cycling · fitness

Data geekery and fitness

A confession: I’m a data geek.

I love numbers, graphs, and analysis. I also like gadgets that supply me with the numbers. I don’t love them as much as my partner loves gadgets and numbers but then he’s professional data geek. For me, it’s just a hobby.

Currently I’m lusting after a new bike computer but I suppose it all started with a simple heart rate monitor for running. I bought my first heart rate monitor about ten years ago and I enjoyed playing with the zone training functions, speeding up when my heart rate dropped, slowing down when it got going too fast. For running it was useful in race situations when I wanted to run at a fast steady rate and not bump myself up into a zone where I’d need to slow down in order to recover.

It was a basic model and I couldn’t get the numbers off the wrist watch and onto my laptop for further inspection. But I recorded distance, time, speed and average heart rate. The numbers had me hooked.

Later it was my first bike computer, linked to heart rate monitor, that continued the romance. All the data–speed, altitude, heart rate, cadence–there for downloading and staring at. I found it strangely reassuring to watch familiar patterns. Time at the front of the pack when group riding, heart rate high, and then when my turn was over, recovering at the back. Until I started not to recover, and then I was toast. I knew what that felt like, crap. But nice somehow to see I wasn’t making it up. There it was, crap quantified.

Over the season, with increased fitness, I could work harder and recovered faster. Riding a bike in almost all settings is interval training. Sprinting up hills, recovering on the way down. In races, attack, pursue, and then cling to the back and recover.

Four years ago I even had lactate threshold testing done along with V02 max testing so I could accurately chart my heart rate training zones. It was all done on my bike and I even have gripping video footage to prove it.

The results: V02 max starting 13.2, lactate threshold 35.5, peak 39.7; heart rate starting 120, lactate threshold 162, peak 177; calories per hour starting 329, max 983; METS starting 3.8, max 11.3; Recovery: max 177, 1 min 158 (34%), 2 min 124 (93%); Fitness level: superior.

I liked that, fitness level: superior. Not elite. But that’s fine. I have a day job.

And I confess that part of what I love about these sorts of numbers is that they make it clear that the one number we all tend to focus on, the number on the scale, is part of much more complex story.

In Five Things Every Gym Should Already be Doing, Ragen Chastain writes:

Instead of selling people a cardio room and a bag of magic weight loss beans, your gym should be educating people about the actual possible benefits of exercise.  I would suggest starting by offering to measure things other than weight.  Offering tests like VO2 Max scores, blood panel, strength, stamina, flexibility etc.  People could choose the baseline tests they want at the beginning and then take them again three. six months in etc. to see if there are any changes.  That way people wouldn’t think that exercise is “failing” just because they aren’t losing weight.

I still love my bike computer though I want a newer, snazzier one, one with a GPS.  Recommendations welcome! If I won the lottery I’d buy a power meter. It measures power output on the bike. I’ve used one before in a bike fit session where it was really instructive to see how different seating positions and bike geometry play out in terms of power output. I don’t need that kind of information on a regular basis but it’s fun to have.

These days I also love some of the smart phone apps for training rides and runs. I use Endomondo which draws nice maps of our routes and publishes avg speed, total distance and the route to Facebook.

I like to track how far I’ve ridden each week and what my speed is on familiar routes. How fast up Heartbreak Hill this time? What was my max speed down River Road?

How about you? Are you a fitness gadget geek? If you can’t track it or measure it, does it count? I know some friends who never track or measure exercise at all and I find that baffling. I want measurable progress complete with graphs to prove it! To what use do you put the numbers? Which apps do you use to track your workouts?

body image · diets · weight loss

Raspberry Ketone, Pure Green Coffee Extract, Garcinia Cambogia, Weight Loss, and the Fallacy of Appealing to Authority

raspberriesMy usually skeptical husband forwarded me an email message late last week with the subject “weight loss.” It contained a short video of Dr. Oz endorsing pure green coffee bean extract as a miracle weight loss potion.  My husband’s question to me:  “what do you think?”

The clip I watched showed an enthusiastic Dr. Oz with the creator of the product.  Oz declared it a weight loss miracle.  When I went back to the link a few days later, the link led me to something different. This time, Dr. Oz was interviewing someone about a different weight loss miracle:  Garcinia Cambogia.  Apparently it’s also an amazing fat burner! Like pure green coffee bean extract, this product is supposed to result in weight loss without any changes to diet or activity.

Neither the green coffee bean extract page or the garcinia cambogia page would let me leave them without not one but two pop-ups asking me if I was sure I wanted to leave that page.

Dr. Oz has also spoken highly of “raspberry ketone.”  Available in pill-form (because you’d have to eat NINETY pounds of raspberries to get the appropriate “dose”), raspberry ketone is no less than “a fat-burner in a bottle,” according to Dr. Oz.

His website states that “research has shown that raspberry ketone can help in your weight-loss efforts, especially when paired with regular exercise and a well-balanced diet of healthy and whole foods.”  I love the addendum “especially when paired with regular exercise and a well-balanced diet…”

I think I will stick to the regular exercise and healthy whole foods and save myself the $180 for a 90-day supply.

Most reviews of these products that I’ve read have questioned the research.  A Globe and Mailarticle notes that the study on which the main claims about green coffee bean extract were based involved very few participants. Moreover, participants also lost weight during the placebo phase of the trial.

