What room is there, in such a world, for me to worry about exercising? Instead of spending my free time in the pool or out running, shouldn’t I be more of a political activist? Or at least, like Natalie, combine the two? Yes, we need self care in these rough times, and exercise definitely helps me disconnect and recharge. It gives me the strength to deal, including with the political situation. But how much of it is really necessary? I swim two nights a week and try to go bouldering and running at least once. That’s quite a lot of my spare time that I could theoretically expend on more “worthwhile” things. Joining, and being active in, a political party. Joining the local LGBTQ+ community. Going to protests… you name it.
I also try to tell myself that I actually do things in other parts of my life. I work for an organisation promoting scientific endeavour and international exchange, two things that are important right now. I volunteer for United World Colleges, an educational organisation that runs schools around the world to promote international understanding. I vote. But I often feel like that’s not enough, and I should be doing more. Yet doing more of one thing (activism), for me, would have to mean doing less of another (sports) – less of a thing that I enjoy immensely, that keeps me strong mentally and physically, and during which I do some of my best thinking about politics and feminism, if I do say so myself (especially while running).
This isn’t going to be a very conclusive, satisfying post, I’m afraid, because I haven’t reached any conclusion at all. So I wanted to put that question out to you, dear community: do you struggle with this dilemma? Have you resolved it? How?
As Sam mentioned earlier this week, autumn is fast approaching in the northern hemisphere. And with it comes the challenge of shorter, darker days and worse weather for those of us who like to exercise outdoors. To be honest, at this point I’m actually grateful it’s getting cooler. The Central European heatwave that lasted from… basically June through August and made it nearly impossible to exercise without melting is finally showing signs of abating, even though it’s still unseasonably warm. We’re getting a wonderful late summer here this year (picture proof below).
But we’re also getting less and less light and eventually the temperatures will drop to less pleasant weathers. I’ve definitely struggled in the past to keep my outdoor momentum up during the autumn and winter months. I don’t mind it so much if it’s cold, or even snowing. I also don’t mind running in the rain in the summer, but the combination of cold and wet is my kryptonite. And the lack of daylight is definitely an issue: no more run commutes (the latest addition to my routine anyway) because it’ll be too dark in the forest, and even in the city I don’t enjoy running at night that much. Lots of people have a gym subscription, but I don’t. So what is an aspiring fit feminist to do? Here some ideas, based mostly on my own personal experience:
Take it inside. It may not be as enjoyable as the outdoors, but some sports don’t suffer too much. Of course I prefer the 50m outdoor pool, but the indoor pool isn’t too bad in comparison. And, if that’s up your alley, you could consider adding a sauna visit afterwards, or sit in the hot tub after training, if there’s such a thing at your pool. I’ll admit that swimming is a sport where this is singularly easy, unless you’re an open water swimmer. Switching out your favourite running trail for a treadmill is much less appealing…
Switch it up. I’ll definitely be doing more indoor yoga when it’s too wet for me to want to set foot outside. Also, strength training. There’s some good apps that guide you through a workout, or Youtube videos if that’s your jam. In our household, we recently invested in one of those sling things (whatever they’re called, the ones used in TRX training) that you can hang on your door to do core and strength exercises. You could even try something totally new to you that’s geared more towards indoor practice.
Team up.I’m much more likely to go running in the rain if I’ve made a commitment to others. That works well for me in general – if I tell someone I’m going to do something, I usually will. External accountability does a lot for me.
Time change. For weeks, it was too hot for lunchtime runs here. But now they’re staging a strong comeback! If you have the option of showering at work, going for a run at lunchtime is a great option if, like me, you don’t like running in the dark. Plus, lunchtime runs are in a group (see above). If you can’t shower at work, even a walk is good to get some movement in.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just as it’s ok not to exercise when it’s too hot, it’s ok not to exercise when it’s too cold, or too wet, or you’re just not feeling it that day. Yes, a routine is important, and some days it’s important to push through and get a move on. But not always. Everyone’s allowed a rain (literally! ha!) check every once in a while. Cosying up on the couch can be just as worth it.
