fitness · self care

When things get too busy

I am incredibly busy right now. I know everyone loves to “complain” about how busy they are, and how problematic our culture of constant busyness is (Susan wrote about this a while ago, and it still stands). But the fact of the matter is, for me, things are busier at the moment than they have been in the past. I think this will subside again, or I’ll get used to the new amount of stuff I have to do, but right now, I get to the end of a workday and I feel like I’m ready to crawl into a corner and sleep.

When things get too busy, I want to be this kitten.

Photo by Alex Pavlou on Unsplash

Others on the blog have written about self-care quite a lot, and why it’s problematic and a privilege and also about what it means for different people, or at different moments. So, acknowledging all that, and wondering (as I often do) whether I actually have anything new to contribute to this conversation, it’s something that’s been on my mind for the past couple of weeks since this hell-storm of busyness has broken loose. So let me say that I feel extremely lucky to have the privilege of being able to enjoy self-care during this busy period. But what does that mean to me?

When things get too busy, I tend to have problems switching my brain off. I spend a lot of the day troubleshooting. It’s part of my job and I enjoy it, but when the proverbial shit hits the fan, I tend to be in troubleshooting mode and thinking about work (and non-work) problems 24/7, trying to figure out a good way to solve them.

So when I notice my mind is spinning at the end of a work-day, I normally know it’s time to get moving. Swimming is best. The repetitiveness of the motions, trying to swim more effectively and efficiently, drowning out the outside world… it always works. I have never once emerged from a pool session and not felt much calmer and more clear-headed. Running is good too, in a different way. My mind wanders more, and I sometimes think about new angles to an issue, or – even better! – find myself lost in deep thoughts about something completely different than what was preoccupying me before. And then there’s bouldering, where you just need to concentrate so hard while you’re on the wall, and think about how to tackle a problem before you start, there’s no room to ruminate about other things while you’re at it. So yes, when things get too busy, doing some sort of exercise usually helps.

But then there are the days when I’m just too tired. Last Tuesday, I didn’t have swim practice (the school pool we train at was closed due to holidays), so I’d originally planned to go for a swim at a public pool instead. Well, it turned out those were closed too – apparently my hometown takes carnival more seriously than I had thought, and things close on Shrove Tuesday. I was also exhausted. So what did I do instead? I thought for a moment about doing something else – TRX or yoga at home -, but then I decided to sit on the couch and allow myself a rest day. Would I have normally taken my exhausted self to the pool? Probably. And would it have been worth it? Almost certainly. But I was pleased with my unplanned rest day, too.

A picture from Bettina’s run commute: still wintery-looking trees in the foreground, a town on a river being slowly illuminated by the rising sun in the background.

And then, on Wednesday, I resumed my run commutes. It’s finally light early enough in the mornings and late enough in the evenings to do that again – and it felt fantastic. It’s a great way of getting a workout in when I’m really busy: right before and right after work, on my way there and home, a trip that I’d have to do anyway. Also a plus in the self-care department: it forced me to leave the office at 5:30pm, before it got too dark (that will go away soon as the days get longer, but it was perfect this week).

When things get too busy, I’m finding that different things can help, that I need to listen to what my body is asking for, and that I have to strike a good balance between movement and stillness. Not exactly a groundbreaking finding, but an important one nevertheless.

Dear readers, how do you unwind? Do you have secret tips for taking care of yourselves during busy periods?

climbing · femalestrength · fitness

Bouldering: what it is and why Bettina keeps doing it

This year, I’ve joined the 219 in 2019 workout challenge: the goal is to work out 219 times this year. We check in with each other on Facebook. There are two groups, the general one and one that grew out of Tracy, Cate and Catherine’s feminist fitness challenge. I post my updates to both of them, and in both cases when I mentioned I’d been bouldering, people asked what it was. So I thought I might blog about it here, since it still doesn’t seem to be a very well-known sport – even though you wouldn’t be able to tell by the amounts of people at my bouldering gym!

