to push through the pain if we wanted to see results.  Today, I see that it’s not quite so simple. Not all pain is worth pushing through. And it takes a lot of awareness to be able to decipher the good from the bad.

This is doubly complicated in people with a high pain threshold. I can tolerate quite a bit.  Two-hour tattoo session? Bring it on, I say!  If you’re good at setting aside pain, it’s easier to ignore bad pain.

If I had paid closer attention, I would have taken a rest from the yoga challenge before I was forced to the sidelines by this back strain.  Now, simply because I do not have adequate mobility at the moment, I need to rest from just about everything I love to do (other than walking).

Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance)

What makes painful workouts so much fun? Or assuming there’s some self selection at work here, we could ask the question a little bit differently: Why do athletes find painful workouts so much fun?

Now not all of the workouts I do are painful. Most days of the week I workout out twice a day and I wouldn’t be able to take that kind of intensity all the time. Nor does it make sense from a training point of view. But still the best workouts, the ones that are the most fun, are the painful ones. And as philosopher, I find this appreciation for pain more than a little puzzling.

But let me begin by describing two of the painful workouts I’ve done this week.

Here’s Monday’s Crossfit workout: The snatch ladder (be mature, no sexual jokes please, we’re all grown ups here)

The snatch ladder from the Crossfit Games looks like this

30 Snatch (M 75 / F 45 lbs)
30 Snatch (M 135 / F 75 lbs)
30 Snatch (M 165 / F 100 lbs)
Max Rep Snatch (M 210 / F 120 lbs)

“This workout begins from the standing position. The athlete will complete all reps at the first weight before advancing to the next weight. Score is total reps completed in 10min.”

We tried this event as our workout of the day on Monday. I’ve got to say it was 10 min of torture. Yet, lots of us loved it and therein lies in the puzzle.

Tuesday’s rowing workout was more painful though and more fun. Rowing workouts are notoriously tough. A friend regularly does something she calls “the erg of death.” I get that.

Though I’m new to the rowing world, cycling workouts are much the same. The best series of cycling training videos, for indoor workouts on the trainer or the rollers, is called The Sufferfest.

Gallows humour about throwing up and passing out is routine. Like the Crossfit tshirt says, “Yes, you will pass out before you die.” And we all know the sayings: Pain is weakness leaving the body. What doesn’t kill you…etc etc etc.

The rowing torture took place on the erg at the London Rowing Club. Here’s the drill: 2000 m for time, rest 3 min, 1500 m for time, rest 3 min, 1000 m for time, rest 3 min, 500 m for time. Collapse on the floor gasping a mere shadow of your former self. Crawl to car, drive home.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details but I did manage the final 500 in 1 minutes and 56 seconds. I was very happy that I finished faster than I started even after all that effort. But I had nothing left in the tank at the end. My legs were screaming for those final 200 m and I was gasping for air. It helped that I had a coach and some other rowers who’d finished ahead of me cheering me on but still that last bit of our workout really hurt.

And I loved it.

So here are some questions about pain and athletic training and performance I’ll be talking about in the coming weeks. Here I just want to raise the questions. Later I hope to say more about them. In the future I’d like to write a philosophical paper on pain in the context of sports training.

1. Are athletes masochists? Now before we all snicker, let me say I don’t mean sexual masochists necessarily. Sexual masochists take sexual pleasure from pain delivered in a sexual context. But you needn’t find sexual pleasure in pain to find pain enjoyable.

Here’s Lance Armstrong:

“Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it’s absolutely cleansing. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain… Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. ’Pleasure?’ I said. ’I don’t understand the question.’ I didn’t do it for pleasure, I did it for pain.”

And my former track session leader at the Forest City Velodrome used to run from one corner of the track to the other yelling “suffer” as we did 500 m efforts.

2. Are we right to use the language of pain and suffering here at all? While some of us relish talking this way–guilty as charged–others are put off by talk of how much the efforts hurt. They find it demoralizing. As with childbirth (another kind of pain with which I’m intimately familiar) some athletes prefer to talk about intense sensations rather than about pain.