So, what are your tips for keeping up a strong sports routine in the colder weather? Curious to hear about your strategies, so please share them in the comments!
I have talked here before about how badly I do running uphill. I could run downhill, I could run on a flat course, but uphill – no, no, and no. But since I was told that the only way to improve my uphill endurance was to… run uphill, I’ve been working on my hills, and while I still haven’t been enjoying them, things have been looking a bit better of late.
I had previously entertained the thought of running to work on several occasions. The problem was: I work up a very steep hill, and I never thought I could actually do it. It was the sort of idea that would float into my head only to be immediately dismissed as completely unrealistic. I had visions of myself arriving at the office completely exhausted (if at all) and being essentially useless for the rest of the day. Check out the elevation profile of my commute to get an idea of what I was up against:
Then, a month ago, I tried trail running at a mountain sports festival and unexpectedly enjoyed it a lot more than I ever thought I would. I had been quite nervous about even attending the workshop because I was afraid I’d be “that person” holding back the entire group and making a sad spectacle out of herself. This was decidedly outside of my comfort zone, so I was very relieved when it turned out the others had similar concerns (and, I will admit, also because I realised that I wasn’t the slowest group member).
But I think what helped the most was the instructor’s explanation of trail running as “basically a mixture of running and walking – you run when you can and you walk when you can’t or the terrain gets too difficult”. It made me feel much better about slowing down for a particularly steep climbs. Part of my problem with hills before was that I would beat myself up about having to walk when the going got too tough. Walking was “not allowed” in my mind. But all of a sudden, walking was allowed, nay, encouraged. I felt more at ease about those hills immediately.
After that first positive experience with trail running, it was only a question of time until I attempted my first run commute – the time it took for my little trail running backpack to be delivered. When it finally arrived (I wanted a very particular one and it took a while to get here), I decided to try it out right away. The day before, I took an extra outfit to work and left it in the closet in my office for the next day, and the following morning I suited up in my running outfit and backpack. I carried some water, my glasses, keys, and a small makeup bag with the bare necessities to make myself look presentable for a day at the office. Luckily we have showers at work, so that wasn’t going to be a problem.
And the only thing I regret about it was not having run commuted before. It was fantastic! I’ve done it twice now, and the first time I only stopped for a few breaks when I had to check the map on my phone to make sure I was still on course. On the second run, I found a slightly less steep route (actually the one shown in the elevation chart above) and only stopped once to briefly check the map! Granted, the uphill bit is very slow going, but I actually found I could do it without walking. And I was rewarded for it all with a beautiful route along little paths through the woods and gorgeous sunrise views over the river valley.
I’m still optimising the route and my equipment (I ditched the water the second time because I found I didn’t need it), but it feels great to arrive at work with 5k already under my belt and the prospect of breakfast and a coffee while I do early morning emails. Unfortunately, because of the days getting shorter, I anticipate being able to do this maybe another two times this year before it gets too dark in the mornings to run in the woods. I won’t be doing it every day either, since I do other sports on other days, so at the moment once a week seems like a good routine.
I’m really pleased with my new adventure! Sometimes pushing one’s boundaries is just so worth it. I’m curious to hear from you how you’ve pushed your comfort zone when doing exercise. What was holding you back? How did you overcome that? And did you like it when you did?
Two weeks ago, I attended the Women’s Summer Festival in Ischgl, Austria. It’s basically a three-day summer camp for female adults. You can sign up for lots of different sports workshops, including yoga, mountain biking, climbing, hiking, the full works. All of it women-only, set very scenically in the Austrian Alps. I’d read about last year’s edition and it sounded like a ton of fun: a chance to try out new things, meet people and spend a few days frolicking in the mountains? Sign me up.