A Canadian Livingarticle on raspberry ketone notes that so far mice have been the only research subjects. Both articles quoted credible MDs claiming that, surprise, surprise: There are no magic solutions!

From the Globe and Mail: “Usually when studies break the physical laws of the universe, there’s usually something wrong with the study itself,” said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, who writes Weighty Matters, a popular blog on nutrition issues.

I haven’t linked to Dr. Oz’s website and I am not going to say a lot more about these products. Both his site and the products are easy to find on the internet.

What I do want to say is this: there is a well-known fallacy that we learn about in philosophy called “the appeal to authority.”  Appealing to authority is not a good strategy for those seeking truth claims. Just because some authority like Dr. Oz said it’s true doesn’t mean it’s true. Of course we do not need to dismiss the claims of experts. Good science is based on sound studies that have undergone peer review and are based on approved methodologies and ample evidence.

Unfortunately, Dr. Oz is not an expert in most of what he goes on about. And yet he is accepted as an authority by countless people. His stamp of approval on some product or health claim is taken as gospel by many people.  It boosts sales the way Oprah’s endorsement of books used to (perhaps still does) have undue influence in the publishing industry.

This is not to say that everything he says is false. It is only to say that just because he said it doesn’t make it true. We need more evidence than that.

But the medical community has long told us that there are no magic pills for weight loss. Dr. Oz’s claims about these miracle weight loss products are just plain irresponsible, given his level of influence.

I’ve heard all sorts of claims about this and that miracle food or product. When I was a teenager, people took caffeine pills to lose weight. As an undergraduate, smoking cigarettes was the thing.  At one time or another, the special powers of cabbage, grapefruit, and bananas took centre stage in the weight loss culture.  Now it’s more likely to be raspberry ketone, pure green coffee bean extract,  or garcinia cambogia.

And I haven’t even touched on fad diets like eating for your blood type (based on totally ungrounded claims), the lemon-cayenne pepper-maple syrup-water detox, or any variant of a low carb/high protein plan (my first diet—circa 1980—was the Scarsdale diet, a high protein low carb plan that people loved because you got to eat “plenty of steak” for dinner).

If healthy and sustainable weight loss is what you are seeking, none of these supplements or plans will work. They are not sustainable ways of eating for the rest of your life.  And like the claim about raspberry ketone, pair anything with regular exercise and healthy eating and you’re good to go.

No magic and no surprises. As Globe and Mail reporter Carly Weeks says in her evaluation of raspberry ketone, the bottom line hasn’t much changed: “While the promise of the synthetic compound sounds alluring, the best way of losing weight hasn’t changed: It’s still diet and exercise.”

I would only add that “diet” shouldn’t be taken to mean “diets,” those restricted eating plans designed to lose weight. Diets don’t work.  In this context we should understand “diet” to mean simply the way we eat on a regular basis.  We talk a lot on our blog about why weight loss alone is not a great measure of fitness and why we’re not big fans of dieting. Also here and here.

Just to reiterate:  “Dr. Oz said it” is not a reason on which you can base a strong conclusion. In philosophy we call that an appeal to authority, and it’s a fallacy.

Crossfit · fitness · fitness classes

Crossfit and what does it mean to say, “I would never do that by myself?”

Sometimes I get myself out the door to Crossfit by telling myself it probably won’t be a particularly tough workout. Strategic self deception. You know the drill. Like when we tell ourselves it’s not that cold outside really. I fantasize that this morning will be all about skill development and will involve not very many reps of some heavy weights.

There are days like that at Crossfit. It’s true. But today wasn’t one of them.

Today we did the following:

40 wall ball throws (with medicine ball) You can see these here,

30 sit ups

20 push ups

10 burpees

You complete that in 3 min and then take a 3 min rest, repeat 5 times. If you can’t complete it in 3 minutes, you scale the workout. The first time through I only did 1 burpee so I dropped the weight on the medicine ball. I also do push ups from my knees. Please don’t judge.

This is exactly the sort of workout I would never do on my own. High intensity, high effort, racing for time. Of course, complete with a a giant timer on the wall and a beep to mark the end of 3 minutes.

On my own, I’d find excuses. But it’s not just that. For me, there’s a real positive value in watching others. I learn from them. I pace myself using the fastest and fittest. They’re doing the same routine but in weighted vests. They are good at pacing so I know if I follow them I’ll make it through in 3 minutes.

I also watch their technique. I wonder how Bob does burpees so fast so when it’s my turn to rest, I watch his form and try to copy it next time through.

Because we do this in shifts–my 3 min on is another person’s 3 min off– there are Crossfit work out friends there to cheer me on. It’s happy supportive cheering. We’re not mean to one another. (Unless someone asks.) And for me, that support definitely makes a difference.

At the end I often recall when I started Crossfit and couldn’t do a single burpee. Some people accuse Crossfit of being a bit cult like–and that’s fine, it’s not for everyone. “It wouldn’t do if we all liked the same thing,” as my mother would have said to dogmatic child me.

For me it’s an extremely supportive workout community and while it’s true I’d never do five rounds of that workout by myself, it’s also true I don’t have to.

body image · diets · eating · fitness

Shame, social networking, and fitness

I am one of those people.