“Wow, that was an intense workout.”

And it’s true that athletic pain from effort is different from pain from injury. It’s not like someone is chopping your arm off without anesthesia. I’ve often compared childbirth which I’ve experienced three times, all without pain relief, to the pain of athletic effort. And I do tell friends that if you’re familiar with that sort of pain, childbirth will be, to that extent, familiar.

I’m not even sure I’d erase the pain, if I could magically do that without drugs, from the experience of childbirth. It felt like an accomplishment much the same way that finishing an endurance sporting event does.

3. Cyclists sometimes say that the person who can suffer the most will win the race. The ability to suffer, to take it, is highly valued. It’s a fascinating question I think, the psychological limits of our ability withstand great suffering.

Consider the article The Transcendent Pain from Bicycling Magazine: “In which we dig deep into the history and the latest research of the revered art of suffering and discover some good news: You can always go harder. Or is that the bad news?”

4. Athletes are known to have high pain tolerances and medical researchers have sometimes wondered what makes athletes different. Is it just self selection (people who don’t like pain quit sports) or is there something more? Can the ability to tolerate pain be learned?

From the journal Pain, “Higher pain tolerance in athletes may hold clues for pain management,”  http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-05/ehs-hpt051512.php.

5. What tricks or techniques do athletes use to push through the pain?

“Your mindset plays a huge part in your ability to tolerate pain. If you want to be a competitive cyclist, you have to know how to go deep into the pain cave.  A cyclist’s ability to suffer often determines who steps onto the podium and who is standing off to the side. Whether you’re climbing a 10% grade, bridging a gap, or sprinting for the finish, there will be times when you need to dig deep and go harder than you ever thought possible – so how do you it? “I’ll tell you what racing’s about. It’s about suffering. It’s about pain – racing hurts.” Andrew Juskaitis.”

In the article “Suffering: Preparing to Push Yourself through a Hard Effort,” in the journal Podium details a variety of methods cyclists use to cope with pain.

I’ve tried some of them–counting to 20 before I’m allowing to downshift when climbing, for example–but others are new to me. I thought I’d try some out and report back.

6. Finally, what does it mean to talk about the ‘good pain’ of a really tough workout? I gave a talk on gender and cycling at the Trent University and some audience members were genuinely puzzled, claiming never to have experienced anything they’d call a good pain. All the athletes in the audience though knew exactly what I meant. I think for another blog post I’ll try to answer that question. Wish me luck!

Pictures of me running through the years!

I started running in my late 30s, with my 40th birthday looming in the future. Now as I’m aiming to be fittest by fifty I thought it might be fun to look at some of my old running photos. Then my fitness focus was running pretty much exclusively, with a little weight training thrown in for balance.

Hard to believe now that I was a runner before I was a road cyclist. I started running through the Running Room’s Learn to Run program and went from 5 km to 10 km to 20 km. (No marathons for me!) Like many people I moved from running to cycling via triathlons and duathlons combined with running injuries. Two summers in a row I had serious stress fractures which put an end to my short lived running career.

But you can tell from the smile on my face that I loved running and still do. These days I just run short distances, for fun, not time, mostly with my dog for companionship. It was clear right away that I was a much faster cyclist than I was a runner and like the speed and the distance and the tactics that go with bike racing better than running.

Biking is also kinder on my body. Still, I love to run. I have a friend who says that you can see that no one likes to run because runners always look so earnest and miserable. That’s never been true for me.

I have lots more cycling photos but I’ll save those for another day.

Working Out While Fat

Just after I reposted my story of why I left Goodlife Fitness in 2006 two super posts appeared on the problems of working out in public while fat.

The wonderfully titled essay by Lindy West, Hello, Fellow Gym-Goers, Look at My Fat Butt, details how wonderful exercise is but also how awful it is be everyone’s idea of a ‘before’ picture:

The more I exercised, the more I loved it. I felt strong and lean, I had tons of energy, I slept like a brick. But my body didn’t look much different. You’d still see me on the street and read “fat person.” And as a fat person, going to the gym is doubly challenging. There’s the basic challenge we all face—of getting the fuck out of bed, finding a clean sports bra, physically moving your body toward a place where a man will yell at you until you do enough lunges (IT DEFIES ALL EVOLUTIONARY LOGIC)—but for fat people, there’s an even more intimidating challenge on top of that.