Bouldering is a type of climbing, but it’s done at relatively low heights (I’ll come to that in a moment) where you don’t need a harness and rope. You can do it outdoors and indoors, although I’ve only ever bouldered indoors. For outdoor bouldering, there are special mats, called crashpads, you can carry to where you’re climbing. At an indoor gym, the floor is one gigantic soft mat. So if you take a fall, at least you fall onto something soft (again, we’ll come back to this). Here’s what a bouldering gym looks like:

A bouldering gym with people climbing, resting, and studying different routes.

On the walls of a bouldering gym, you’ll find holds (aka boulders) of various colours drilled into the wall, forming different routes (aka problems or routes) of various levels of difficulty. The goal is to complete a problem without touching the boulders of another one. You’ve successfully completed a problem once you get to its “top” boulder with both hands.

So what do I love about bouldering? The short answer is: almost everything. It makes me feel strong and badass. By the time I finish a problem, chances are I will have overcome moments of fear, my arms will have almost given out, and my hands are sore. It turns out I’m more afraid of heights than I’d previously thought, so higher walls are a real challenge for me, and it feels fantastic to rise above that. It often takes me several attempts to finish a route because I get scared. There is some reason to this – despite the soft mats, it’s not a danger-free sport. You can fall and break something. You can hit boulders while falling or scrape yourself. I’ve definitely come home with more than one big bruise. And yet.

Bouldering has taught me that I’m stronger than I often think. Yes, there are problems I can’t do because they’re too long and I run out of strength before I make it. But at least as often I just think I won’t be able to do it, while I actually can. It’s a full-body workout that requires a lot of body tension – core strength combined with the ability to use your arms and legs to push into a wall or against a boulder all at the same time. So it’s tough, but it’s also made me tougher, and I’ve found that being able to control my muscles better has actually had a positive impact on my swimming. Plus, the longer you boulder, the more you figure out what your individual strengths are. Mine are balancy problems and slab walls. A bouldering mate of mine loves overhangs (he has excellent body tension), and so on.

That’s also why I find bouldering to be quite gender-inclusive, at least from what I’ve experienced. Yes, there is the odd gang of muscle-loaded “super manly” dude-bros who need to show off in front of each other (and everyone else). But then a women will often come along and leave them mouth agape because she could do a problem they hadn’t been able to manage. There are routes for everyone: the stronger and the less strong, the more and the less supple, and the taller and the less tall. It’s very empowering. Also, by and large, it attracts an open-minded crowd that’s in it together and has decent manners. At least at my gym, the “super manly” dude-bros are far and few between.

Bettina on a bouldering wall (not actually climbing a problem, just monkeying around).

And then there’s the mental challenge of figuring out how to approach a certain route. I love tackling stuff head-on, but here I’m learning to think before I do. Strength is precious, so you don’t want to waste it by not being able to complete a route because you got stuck somewhere and hadn’t thought about how to best place your hands and feet, balance your body, or manage a particularly long reach. (Sam blogged a while ago about how climbing seems to appeal to philosophers in particular, and I think this extends to researchers more generally.)

Finally, bouldering is a social sport. I enjoy going to the gym alone – you always end up chatting with strangers anyway and giving each other tips -, but it’s more fun in a group. We help each other through problems. We egg each other on, celebrate our victories and share our frustrations. There’s a lot of resting involved between exhausting problems, so we hang out on the mat and chat, or squint at walls together trying to figure out a good way to tackle a route. And afterwards, we have a beer together.

Happy New Year! · race report · racing · running · traveling · winter

Race Report – Bettina’s New Year’s Eve 8k

In 2017, I started dabbling in running one or the other race, and discovered a wonderful one: the Bilbao – Rekalde San Silvestre 8k, which takes place on New Year’s Eve. My husband is from the Basque Country, so we spend New Year’s there every year. I had so much fun in 2017 that I decided to run it again on the last day of 2018. This time, I roped in two friends to run it with me. Overall, just under 2,500 other runners had the same idea. And it was even better than the year before!