I’m the friend who posts details of my workouts to Facebook. Using the check-in function I tell friends when I’m at Aikido, Crossfit, or more recently, the London Rowing Club.

Sometimes I even give details. This morning I did 5 rounds of the following: 40 medicine ball throws, 30 sit ups, 20 push ups, 10 burpees.

Using Endomondo, I track distance, speed, and route when hiking and biking and that too, I share to Facebook. I’ve started tracking hikes in part because I’ve gotten lost twice recently in parks and it’s nice to be able to look at the map in progress and see if I’m heading back in the direction of the car. This summer, on a 30 degree + day, a 1 hour hike turned into a 3 hour hike without water (for me, the dog was happy was the river) so now I always turn on Endomondo for the map if nothing else.

Indeed, the idea for this blog came about about when I posted a note to Facebook about my “fittest by fifty” idea. A lively discussion about what it means to be fit ensued, Tracy joined in, and thus our blog was born.

I’m not one-sided about this. I like it when friends share their fitness activities too. I smile when I see Tracy’s been out running, or that J has been to karate, or that S has lifted a ton of weight at the gym. I cheer them on and their active lives serve as a source of happiness and inspiration for me. Besides if it’s tiresome for others to read about what I’m up to, they can always learn to use the “see fewer updates from this person” function in Facebook or opt to not see posts from Endomondo.

So all of this is just to say, I’m a big fan of social networking for support for myself and others with our fitness goals.

But social networking has a dark side it turns out. And that dark side is shame and punishment.

A new crop of fitness apps work by paying you when you meet your activity goals and keeping your cash when you don’t. Other apps shame you by posting workout failures to social networking sites.

From The Huffington Post:

Dubbed the “Gym Shamer,” this application tracks your fitness goals (e.g. “visit the gym 3 times a week”) and sends a shameful message to your social media contacts if you slack off.

Gym visits are recorded via Foursquare check-ins, while Facebook and Twitter integration maximize the full reach of your potential “embarrassing, degrading, and insulting” shame.

Gym Shamer is the brainchild of New York entrepreneurs Tal Flanchraych and Volkan Unsal and was conceived during an early-January Foursquare Hackathon.

“New Year’s resolutions are on everyone’s mind right now,” Flanchraych explained to The Huffington Post in an email. “So we thought it was a good theme to build on — especially considering that getting in shape is the most common resolution we hear about.”

“The problem with most fitness apps,” she continued, “is that they’re wholly reliant on your existing level of motivation — there are no consequences if you forget to use them or start getting lazy (and don’t we all?).”

Here’s an example tweet, provided by Gym Shamer:
gym shamer

And it’s not just fitness. There’s the diet program Virtual Fridge Lock – which works with a device that attaches to the refrigerator and  senses when the refrigerator is opened, and shames the midnight snacker by posting to  Facebook.

“This person just raided the fridge.”

Aherk! might be the worst. Aherk! describes itself as a goal-oriented self-blackmailing service.” When you sign up for Aherk! you set a goal, such as running 10 km or losing 10 lbs, and send in an embarrassing photo – referred to as “the bomb.”  If you don’t meet your goal, then news of your failure and the bomb get posted to Facebook.

So far I haven’t seen any “Jane didn’t run 5 km today as planned. She missed her workout” showing up in my newsfeed and I’m pretty glad. I don’t think shame is  motivational for most of us.

What do you think? Would the threat of public shaming motivate you to get to the gym? Are there circumstances under which you’d use one of these tools or are you like me, a fan of the positive sharing with no shame involved?

Read more here:

Foursquare Hackathon Winners: Shame Yourself for Your Lack of Gym Motivation and More

Aherk! uses power of shame to motivate

body image · diets · eating · fat · overeating · sports nutrition · weight loss

Overcoming Overeating: Overview, Review, and Update

oocoverA few weeks ago I announced that I’ve given up the scale — no more weigh-ins. This new commitment to dispensing with weight as a measure of my fitness progress came in part because I’ve been following some of the recommendations in Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet/Binge Cycle and Live a Healthier, More Satisfying Life by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter.

The book is aimed at chronic dieters who feel ready to break free from the cycle of weight gain, weight loss, weight gain, and the food obsession and body hatred that accompanies that cycle.  I first encountered the book back in the early nineties and its methods have helped me get perspective over the years.

But the holidays, coupled with my personal trainer’s insistence on weigh-ins, had me right back in the despair of poor body image and food obsession.  And that’s why I picked the book back up, along with Intuitive Eating:A Revolutionary Program That Works, Third Edition, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Today’s post is about the plan outlined in Overcoming Overeating. The authors do an excellent job of explaining the psychology of the diet-binge cycle and the horrible feelings associated with it. They are also pretty convincing on the futility of the “Change Your Shape, Change Your Life” game. The game has a few well-known rules: 1. Fat is bad, 2. Fat people eat too much, 3. Thin is beautiful, 4. Eating Requires Control, 5. Criticism Leads to Change. The rules take us in one direction:  dieting.

The game is futile because….drumroll please…DIETS DON’T WORK.  Roughly, they don’t work because the natural response to rules and control is rebellion (i.e. the binge).  They also have a  metabolic impact that undermines our efforts. If diets don’t work, then we need a new approach.