I agonised for a while about my choice of workshops – there’s no way you can do them all – and finally put myself down for a via ferrata (complete novices), trail running (beginners), morning yoga (all levels), and an all-day hike (experts). Aside from yoga and hiking, I decided to do things I hadn’t done before, so for instance bouldering fell by the wayside in favour of the via ferrata. And I was too much of a chicken for mountain biking. Somehow, the thought of hurtling down a mountain on two wheels terrifies me a lot more than the thought of being suspended above a precipice secured by nothing but a fixed steel cable and two carabiners attached to my harness through a via ferrata set.
The classification of levels, I later learned from fellow participants, stumped not only me. How do you know you’re an “expert” hiker, rather than an “advanced” one? As I’ve mentioned before, I have my share of athletic impostor syndrome, so I was mildly terrified of both the trail running (should I have signed up for the “complete novices” one?) and the hiking tour (what on earth had made me think I was an expert? The hubris!). If anyone still needed proof that women tend to underestimate themselves, they only had to attend this festival. Nearly everyone rocked up with the same self-doubts.
But these shared concerns actually ended up making for an incredibly supportive environment. Everyone cheered each other on and kept encouraging others. It had been a long time since I’d seen two people as happy as two women with vertigo after crossing an incredibly scary suspension bridge on our trail run, fuelled by gentle coaxing from our guide and the supportive cheers of the other participants. It was wonderful to watch.
The other thing I’d been a bit wary of is going by myself. I wasn’t organised enough to enlist anyone else to come with me, and I’m not exactly a social butterfly – my small talk is limited and I tend to get incredibly intimidated by people I think are cooler than me, which is pretty much everyone. I ended up really, really enjoying myself, both in terms of the activities and the company. I met some very nice people, and the activities were great. In fact, both the via ferrata and trail running (who would have thought, considering how badly I do running uphill!) left me hungry for more.
The morning yoga was beautiful, and the hike was out of this world stunning – three three thousand-metre summits in one day! With bright sunshine! And incredible views! If I were to do this again, and I’m definitely keeping this option open, there are plenty of things I didn’t get around to doing: a more challenging via ferrata, bouldering, more hiking, and maybe, just maybe, even some mountain biking?
There was a framework programme too, to keep yourself occupied while not attending a workshop, with ad-hoc activities such as TRX training, massages, pilates, etc., and you could even get your nails and your hair done if you wanted (I opted for the nails, which I usually never do or get done, and also because there’s not much you can do with my hair). In the evenings, one night there was dinner at a local hut, which ordinarily is a hip après-ski joint, and another night there was a concert with a local band in the festival tent. And as these things are wont to go, there were exhibitors peddling the latest trail running shoes, hiking poles, outdoor and yoga clothing, etc. You could also try all these things in action, which was fun, though it didn’t motivate any purchases for me.
The whole thing was a very enjoyable affair, but I wouldn’t be a good feminist killjoy if I didn’t have some issues with it. This was obviously not a free event. The all-in festival pass set me back just under 280 Euros, and I treated myself to a nice hotel in addition. There was the option of booking just individual workshops, but they also weren’t super cheap. There was a goodie bag for those who’d booked the festival package that contained some ecologically very dubious plasticky giveaways (although in fairness, there were some great quality ones too that I’ll definitely be using). And diversity at the event was limited to cis-gendered almost exclusively white, almost exclusively able-bodied, relatively fit women who could afford to be there, and a bunch of invited press, bloggers and social media influencers who were there for free (disclaimer: I wasn’t one of them).
In other words, we spent three days oozing privilege from all pores. Is this inherently a bad thing? Probably not. We had a lot of fun and it was great to completely disconnect from the news and the heat wave gripping the rest of Europe for a few days, being active among a bunch of very nice, like-minded women and pushing our comfort zones in a highly supportive environment. The event is absolutely fantastic in that it lets you test the waters with new activities that might otherwise be quite intimidating, which I think is very important in getting women to be more active. But it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and of the fact that if you were insecure about doing any sort of exercise, you probably wouldn’t sign up for a three-day mountain sports festival in the first place, so a substantial threshold is still there.