I’ll get into this in a moment, but first, there are a couple of other things I’d like to talk about. The first is the reason I love this race: while there are of course some people who are there for the competition, the vast majority are there for the fun. People run alone, in groups, with their families, or dressed up in all kinds of costumes. My favourite this year were the two guys who came dressed as a trainera (a Basque type of rowing boat). In the head picture of this official blog post you can see them! There’s also a summary video of the race that gives you a good idea of the vibe (you really only need to watch the first half, the second half is more boring, unless you want to see how the winners did):

The second thing I wanted to talk about is slightly less fun: it’s the gender split of the race. There are only two categories, male and female, which is a problem unto itself, but the race this year was no less than three-quarters male. That doesn’t seem like a particularly healthy split to me. In fact, even in comparison to marathons in the US (a statistic I could find quite quickly), it’s quite poor. I’m not totally sure what is going on here. It’s a fairly short race (below 10k), not a very serious one, and cheap (10 euros) so it sends all the right accessibility signals, or so one would think… and yet. I was intrigued, so I looked into the data for Spain (from a few years ago) a bit. Generally, women are quite a bit more sedentary than men. For example, in the 25-44 age bracket, 55% of women never (!) exercise, compared to 41% of men. On the European scale*, Spain sits in a middling position overall regarding physical activity, but the difference by sex (again, the data is binary) is comparatively large. Possible explanations would be entirely speculative at this point – but our work, fit feminist friends, is not done.

For now, let’s focus on why I loved the San Silvestre even more this time than the year before. In 2017, it poured with rain throughout the entire race. This time around, we got spectacular blue skies (see picture below) and a perfect running temperature of just over 10°C. It felt amazing!

Runners gathering for the San Silvestre run in front of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum, with a spectacularly blue sky and curious onlookers.

Also in 2017, I was still getting into running and quite slow, and I suffered due to the hills along the route. But over the past year, I’ve been working on my hills quite a lot, and my overall running speed has increased. We’d decided to run the race in our pack of three, so the (supposedly) slowest in the group was our pacer – and he wasn’t slow at all! We ran pretty much at the speed I currently train at, so we did very well. It gets even better: the reason we did the time we did was that our first kilometre was really slow due to the masses of people at the start. Meaning that overall, I was actually faster than ever, aside from that first bit! And the really amazing thing is that I could have run even faster – but the way we did it was perfect because we stuck together as a team and had a fabulous time. Mission accomplished!

*There is so much interesting data in that Eurostat graph, I’m going to make it its own separate post, promise!

health · illness · yoga

Bettina’s yoga mini-streak (inspired by Sam)

When Sam posted about her bike streak, I was inspired. In her second post, she wrote about her “back at it” attitude to interrupted streaks. You see, I’m ordinarily more of a “I’ve interrupted my streak, that’s it” sort of person, or even the sort of person who doesn’t join a “30 days of” or whatever challenge because I just know life will get in the way. External accountability works very well for me as a motivator most of the time,  so you’d think the group aspect of some of these challenges would make me a fan. But if I know in advance I won’t be able to commit for instance to a full 30 days of something, it becomes more of a deterrent. And that is normally the case – something will always come up during 30 days that will prevent me from doing the whole thing “properly”, and the perfectionist in me is against that.

But since last Sunday, I’ve decided to do my own private yoga mini-streak: yoga every day until Christmas, or at least until my last day of work (21 December), before I interrupt my daily routine for the end of year festivities. No external accountability. No hard feelings.

I’ve recently had a bit of health stuff going on, so I’m technically forbidden from hard exercise until at least Thursday next week (medical advice differs on just how long I should avoid swimming and running, but that is a topic for another post). Since I feel fine and need some movement in my life, I decided to test the waters last Sunday with an hour of moderate-intensity yoga. It was thoroughly enjoyable, so I decided that this would be my go-to daily workout until I can resume normal activities.

A woman rolling up a teal yoga mat. My mat is red, but looks very similar. 
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

So here are my “rules”. They’re not very rule-y at all:

  • Do yoga every day for 10-15 minutes in the morning, or longer on weekends. 10-15 minutes isn’t much, but at least it’s something. And when I have time, I can do more. This morning, for example, I did a 40-minute flow for strength. 
  • I’m allowed to replace yoga by another activity if I want. For instance, tomorrow I plan to reintroduce some gentle bouldering into my routine, so I probably won’t do yoga on that day, except for maybe some cool-down asanas after bouldering.
  • But of course I can also do my yoga in the morning and swim in the evening or run in the afternoon, once I’m cleared to return to the pool and the road!
  • If life gets in the way of yoga on a couple of days, so be it. I’m not going to beat myself up about it. It could very well happen, with all the pre-holiday commitments that are going on.