Their approach begins with two radical ideas. The first is to accept the weight and body you have now as if it will never change (for this, they have you engage in a thought experiment where you live on a planet where they inject a gas into the air that, once inhaled, makes it impossible to gain or lose weight ever again. They urge us to think about how we would approach food in this scenario). The second is the idea that you can eat your way out of your “problem.”

I was good with lots of their recommendations. They encourage people who do not own a full-length mirror to get one and to stand in front of it, naked, and observe their bodies in a purely objective, descriptive way. For example, “I am round here, smooth there, bony here, hairy there.” This is supposed to get you in touch with what your body looks like in a neutral way.

They tell you to toss the scale.

There is the old stand-by: the closet clean-out. This is where you get rid of the clothes you plan to wear when you lose a few inches and the clothes you plan to wear when you gain a few inches.  You get rid of that dress that pinches at the waist, the beautiful blouse that pulls across the back, the bra that needs constant adjusting, anything with a hole in it. You keep only the clothes you feel good in.

If that leaves you with very little, go shopping. Buy according to fit, not the size on the label.  I’ve always liked cleaning out my closet because it serves the dual purpose of helping me declutter. Occasionally, I even discover things that I forgot I had and can start wearing again.

And finally, the one suggestion that makes all chronic dieters absolutely terrified and giddy, sad and relieved: dump the diet.  If you can’t face this idea, they remind you of the facts: 1. The vast majority of dieters regain their weight plus some, 2. Diets make you fat, 3. Deprivation ensures a fight-back response—the binge.

With the diet dumped, many of us need a new way to live. I had already pretty much resolved not to diet for weight-loss anymore. But diet-like behaviors  and thinking started creeping back into my eating when I started personal training and began to concern myself with “sports nutrition.”  For me, tracking and planning and measuring and counting, even in the name of sports nutrition, created a diet mentality. This might not be the same for everyone.

The new way to live involves legalizing food — carrot sticks are not any better or worse than carrot cake. No food is forbidden (allergies and moral commitments aside, of course. If peanuts will kill you, don’t eat them. If you don’t eat animal products, you don’t have to start).

Up to this point in the plan, I’m on board. It’s the next part where I jumped ship this time. That’s where they tell you to stock up on all your favourite foods in quantities so vast you couldn’t possibly eat them in one sitting.

If you adore dark chocolate, don’t buy one chocolate bar, buy ten. If you love carrot cake, don’t buy one cake, buy three so you can keep two in the freezer.  If you like crusty bread, buy a few loaves.  If you want the whole soy milk instead of the light, buy it! Cashews and almonds—buy the family sized packages.

This part just didn’t speak to me this year. It may be that I am already over the food categories for the most part from the work I have done over the years with the very ideas recommended in the book. I do have bars and bars of dark chocolate in my pantry already and that’s not a problem for me. Sometimes I eat a few pieces of chocolate. Other times it just sits there for weeks or months untouched. I do prefer the regular soy milk over the light so that’s what I buy.  And I haven’t found a vegan carrot cake that I like, so carrot cake is off the menu these days anyway. The triple chocolate cake at Veg Out is bar none the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted in my life. But I am happy enough to know that I can go have a piece whenever I like. I don’t need a few cakes in my freezer.

halloween2009_candy_bowlWhen I was a graduate student, my housemate and I followed the suggestion to overstock the pantry with favourites. We had a big bowl of Halloween candy on our kitchen table and we kept it filled to the brim all the time.  The first week or two, we ate a lot of candy and had to refill the bowl frequently.  By the third week, the pace slowed. And by the fourth week, it was so commonplace that some evenings it just sat there, or we might take one Aero bar.  After a few months, having convinced ourselves that candy was truly “legal,” it had lost its mystique.

Whether you need to do this will depend how game you are to legalize food.  Overstocking is part of the process of convincing yourself it’s okay.

The is all a prelude to the central idea in the book: food on demand.

The idea is this. We chronic dieters have spent our lives eating controlled, pre-determined portions of pre-planned food at specific times of the day. How much, what, and when we ate had nothing to do with how much or what we wanted or whether we were hungry. And then there were those times we ate from “mouth hunger” instead of “stomach hunger.”

Demand feeding requires learning to feel and respond to stomach hunger. Imagine a ledger (or even keep one for a few days) that has two columns — stomach hunger and mouth hunger. If a chronic dieter recorded whether she ate from one or the other each tie she ate, she’d have more check marks in the mouth hunger column.  The goal then, is to move the checks from the mouth hunger column to the stomach hunger column.

This re-calibration of eating habits requires vigilance. In particular, it requires that we attend to emotional reasons for eating, since a lot of times we seek food for comfort (mouth hunger) even though what comfort it brings is fleeting. How do you move the checkmarks?

Let yourself get hungry as much as possible during the day and eat just enough to satisfy that hunger each time.  Carry a food bag, filled with your favourite foods, so that you are never hungry and without something to satisfy that hunger.  Stop thinking in terms of meals or of food that is appropriate to specific times of day. If you wake up hungry and feel like eating a bowl of chili, eat it. If it’s “lunch time” and all you want is a piece of chocolate cake, have the cake.