It’s entering a building where you know that every person inside is working toward the singular goal of not becoming you.

Do you know how hard it is to walk into a building devoted to not becoming you when you are you!? It’s the worst! I’m me literally every day! “Fat=bad/thin=good” is so seamlessly built into our culture that people I consider close friends don’t hesitate to lament their weight “problems” to me—not stopping to consider that what they’re saying, to my face, is “becoming you is my worst nightmare, and not becoming you is my top priority.”

And Emily Anderson published Fat Acceptance at the Gym Burns More Than Calories at Women’s E-News. It’s an excerpt from her contribution to the anthology “Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion.”

Being a fat woman at the gym is in itself an act of social disobedience. I shouldn’t be in there, taking up the space of the lithe-bodied, unless it’s with a face of sincere penance and shame. But I have claimed the gym as my own. I celebrate being visible and fat all over the gym–running and sweating and sometimes breaking into song, lifting dumbbells alongside muscle-laden men with uncompleted tribal band bicep tattoos, flinging my weight around in aerobics and finally cooling it poolside in my bright, non-apple-body-shape flattering tankini.

I smile and chat with women before yoga and mention how hungry I always am after class and can’t wait to eat. I want to be seen. I am fat and happy in places where I should be fat and shameful, and denying this stereotype is a political action in my eyes.

You should definitely go read Anderson’s essay to find out about her daring and transgressive act on the elliptical machine.

I loved what both writers had to say, despite my own ambivalence about the word ‘fat’ as it applies to me. Thanks Lindy West and Emily Anderson for your fat pride trail blazing ways. I too hate it when people assume I’m either new to the gym (ha ha ha) or that I must already have lost a lot of weight and then they express admiration that I’ve made it so far. I really do worry about putting fat people off exercise when they think they only reason to do it is to lose weight and then they meet me.

I’ve often thought I’d like to teach a fitness class for big people, one that doesn’t mention weight loss at all. No mention of calories burned or looking good in your skinny jeans. I’m cool with people trying to lose weight–I’m not without goals in that department myself–but my dream class would focus on fitness and moving for fun only. The Y’s fitness instructor certification classes look like they might be fun. And I think I’d have a blast teaching spin classes too. Perhaps I’ll get my certification as part of this ‘fittest at fifty’ project.

Clearly, there’s a need for a spaces without fat shaming. A gym in Vancouver, Body Exchange, set out to create a safe haven for plus size exercisers but it ran into controversy with its plans not accept skinny members.

The Province interviewed Tony Leyland, from Simon Fraser University’s department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology, about the plus sized gyms and he was adamant that people not downplay the social value of creating safe places for mothballed bodies.
Leyland also says some bodies are naturally resistant to being lean. Even slightly pudgy people can be terrific athletes, he says. “Fitness trumps a lot of things,” he says. “The evidence is clear that people are really going to benefit from getting fit whether they lose weight or not.”You can read more about it here, Canada’s only plus size fitness company: no skinnies need apply.
I’m still not sure of what I think of a plus size only gym–generally speaking I prefer inclusion to hiding out in safe spaces and I worry that then people would think that’s where you belong, “Get thee to the fat gym”–but I think plus size, healthy at every size inspired classes would be lovely.

Fat, fit, and why I want to be leaner anyway

As you’ll know from reading my posts on our blog, I’m fat and fit, aiming to be fitter and to be the fittest I’ve ever been, at 50. (In some moods I prefer big and fit, read why here.)

Weight loss isn’t a direct goal for me in this project. That’s partly because I’m a supporter of the Healthy At Every Size movement, partly because I don’t think there’s a fatness-fitness connection, and partly because for me, personally, there aren’t health related reasons to lose weight. So I take it as a starting point that it’s possible to be the fittest I’ve ever been and not weigh the least I’ve ever weighed. Indeed, although I wouldn’t like it, I might be the fittest I’ve ever been and weigh more than I do now, though I’d much rather that not be the outcome I get.