And things could be done to make the event more inclusive. One could think of travel stipends, marketing the event a bit differently to attract a more diverse crowd, and so on. Again, the organisers are a for-profit company that makes money with this, so it’s not surprising that it’s all a bit commercial, and all things considered, the commercialness is very low key – you’re not forced to buy anything or partake in any activities that aren’t your jam. And yet. A bit more of an effort in making the event more diverse and accessible would be very welcome.
Will I go back? Maybe. I had too much fun not to contemplate a return next year. I’ll keep you posted – and if I do, perhaps it will be in some fit feminist company? Would be fun.
Last week, Catherine explored different swimsuit options beyond the one-piece/two-piece dilemma and our bloggers talked about their swimwear preferences. But what if, on top of wanting something you feel great in for getting in the water, you also want something that isn’t going to poison the environment even further? As a swimmer, I’m painfully aware that my sport of choice isn’t exactly light on the planet. All my equipment is, essentially, made from plastic. It also doesn’t take a genius to figure out that keeping the pools I train in filled with water, clean, and warm is going to have some environmental impact. And last but not least, I have to drive to the pool (where I train is too far to bike and unreachable by public transport from where I am).
So I started looking around for some options that would reduce the environmental footprint of my aquatic exploits at least a little bit. It’s not easy, but it is getting easier.
Last year, I purchased a bikini made from Econyl, a recycled nylon fiber. It’s produced by a small German startup, INASKA Swimwear, that aims to produce bikinis for women who do water sports (rather than for lounging round the beach or pool), so that was huge in my book. They also sell tops and bottoms separately, which is fantastic (one of my main gripes with bikini shopping is that not more companies do this. I always struggle to find bikinis that will fit both my boobs and my bum). The bikinis are made in Europe.
The bikini itself… fine but not a 100% hit just yet. Especially the bottoms were cut in a way that still makes them feel like they’re about to slip off when you’re swimming fast. But the nice thing about a small startup is that they’re responsive: at the end of last year, they did a customer survey and it seems like I wasn’t the only one who complained – there’s a new model out this year that promises better hold (I haven’t tried it yet, though I’m tempted – but in line with trying to reduce my environmental footprint, I decided not to buy a new bikini this year). I would also add that their bikinis don’t strike me as particularly plus-size friendly, even the new model. Their advertising is certainly geared towards the thin end of the spectrum. And the bikinis aren’t fully recycled fibre (78% I think). I actually don’t know if 100% recycled is technically an option at this point, or whether something is going on with the fibres that would prevent that from happening.
For training suits, the picture doesn’t look an awful lot better, but again here, this is starting to change a bit. Adidas has launched a collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, a campaign seeking to clean the sea of plastic waste. Among other things, they make Parley swimsuits. I own one, though again if you read the small print, it becomes obvious that it’s only partially made from recycled material (and they don’t say how much, at least not that I could find). It gives the whole thing rather a “greenwashing” taste. But other big companies of swimming gear such as Speedo or Arena don’t seem to have caught onto this issue at all yet, so at least Adidas’s move is something? Also in the big-name range, PrAna and Patagonia have some interesting options made at least in part from recycled materials. PrAna in particular offers a wide range in terms of coverage.
Still, if you want ethical swimwear, in many cases you’re going to have to buy from small businesses. Which has the added benefit of being able to support young, often female-owned, companies. Frequently, they spring up from their owners’ passion for water sports and factor in the needs of women who like to be active.
But it is more complicated than being able to just walk into any old sports shop, try something on, and choose between different options. Some of these small companies produce on demand, so you have to measure yourself first to work out your size, order, wait (after all they still have to make it), and hope for the best. They’re also not cheap. And in many cases, their sizing options are more limited. But it’s an exciting scene, and if you’re willing to put in a bit of extra effort, you may well end up with something lovely.