Stop eating when you are satisfied — not stuffed.  This makes total sense.  Of course it does. For me, this is the one area of eating with which I have always struggled.  If I am not paying very close attention, I will eat more than I need to eat, and I will feel over full.  The authors recommend sticking with this, learning to forgive yourself, keeping at it long enough to convince yourself that you can stop now because, in an hour when you are hungry again, it will be okay to eat.  The idea is that if you know you will have permission to eat later (unlike when you’re dieting), it’ll be easier to stop at a comfortable place.

I tossed the scale and dumped the diet. I didn’t overstock the pantry and I do not carry a food bag. I have not stopped thinking in terms of meals — I like meals.  But I do pay closer attention and find myself eating smaller portions. I eat what I want. What I want turns out to be fairly nutritious for the most part.  I actually do like salad as much as I like fries, and which I have depends on what I feel like eating at the time.

The authors suggest that over time, the nutrition issue will take care of itself.  In my case, this has happened, but my issue has always been more about the “how much” of eating than the “what” or even “when” of it.  In order to keep with the program, you need to have a lot of faith in the process and just forge ahead, trusting that the authors are not leading you astray.

The plan is not designed for weight loss, but they maintain that if you have been overweight from the diet/binge cycle, you may indeed lose weight in the long run.  At the beginning, it’s pretty normal to gain a bit when all the favourite foods become legal.  What they do promise is that over time, people who follow this plan will find that their weight settles. Instead of the crazy range that many of us have become accustomed to, we’ll reach a comfortable weight and moreorless stay there.

I’m not sure about that because I’ve not followed the plan 100% and what little I have followed I’ve only been doing for about a month. Before I started, my weight had been in a four-pound range for quite some time (about a year).  Since I’ve tossed the scale, I can’t say where it is now, but I can say my clothes all fit me still.

If you are a serious emotional eater, there may not be enough in the book to help with your “core issues.”

I know I haven’t really come down strongly in favor or against the plan outlined in the book. I like some of the suggestions and think that, as an alternative to dieting, it has potential. But the suggestions about stocking up, carrying a food bag, and feeding on demand were a bit too much for me.  Still, I am more in touch with the feelings of hunger and satiety since I started reading this and Intuitive Eating (which I am more partial to and will explain why in a later post).

If you’re tired of dieting and ready to try something else, it’s worth a read and a try.  The advice that resonates most strongly with me is: toss the scale, legalize food, dump the diet, and pay attention to how you feel (both emotionally and physically) when you eat.  I like the visual of moving the checkmarks in the ledger over to the “stomach hunger” side.  Mindful or conscious eating is a good goal.

How has what I’ve tried worked for me this month? I feel freer. I’m drastically less preoccupied with food than I was just a month ago and not at all preoccupied with weight. I’m eating less at a sitting and enjoying what I eat more. All good outcomes.

For more information about the plan, check out the authors’ website.

Aikido · competition · Crossfit · cycling · fitness · racing · Rowing · team sports

Things you learn from working out with others

I really enjoyed Tracy’s post about solitude and working out alone. It offered a very different perspective to my own approach to physical activity. There’s so much we agree about and yet in some areas, we’re ‘chalk and cheese’ as my mother might say. I’m enjoying exploring our differences in light of our shared starting points.

In contrast to Tracy, almost all the physical activities I do involve communities and teams. Aikido, rowing, and Crossfit are all group efforts. I suppose I could ride my bike alone but I don’t. It’s more fun with others. Crossfit style workouts (this morning was 60 sec box jump, 45 sec rest, repeat x 4, followed by 10 min of ‘on the minute every minute’ 7 push press, 7 pull ups) I can’t imagine doing by myself. I’d give up and quit half way through, I think.

For me working out meets social needs. I like meeting people with similar goals and values. Healthy living abounds in running, cycling, and martial arts communities. I like that and I find support for my goals and lifestyle choices in these communities. I also spend so much time doing various physical activities that I often find myself getting friends to join in. That’s especially true with road cycling and Aikido. I’m passionate about both and I want to spread the joy.

I’ve also learned a lot about physical activity from other people and it’s that value I thought I’d try to articulate here. I’ve written about some of the training advantages of running and riding with others here.

An aside: I’m not writing with the goal of persuading anyone that my way is the right way. Mostly I’m trying to articulate for myself what I get out of the company of other athletes because lots about Tracy’s alone time sounds attractive too. I’m a professional philosopher and spend a fair bit of time offering arguments for my conclusions and trying to show that I’m right. That’s not what I’m up to here at all. I’m offering reasons in a much more exploratory fashion, trying to understand what works for me and showing those reasons to others to see if they fit.