This week has worked out great so far. I’ve been trying to listen to my body to make sure I don’t overdo it.  For example, on Thursday I got my flu shot, and so on Friday morning I did a hands-free flow to avoid irritating my arm. Youtube is truly amazing; you can find flows for essentially any life situation on there. 

To be honest, I’m starting to go a little stir-crazy from the lack of the sort of regular movement I’m used to, but the yoga is helping. So here’s to my mini-streak!

fashion · feminism · fitness · gear · running · swimming

Bettina’s quest for a multi-sport watch – small wrists and designing with women in mind

Following the untimely demise of my wristwatch, I’m currently in the market for a multi-sport watch. Tracking can be problematic in a variety of ways (see posts e.g. here and here), but I like data, and I like tracking my exercise performance over time. So I’ve wanted a multi-sport watch for quite a while, but could never quite justify the expense because I had a functioning watch. There was also a second problem that persists and is currently thwarting my watch acquisition project. I have small wrists.  Very small wrists.

So I can’t find a watch that fits me. With some models, the body is literally wider than my wrist (I’m looking at you, Samsung Gear Fit Pro 2). It’s uncomfortable and looks ridiculous, but also has the potential to become dangerous since it increases the risk of getting caught on something, say a pool line. In the past I’ve owned a Garmin Swim that I wore exclusively in the pool. Tracking swimming was literally all it did, and even though it was chunky, it was just about ok. It did a good job at recognising strokes and provided other analyses I was keen on having, like stroke efficiency and such like. Later, I started looking into multi-sports watches more seriously, since I’d also gotten into running and wanted something that could track that too. This was the start of my sizing troubles. In the end, I settled for an activity tracker that counts lanes very reliably and does a reasonable job at estimating distance when running, although this is inaccurate enough to be annoying.

Bettina’s current fitness tracking setup: a Misfit Ray. Not bad, but there is room for improvement. Also exhibit (a): small wrist.

One would think that over time, manufacturers would catch on to the fact that there are people with small wrists around, but no. I still can’t find anything that suits me, and I’m starting to get quite angry. I’d really like a Garmin Forerunner 645 or Vívoactive 3, but even these smaller models are really too big. I might just about be able make the Forerunner 645 work – but it would be a big compromise practically and aesthetically.

I wonder why there are no suitable watches around. Yes, my wrists are small, but I wouldn’t say they’re extraordinarily tiny. One possible explanation for the lack of options is that manufacturers can’t currently fit all the functionalities one would want into a smaller watch. If someone can convincingly demonstrate to me this is true, I’ll rest my case. Another reason could be that you need a certain display size for the watch to be functional. I get that point. Still, I have trouble buying those arguments. The Apple Watch has loads of functionalities and is still relatively small. The difference: it is very clearly aimed at men and women. My hunch is that this isn’t exactly the case with multi-sport watches.

Yes, there are multi-sport watches out there with a more “female look”, usually rose gold and white. But they’re still massive! Even for instance the Garmin Fenix 5S, supposedly designed with women in mind. Not to mention that not all women are keen on the rose gold/white colour combo. My theory is that it still has something to do with “designing with women in mind”. I’m not talking about “shrink it and pink it”. That would probably actually imply a loss of functionalities. In fact, many activity trackers seem to fit exactly that purpose, and there are plenty available that are explicitly aimed at women. Fitbit even launched a “female health tracking” functionality earlier this year that attracted some excellent snark among our blog contributors (Would the messages come in shades of pink? Would it do emotional labour for you on the variance in your numbers? – It ended up reducing “female health” to “menstrual cycles”, which has a whole other load of problems, but that’s not under discussion here).

So is it carelessness? Or laziness? Are the people who design these watches a bunch of men whose effort to think about potential female customers stops at “oh, let’s slap some women-y colours on it and be done already”, combined with a dose of “women aren’t interested in a serious multi-sport watch anyway”? Is the number of women with small wrists and a desire for detailed sports tracking too small to make it worth the effort? Maybe. But I’d still like one. With swimming analytics beyond lane counting. With GPS. With music streaming integration. Yes, the full deal. Really.

