In line with Kate Norlock’s recent post on this blog that highlighted the importance of being more self-forgiving in the domain of fitness, I’d like to continue on this theme and discuss the way that I exercise with the hope that others will come to love physical activity (to whatever degree they do it); learn to be easier on themselves about physical activity; and at the same time, not give up on meeting their goals and becoming more fit.
Since I began university, I have been an avid runner and fitness enthusiast. I run 4-6 days per week and on days when I don’t run, I cross-train either by spinning, rowing (on a machine), doing the elliptical, and sometimes biking. In addition to my daily running/cardio, for the past five years, I have been building my ashtunga yoga practice seven days per week. Exercise is an non-negotiable part of my daily routine for which I am entirely unapologetic and I am lucky to have a partner who understands how important it is for me and who supports this. To many, so much exercise may seem excessive, but for me, it is what I need in order to function well in every other facet of my life (as a professor/teacher/writer, a partner, and a mother of a 22-month old child). In the last ten years, I have run 3 marathons and countless half marathons, but really, what I love the most are my daily runs, which set a rhythm for my days and for my life.
What many find odd about the way that I run, is that I don’t “train” in any standard sense of the term. That is not to say that I don’t push myself (sometimes) or that I don’t accomplish goals (I do!) or that I don’t improve (I definitely do). But I don’t train in any systematic or scientific way. And that is intentional.
You see, I find that in my professional life (which at the moment and for many academics, comprises a large portion of my life), I am always competing with others: be it in terms of getting a permanent job (which, after four years, I just did), getting papers accepted into conferences, publishing, etc. I find all of this terribly grueling, terribly tiring, and often, terribly off-putting. So exercise, and running in particular, is a way for me to escape from the competition (with others), the sitting, the deadlines, the stress, and the pressure. It allows me to clear my mind, to be alone, and to move.
As a trained philosopher, most of the things I do I do in a systematic and scientific way. Running, however, is perhaps the biggest exception. And I have found that I’m an anomaly in this way. I don’t read about running (although perhaps I should), I’ve never written about running (although this is fun!), I certainly don’t theorize about running, and I don’t even talk much about it. I just do it.
Although running is a non-negotiable part of my life, it’s not something that I track or chart. Often, when I come back from a run, someone will ask me: “how far did you go?” and to this question, I can only ever give a time, but never a distance. I never know how far I’ve run, only how long. Often during the week, I run for around 40 minutes, but some days I cover much more distance than others. On weekends, I try to run for over an hour. On days when I’m feeling energetic, I’ll run faster and harder and I’ll seek out hills; on days when I’m feeling less so, I’ll go at a slower pace on flat terrain. And that’s fine. You see, running is one of the only areas of my life where I don’t beat myself up if I don’t do well (that is, if I don’t have a “good” run), and if I do have a good run, well, all the better.
Now don’t get me wrong: just because I don’t chart my runs, or set out any systematic, training plan, does not mean that I don’t improve, push myself, or accomplish my goals. I remember many years ago wanting to run my first half-marathon. At the time, I was running around 5 days per week but I had never run for more than 35 minutes (but again, I had no idea how much distance I would cover in that time). About a week before the marathon, I pushed myself to run for 45 minutes. I felt pretty good afterwards and thought, “might as well try the half marathon.” The goal was simply to finish.
Race day arrived and I finished in exactly two hours. I was ecstatic. But what made me the happiest was that I didn’t pressure myself, I didn’t get anxious or nervous, I just did it at my own pace and let whatever happen happen.
For me, the most important goal of running is the daily enjoyment that I get from it. I know that the moment I start setting strict goals, if I don’t meet them, I’ll get down on myself, chastise myself, and feel like a failure. So the solution that works best for me is not to set too many extraordinary goals, but rather to just do what I love as much as possible and let the success naturally follow. Keeping up and most importantly, enjoying the daily routine is the goal. I know my body and I know what it is capable of. I know that many days it works really well and that some days it doesn’t, and that’s just fine. I also know that if I really want to achieve something, because I keep up a basic (and relatively high) level of physical fitness, I’ll be able to do it. Most importantly, I know that I’ll be able to do it on my terms, in my way, and in my own time.
When I’m asked how I trained for marathons, I say: “I don’t.” Now that isn’t exactly true, since by the standards of someone who does no exercise, my daily routine is a rigorous form of training. But for me, it’s just what I do. I don’t think of it in terms of training because the minute I tell myself that I’m “training,” it becomes stressful and it puts a kind of pressure on me (and I don’t work well under pressure). I don’t like to fail and especially with running, I don’t like to make any part of it unenjoyable. Setting standards (like, I must run X km in time T) and systemizing what I love would make it unenjoyable.
So in order to prepare for marathons, I continue my daily running routine, I do a few longer runs (an hour and a half run, an hour and forty-five minute run, and usually one two-hour run about 10 days before the marathon) but that’s it. And of the three marathons I’ve done, each time I’ve cut between 5-10 minutes off my previous time.
None of this is to say that I don’t push myself. I do. But my point is that for me, preparing works best when I don’t set specific goals, but rather when my goals are relaxed (run for 90 minutes at whatever pace feels good). This way, I can always meet my goals. This way, I can feel good about my body, my level of physical activity, and my success. I do know, however, that this way of running is not for everyone.
Ever since I was around eight, one of my biggest goals has been to do an Ironman. I have given myself ten years (from now) in which to accomplish this goal. I imagine that my relaxed way of preparing for marathons will not work for this particular and much more challenging goal. And that’s fine. Nevertheless, I hope to find a way of training that will continue to allow me to improve, to succeed, and to accomplish my goal and most importantly, to do so in a way that still allows me to take pleasure in physical activity and to feel good about myself while doing it.