In addition to the aforementioned INASKA Swimwear, I’ve done a bit of research for options on both sides of the Atlantic. Once you start looking, there are TONNES of ethical swimwear companies out there. I tried focussing on those geared towards more active behaviour in the water. One thing that struck me was that this seems to be a bit of a Euro-centric endeavour. I found more European than North American-based brands (and a lot of Australian ones) that matched my ethical-and-activity-friendly search criterion. There were loads of US and Canada-based ethical brands that make bikinis and one-piece suits in the “cute but not for sporty swimming or movement” range. Without further ado, here are some options, in no particular order:
Finisterre (UK-based) – swim and surf gear made partially from Econyl, and they donate 10% of the price to Surfers Against Sewage). Cool stuff, but comes at a price.
Davy J (UK-based) – also made from recycled fishing nets (also Econyl, I think). I’m not totally sure their stuff will really stay on (the tops seem a bit low cut), but they claim it will.
Josea Surfwear (Germany-based) – bikinis and one-piece suits designed for active women and produced in Hamburg, Germany. I’ve heard great things about their stuff, but their collection is a bit… changeable. I’d had my eyes on a pair of boyshort bottoms that have now suddenly disappeared from the shop. Also, no detailed information about the materials they use, only that they’re “sustainable”. I’d want to know more.
Greenswimmers (Germany-based) – I had really high hopes for these guys after reading in a swimming magazine that they were going to start producing swimsuits for women this March. The men’s trunks had received rave reviews, and the preview of the women’s suit was also great. But alas, no swimsuits in sight, and it’s now July. I wrote to them at some point and they said they were still planning on launching them but had some internal issues. The website hasn’t changed since early this year (they still promise the swimsuits for March), so I’m starting to wonder if the whole enterprise hasn’t gone South. Sad times 😦
Beefcake Swimwear (US-based) – already mentioned in Catherine’s post for the cool options they provide, this company doesn’t say anything about using environmentally friendly or recycled materials, but they are female-owned and make their suits in the US, so at least that’s fewer production miles and fair wages. It’s a great start.
Loka (Canada/Australia-based) – also using Econyl, Loka makes different options, at least some of which look like they might withstand sporty behaviour (like this one).
Rubymoon (UK-based) – multi-sports wear that transitions from the water to the yoga mat or the gym. They re-invest all their profits into women-owned micro businesses.
Mymarini (Germany-based) – many of their models are in the less practical range, but there are some options that would be quite good for water-based activities.
I owe my passion for swimming to my mother. She never learned how to swim as a child (though she did when she was in her late 40s and became quite an avid swimmer), so made sure I learned at the tender age of about five. I was terrified of water getting in my ears. When it came to having to jump in, I always stood at the back of the queue hoping that my turn would never come. But I did learn, and eventually the water in my ears didn’t bother me any more.
Then, in primary school, my mum realised I had rather poor posture, so she stuck me in the local swimming club to make sure I got back strengthening exercise. Since then, on and off, I’ve been swimming regularly. I was a competitive swimmer until I was about 14 (though I was never super fast), which was when our coach quit. In the small town I grew up in, they didn’t find a new person to replace him, and that was when I made my first contact with lifesaving, because we had the option to join a local team, and some of us did. I took my first lifeguard qualification when I was 15 and even “worked” at a local open air pool one summer. Our payment was a season ticket in exchange for the hours we put in, and a bit of pocket money. I was hooked. I loved the idea of combining sports with something socially meaningful.
At 17, I moved to the UK. My school had an intense social service programme, and one option was lifeguarding. I qualified as a beach lifeguard. We spent an amazing August patrolling a beach – who knew Wales could be so sunny! After high school, I didn’t join a team for many years. At university, I swam with the university life saving club a few times, but somehow never managed to requalify. I kept on swimming more or less regularly though.