As I detailed in Fat, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI I’m a bit of a healthy living rock star. Yes, I’m significantly overweight but I have excellent blood pressure and heart rate, excellent good-bad cholesterol ratios, and excellent blood sugar levels. I’m also an over-achiever in the bone density department but that’s from years of living large and lifting heavy weights.

(An aside: Bone density is a great reason to lift weights, especially for you small, thin women whose frames aren’t much challenged by the mass you carry around. Weight lifting works to build bones unlike endurance sports such as swimming, cycling, and running which in volume can actually hurt bone density. Read “Training to Improve Bone Density in Adults: A Review and Recommendation here.)

I’m also not sure about the wisdom of picking a goal–long term weight loss–that defeats almost all the people who aim for it. (Read Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting for some of my reasons.)

Oh, and I already eat very well. I’m a vegetarian, aspiring vegan, non-drinker, who stays well away from fast food. I have a bit of a sweet tooth and sometimes I eat too much of  good thing but there’s not a lot of room for nutrition improvement.

But I really would like to improve my ratio of lean to fat, by building more muscle and losing some fat, even if I think that’s got zero to do with fitness or being fittest by fifty.

Why?

That’s a question that in our culture hardly seems worth asking. Everyone I know, pretty much, wants to shrink. The size 4s want to get back to size 0, the 10s back to 4, and so on. It’s a cultural obsession and mega money making industry. I try to stay clear.

Most people assume weight loss is why I exercise. But really, if that were my goal I would have quit long ago. Indeed I worry that lots of fat people quit working out because they aren’t getting thinner and why else would they go to gym? The fat but fit person looks like she’s doing all the work and not getting the rewards. Nevermind that the real rewards are health related and have nothing to do with weight.

So again, why do I want to be leaner?

My main reason I want to get leaner is sports performance. An awful lot of what I do depends on a power to weight ratio. For an explanation of power to weight ratio and its importance when it comes to cycling, read The Pursuit of Leanness over at Australia’s Cycling Tips blog.

I’ll never be a hill climber. I’m a reasonably powerful sprinter and time trialer (for a recreational cyclist in her midlife years!). I know my place in the cycling world. But I’m sick of getting dropped on hills.

My second motivation for the pursuit of lean is wear and tear on joints. I love sports and physical activity. Hard to imagine life without it. But you don’t see many overweight runners in their 70s. Cyclists either. I worry about stress on my knees and hips and think there’s got to be an advantage to weighing less. Or at least if I want to play with people lots younger than me, as seems to be the case with every sport that I do, I want to even the playing field.

Evening the playing field is one of the reasons I feel great being a non-drinker on multi-day cycling events. Stay up, you 19 year olds and 25 year olds. Have another beer. I’ll be asleep, sober, and well hydrated by 10 pm. Not fun now but fun when I see you suffering tomorrow.

Finally, there’s  bad motivation, one of which I try to be wary. And no, it’s not looking good naked. Like Tracy, I’m pretty comfortable in that department. I don’t have a lot of body image issues. I’ve often wondered about why that’s so. I’ve got some thoughts about my resilience in that department, fodder for a later post, I think. (Short answer: Thanks spouse, thanks feminism, thanks queer community.)

Sometimes I want to look like the very fit person I am. There are days when I’m weary of fighting the good fight, challenging our notions of the size and shape fitness takes. Sometimes I want people to look at me and see who I am and what I do.

For example, I’ve got incredible abs. You can’t see them as they are under a layer of fat but they do amazing things. I’m very strong in my core but it’s like they’re a secret super power, my invisible abs.

Not being seen for who I am is a bit of a struggle on my life on a few fronts. (You can read some of my work on bisexual invisibility here and here.)

So sometimes I’m sick of it all and want to be seen as the athlete I am.

But I’m hoping to keep those motivations at bay and focus on the hills and the climbing.