Here goes.  What I’ve learned from working out with others:

  • Fitness comes in all different shapes and sizes. When I first started cycling, I assumed that cyclists were thin and that speed and size were correlated. But I’ve been passed enough by bigger people and done lots of passing of smaller people to know that’s false. Ditto assumptions about size and strength in the case of weightlifting. I no longer assume that people smaller than me can’t lift heavier. It’s one thing knowing intellectually that fat people can be very fit and that thin people can be very strong, but having the actual embodied reminder chat with you after a ride or after a round of power cleans, is another thing all together. I see people in the world in a different way and make almost no assumptions about size, shape, and physical abilities.
  • I’ve also been shocked by how different we all are when it comes to responsiveness to physical training. We all  follow various plans for fitness that are written in a ‘one size fits all’ way but in every group there are outliers.  In my first 6 weeks to 5 km group there were people who did all the workouts but couldn’t manage 5 km at the end, and people who could run 5 km, within a  couple of weeks, without much effort at all. It seems that in each sport there are people who can do half the workouts and still make gains. I hate those people! They’re blessed with bodies that are extremely responsive to training. Others slog along, working very hard, doing everything exactly as prescribed, but never seem to get much fitter or faster.  They’re known as the “non-responders.” That would be so sad. I first heard about this when a friend took part in a study on the effects of training as a research subject. And I  read about this in Gretchen Reynolds’ book The First Twenty Minutes but again it’s much more striking to see it in action.  Gretchen Reynolds blogs about this here. You can read a bit about it in this blog post too, Are You a Non-Responder? It Could Be Your Genes.
  • Most of what I’ve learned about the value of competition comes from training and racing with others, but so too the value of teamwork and cooperation. I love in team sports that a group of people with very different skills, strengths, and abilities can all contribute something to the mix. In soccer, I don’t have the drive or killer instinct to play forward. I’m one of those people who when shooting for the net seems instinctively to aim for where the keeper, or goalie, is rather than where she isn’t. It would be funny were it also not tragic. Luckily I don’t have to play forward.  I play defense and I can guard our net and keep other players away with intensity and focus. In defense, I don’t have to run too far with the ball. I get it up the sides to our midfielders, strong and agile runners, who get it up the field to the other side’s net, to our forwards. Teamwork is key.
  • I’ve also learned about the sport that I’m doing from participants who’ve been it much longer than me. My favourite example of this was racing with the Vets in Canberra. Some of the older guys had been racing their whole lives and they loved to pass on wisdom and tactics. Yes, I’ve taken classes and had coaches for various sports but you learn a lot more, I think, from the people who run/ride/row with you. I often encounter this over breakfast after a run or a ride, but sometimes, these days, it happens in online discussion forums with teammates. Where can I get a spare battery for my old polar bike computer? Someone will know and they might even bring the battery in to the next ride and swap for coffee!

Happy worst day of the year!

January 21 is officially the worst day of the year.

It’s the most depressing day anyway. Read more here Blue Monday is the most depressing day of the year.

The original date of “Blue Monday” was mathematically calculated in 2005 by Dr. Cliff Arnall a researcher at Cardiff University. In 2005 Blue Monday fell on January 24th which was the 4th Monday of January. (MSN:news/Jan. 24, 2005 called worst day of the year).

Mr. Arnall created his formula for the most depressing day of the year by working six distinct factors into the equation: weather conditions (Gloomy old January and its typical lack of sunshine), debt level and our ability to pay that debt, time elapsed since Christmas, time elapsed since failing our New Years resolutions, our general seasonal motivational levels, and our need to take action and to have something to look forward to( During January, and depending on where you reside, there are no statutory holidays in the fore-see-able future. Gasp!).

It was calculated that most of these events would come into play by the third week or 21st day within the month of January.

So try to balance it out by spending time outside and getting some exercise. The forecast high in London, Ontario is minus 6-complete with snow showers-but I’m taking my dog for a trail run. Her love of the snow is contagious.

swimming · training · triathalon

My triathlon challenges

wetsuitAlong with my co-blogger Tracy and my daughter M, I’ve registered for the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon. That we succeeded at all is due to my daughter’s quick thinking: the thing sold out in 36 hours, a record.

It’s a terrific event and if you’re ever tempted to give triathlon a try, and you’re female, this is the event for you. There’s a great range of abilities and an incredibly warm supportive atmosphere. I’ve done it twice in the past and I’m looking forward to going back for more. (That’s me in the wet suit on the right.)

The three of us have very different strengths. Probably I need to work most on swimming, Tracy on cycling, and Mallory on running. That’s my guess anyway based on our histories.

So what have I learned from past races that I’ll need to work on this time?

Swim: This is the area in which I have the most work to do. It’s through triathlon that I learned that I’m really a cyclist. Last time I was the last person out of the water who wasn’t rescued and didn’t DNF. My mistake: I wore a wetsuit without ever having swum in one before race day. Classic goof. I was in no danger of drowning. I was incredibly buoyant but moving through the water was tiresome. I could have bobbed about all day. Not sure if I will wear a wetsuit this time–as you can see from the picture below from the triathlon’s website,, –only about half the people do. But, and this is the important bit, if I do, I’ll try it out in advance and practice lane swimming in it. I’ll also practice some lake swimming before the big day. Waves make a difference, it turns out.

Bike: On the upside I’m one of the fastest cyclists out there taking part in a beginner distance triathlon. I don’t own a specialized tri bike but that’s fine. It’s a short distance. I do need to pay more attention to getting past and around the other bikes. I was shocked at the number of people who seemed challenged by the basics of shifting uphill and by the hotdog turn (as Australians say) or U turn (as we say) at the half way point. Even the people in very expensive tri bikes slowed right down for no good reason. I expect some of those bikes were borrowed or rented. They were like me in the borrowed fancy wetsuit I’d never swum in before the big day. The biggest lesson I learned and need to remember is that the bike bit is not a time trial, in some ways that matter. The most important one is one that I’ve messed up in the past. You need to stop and dismount at the line. In a bike time trial you cross the finish line at speed. As I approached the line at about 40 km/hr I had people screaming at me to slow down and stop. I managed it–thanks excellent brakes–but it will be less stressful for all concerned this time.