Fast forward about 15 years – one day I was doing my laps at the local open air pool when I noticed a bunch of people in swim caps of the German Lifesaving Association (sorry, no English website) in the lane next to me. Something clicked – I suddenly wished I was with them and part of a team again. They really looked like they were having fun. I approached the coach and asked if I could do a trial session. I loved it! I requalified as a lifeguard and over time even swam a couple of competitions with my team.
If you’re now wondering what a lifesaving competition looks like, let me tell you that it is very, very cool and direct you to the following video of the 2014 world championships:
Then, just over a year ago, I moved to a different city. I tried the local lifesaving club once and it wasn’t a good fit for me. They do fantastic work with swimming classes and lifesaving training for kids, but the adults hardly swim (how much swimming a team will do depends a lot on their local focus and demographic). So I was on my own again.
Then we bought a car. And a colleague had told me that her daughter swam with the lifesaving club in a neighbouring town – with my own four wheels, this was suddenly within reach. On Tuesday, I decided to give it a shot – and it was brilliant! They train in a primary school pool, so it’s tiny (16m lanes are a fun thing when trying to calculate distances), but the team is exactly my jam! It’s a gender and age group mix I like, they seem very nice, and they swim decent distances. On Tuesday we did 3,500m and on Friday, 2,600m – there were lots of drills in the Friday session.
I couldn’t be more happy I gave this a shot. Before I went, I’d been worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up – I’m not all that fast and thought they might be super hard core. In true impostor syndrome fashion, I can really get up in my head about things like this. But it was perfect! So I have a new team and will be training with them about twice a week. Watch this space for more!
Last weekend, I ran a 10k race. It was only my third ever ‘proper’ race, so these things are still sort of new and exciting to me. A key difference was also that I ran this race with a group of colleagues. To be fair, I started my first 10k running with a friend, but I knew he was going to be way faster than me so I wasn’t surprised when he took off after the first kilometre and the rest was very much a ‘me-vs-the-road’ thing. Last week’s race definitely felt like we were doing it as a group.
I had specifically picked this race because it was a flat course. I do very, very poorly on hills and it’s something I want to work on. So if anyone has any tips on how to improve running uphill, send them my way. I really need them. I also had a goal: I wanted to do it in under 60 minutes.
The day of the race was a beautiful sunny Sunday and threatened to actually get quite hot. That thing about the hottest spring in the history of weather recording? Definitely true for this part of the world. It felt more like July than early May. Luckily the race was in the morning and substantial parts of it were in the shade. Still, when the 5k water station came around I was very grateful.
I started off sticking to a colleague with whom I’d run in the past and whom I knew to be more or less at the same pace as myself. Well… it turned out that apparently she’d been getting in a bit more training than me and set off faster than anticipated. Nevertheless, I tried to hang on to her as long as I could, because if anything, I’m competitive. But about three kilometres into the race I knew I had to let it, and my colleague, go.
But given that I was doing well for speed, I decided to try and stay at roughly a 5:30km/h pace, which is still faster than I normally run. At this point, I wanted to see if I could do it. And I almost could! In the end, I averaged 5:34, which is really good for me and I was very pleased with my final time of 56:46. I would have been even more pleased had I been able to do it in 55. So that’s my goal for next time.
Overall, it was a very enjoyable race in a small town with a very community feel, organised by the local sports club. The atmosphere was really relaxed, and while some of our team mentioned that it would have been nice to have more people cheering us on along the course, I actually didn’t mind the calmness of our run through fields and forest.
I’m not going to lie, parts of it were a struggle. It was quite hot out in the fields, so that was a factor. Also, when I had to acknowledge that my colleague was actually too fast for me, while a few months ago she was definitely slower, I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated with myself. But I’m trying to push past that and focus on the fact that I ran an awesome time by my own standard. All in all, I had a great time. We went for a nice lunch with some of the team members afterwards and it was a lot of fun. I hope we run again soon!