If any of you have tips for a device that might fit the bill for me, please shout. I’d really appreciate it! Or are you running into the same problems?

body image · eating · fitness · food · inclusiveness · media

Samin Nosrat’s “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” redefines cooking shows in the best way

Cooking shows… some are great and some less so, but many of them – at least until recently – have had one thing in common: if they were about high-level cuisine, they were mostly male (and white). If they were about everyday home cooking, they were mostly female (and also white). In the past couple of years or so, this has slowly begun to change. Netflix has been at the forefront of this development with its original productions. Ugly Delicious was still mostly male, but at least less white. Chef’s Table still explores a lot of male, Western white chefs, but also really interesting women and people from countries outside of the traditional Michelin star circuit (Ana Roš from Slovenia, for instance, Musa Dağdeviren from Turkey, or Cristina Martínez, a Mexican chef living in the US undocumented).

But BAM, up shows Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and with her Netflix-produced show of the same name, changes everything we know to be true about cooking shows. Nosrat, an American of Iranian descent, explores these four key elements of great cooking through the lenses of different countries. The Salt episode takes place mostly in Japan. For Fat, she goes to Italy. Acid is set in Mexico, and finally Heat focuses on her own kitchen. She is genuinely curious and appreciative of everything the locals she interviews for her show tell her, and constantly relates it back to her own culinary upbringing, but without overpowering the stories of her interview partners.

Mussakhan.JPG
No direct connection to Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, this is a meal that’s been a favourite in our household lately: Mussakhan, a Middle Eastern dish that involves chicken marinated with red onions, lemon juice, and sumac. In Samin Nosrat’s words: “It’s so good!”. Make it, you won’t be sorry (recipe here).

She’s unapologetic about her own enjoyment of food. Samin Nosrat’s relationship to eating seems so healthy and natural. It’s so good! she exclaims again and again, and you can’t not start salivating as you watch. I mean, imagine – a whole episode about fat without one single remark along the lines of ‘guilty pleasures’, ‘I shouldn’t really’, ‘just this once’…?! In a cooking show presented by a woman? This is unheard of. She even asks for more. This is how it should be, but too many times sadly it’s not.

In a world where women are constantly shamed for enjoying food, where exercise is frequently framed in terms of dieting and weight loss (women must work out so they can eat), and where talking about food in public is still defined by gender and racial stereotypes, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is huge. It’s refreshing, genuine, and heartwarming. Highly recommended! Also, you can get some of the recipes from the show on its website. A-ma-zing.

(Other people have written much more eloquently than I ever could about the impact of this show, see e.g. here, and here.)

feminism · fitness

Fitness and Activism in this Political Climate

The other day I woke up late (it was a bank holiday) and idly scrolled through the news while still in bed.  The first three news items I happened upon were the following: Donald Trump had mocked Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. The US was going to start to denying visa to the same-sex partners of UN diplomats unless they were married (but some can’t get married and would face prosecution in their home countries if they did). And the Nobel prize winner in Physics, Donna Strickland, first woman to win it in 55 years, had been denied a Wikipedia entry last May because she hadn’t been considered famous enough. I just wanted to roll over and stay in bed all day. And the bad news just keep coming, from all parts of the world. We live in darkening times.

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.

running-unsplash.jpg
Is getting out there to run ever a political act? Picture of a woman in running gear on a park path, green grass in the fore- and background (Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash).

I try to tell myself that in itself, practising sports as a woman (and thinking and writing about it here) is at least somewhat political, as long as women are harassed, followed, and killed while running, a strong reaction from a female tennis player to an umpire’s decisions causes an international outcry (shortly after her choice of clothing on the court was the subject of international discussion too), and so on. But I’m not going to lie, it feels much less valid than the options outlined above. Also because, even as a woman practising sports, as a cis-gendered, White woman from a developed country, who has the resources and the time to do all that exercise, I’m aware that I hold a massive amount of privilege, and doing these things is just not a huge deal.

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?