Run: I’m a middle of the pack runner and I don’t expect this race to be much different. Given my history with stress fractures I won’t be doing much speed work in advance of the big day. I’ll stick to dog jogging. But it’s short and I’m pretty good at sprinting so we’ll see.

Wish us luck!

athletes · body image · fashion

Play hard, look cute!

That was the actual piece of advertising copy on a sports bra I almost tried on. Hot pink and very pretty. I wasn’t put off by the slogan, the hot pink,  or by the pretty. I passed on it because it was padded and I’m no fan of padded sports bras. But I am curious about the role looking good while working out plays in the lives of girls and women.

Think about my yoga pants post. A number of people responded to my criticisms of Lululemon’s 100 dollar yoga pants by noting how good they looked wearing them and how looking good inspired them to work harder. To be fair, they also noted that they were extremely durable and worked well.  As if “they make your ass look great!” is a knock down argument. (Okay, maybe it is.)

Or have a boo at this article on Huffington Post, Cute Workout Clothes Are The Key To Getting You Off The Couch And To The Gym, which is basically just a before and after slide show of gym-goers and other exercisers with new and improved workout attire. “Ditch that ratty tshirt and run in this instead!” You get the idea.

“Exercise can be a chore. Like laundry, it’s another thing on the to-do list that we’d rather not do, but we kinda have to. In an effort to make working out a little less painful (on the eyes, at least), we searched for the cutest workout clothes out there.”

So looking good clearly matters to all sorts of different people, with different definitions of good.

I’m not immune to this. I have hot  pink running shoes, and I could have bought black. I smile when I put the pink shoes on and I actually like the way I look in work out gear, especially my cycling clothes. I have a serious soft spot for fun cycling clothes. I don’t own the bike jerseys pictured here but I’ve admired them from afar. It’s easy for me to workout without make up since that’s my usual state of affairs, except for lipstick which comes with me everywhere, even on very long bike rides.

In the comments on an earlier post, a reader asked why can’t girls and women have fun with our femininity?

And I agree. Playing with gender can be a lot of fun. Playing with one’s appearance can be a lot of fun. But for it to be fun, for me, it has to be optional.

Have fun with your appearance, sure. But it’s a bit of a double edged sword because looking good while working out raises the bar. Maybe this time it’s for fun but next time you’ll think you can’t go to the gym if your favourite outfit is in the wash or if you’re having a bad hair day.

What’s fun today too quickly becomes tomorrow’s necessary condition. If it’s obligatory, in my books, it’s rarely fun.

I started colouring my hair in the 80s, the era of cotton candy punk. I had pink, blue, purple streaks in my bleached blonde hair. And it was a blast. Until it became a chore and then I stopped.

I’d also like some spaces, some times and places, in my life, where I don’t have to worry about what I look like. A mirror free zone. Camping has long been that for me in an extended way but I like little mini-bursts of that throughout my week. And physical activity has been one of those places of refuge.

I just worry there is so much pressure on women to look good at all times that it quickly moves from fun to obligation.  A quick google search turns up, Look Hot While Working Out! (cosmo girl), The Secrets to Looking This Good While Working Out Cosmopolitan, NY Mag’s Stylish Gym Clothes to Get You Racing to Workout, a wikihow called How to Be Sexy While Playing Sports and even WebMD isn’t immune with Look Good While You Get Fit.

So if it’s fun and motivational, great. But if turns into one more place where you feel there’s a bar you need to meet before getting out the door is acceptable, then maybe it’s time to pay attention to athletic values rather than aesthetic ones.

So dress cute if that’s your thing. Me, I’m doing my bit to keep the bar low. I’ll be be bringing standards down in my grey tank and whatever capris or shorts were on the top of the clean pile. I don’t wear make up or jewelry to the gym.You can thank me later!

It’s a big tent and there’s room for all of us.

And hey, here’s Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Doesn’t look like she’s wearing make up or stylish athletic fashion either!

athletes · competition

The Competitive Feminist: the Bad, the Ugly, and the Good

hurdles beijing-china-olympics--aug-18-2008-female-athletes-competing-in-100-meter-sprint-for-women

Earlier this week, when Jennifer Lawrence accepted her (much-deserved) Golden Globe Award for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, the first thing she said was, “This means I beat Meryl.” I cringed (not knowing at the time that this is, apparently, a reference to a line from the 1996 film The First Wives Club). I cringed because that’s not what you’re supposed to say.

You’re supposed to say something gracious and generous about the strong field of women with whom you were nominated. You’re supposed to say, “You like me, you really like me.” You’re not supposed to talk about winners and losers. Remember when, at the Academy Awards, they switched from “And the winner is…” to “And the Oscar goes to…”?

Some say competition runs counter to feminist ideals, making the very idea of competition “un-feminist.” In 1972, volume one of Ms. Magazine included an article by Letty Cottin Pogrebin entitled, “Competing with Women.” And in 1987, Valerie Miner and Helen Longino co-edited a collection of essays, Competition: A Feminist Taboo?  It opened with a re-print of the Pogrebin essay.

They suggest that feminists have had difficulty talking about competition—hence, the taboo—because it they consider it a key feature of the patriarchal social structure that feminists criticize.  The default assumption that competition is not just un-feminine (though it is that too), but actually un-feminist. Why? Well, it’s sometimes bad, and sometimes downright ugly.

Competition isn’t just suspect for being masculinist and patriarchal (and capitalist). It’s divisive and hierarchical. You can’t have winners without losers.  And aren’t winners superior to losers? The gold medalist stands at the top of the podium.  What about feminist solidarity? What about equality? How does a good feminist reconcile competition with that?

This unease with the idea of competition means that many women who consider themselves feminists are loathe to admit to their competitive tendencies. We compete with ourselves. We support our sisters. We hold hands as we cross the finish line.

And yet, feminist or not, don’t we all like to win?

A few months ago I played Scrabble with a friend who didn’t care about winning. She just played any old word, not striving to lay down all the tiles, land on triple word scores, or get the most out of blanks and Qs and Zs.  That’s not how I play Scrabble.  Where I come from, you play to win. You challenge words. You play by the rules. You do not, I repeat, do not under any circumstances leave an open triple.  I won that game. But I didn’t feel like a winner because we weren’t both competing.

If competition is bad because it is unfeminist and creates winners and losers, it can also be downright ugly.  Valerie Miner has an essay about competition among feminist writers called “Rumors from the Cauldron.”  The cauldron, that bubbling brew that cackling witches stir, cursing their enemies and wishing them ill.

She talks about the ugly side of competition:  envy, jealousy, resentment.  She talks about wanting to feel happy for our friends who succeed, but instead feeling envious of their success, wishing it were ours. And then we feel guilty for feeling that way.

I’ve been on both sides of the envy, and neither feels good.  If we care about our friends and know that our successes in some way hurt them, then it’s easy to feel hurt in turn (why aren’t they happy for us?), and also to then have to downplay our victories and successes.

When I was a PhD student in a stressful doctoral program in philosophy, my housemate and I used to take time out from our studies by playing backgammon. When we were learning the game together, we had a splendid time. It was loads of fun.  At certain point we turned a corner with it.

Instead of being a happy outlet from a difficult day, it became a complicated context of emotional management (what some might call co-dependence). The winner couldn’t just play her best, most strategic game and win. Instead, we started to try to gauge how the other was feeling.  Was the trouncing making her upset?  Would using the doubling cube just be an added cruelty? (We actually banned use of the doubling cube.)

Sometimes, the winner felt the need to apologize for winning. Sometimes the pending loser had to bow out, apologetically, because she’d had a rough enough day already, thank you very much. No one got to feel good.

Around that time I developed an aversion to competition. It wasn’t just about the backgammon. Competing was emotionally draining. If I won, I felt a mixture of joy and guilt. If I lost, I felt inferior and unworthy. I recognize that none of this is healthy and that it reveals at best that I was a bad sport, at worst that I needed lots of therapy.  But my competitive nature led me to take myself out of competition as much as I could. It just felt ugly.

All this, and I haven’t yet talked about sports. It’s become part of my public “narrative” about myself that I do not enjoy playing competitive sports. I’m more about yoga and running (for my own satisfaction) and resistance training for strength. And even when I run a race, I’m only going for a personal best, not actually trying to place.

Mostly, I have to confess, I don’t like competing in sports because of the combination of two factors: I’m not all that good at sports and I can be a poor loser. When I say I’m a poor loser, I mean I feel badly about myself when I lose, and I am apt to need at least a little bit of time before I can feel happy for she who beats me (unless I, like my Scrabble friend, wasn’t actually competing to begin with–then it’s okay because I wasn’t trying to beat her anyway).

And yet I recognize sports as perhaps the one domain where women can compete against one another in a healthy, socially acceptable way.  It’s the area where we don’t have to be nurturing and cooperative and concerned about how our opponents feel about our success.

I see it as a domain where we should be able to go for the win because we can (if we can). We can feel empowered at our own accomplishments while at the same time applauding the success of those who train harder or have done better in the genetic lottery than we have or both. We can set ourselves personal goals and, as Samantha says in her post about who she’s trying to beat, look at ourselves as our fiercest competition. We can admire champions.

Sports and athletics are where we can find the good in competition. Mariah Burton Nelson has a wonderful book, Embracing Victory: Life Lessons in Competition and Compassion, New Choices for Women, where she explores and develops, with much depth and eloquence, a feminist theory of victory in sports. It’s really about winning with grace and compassion, about developing your own criteria for success (and not necessarily shying away from winning as a goal), about attending to the process, about being willing to lose.

We need to give ourselves permission to compete. Lift the taboo.  And lighten up.

She cites a lovely quote from the tennis champion, Chris Evert:  “If you can react the same to winning and losing, that’s a big accomplishment.” I love how Evert shifts the idea of accomplishment away from “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” and towards the attitude with which you accept the outcome.

We don’t have to hold hands across the finish line. But we can go for the group hug when we all get there!