competition · fitness · Guest Post · motivation

Fitness Is Not a Competition (Guest Post)

Fitness is not a competition.

By Shana Johnstone

The comparison trap is a difficult mindset to be stuck in. I hear it all the time in my gym community—folks not satisfied with their progress because it doesn’t match someone else’s. I also hear it in my own head. I hear my inner dialogue as it compares the barbell I lift to the amount my friend can pull, and I feel my self-worth increase or decrease with how much—or how fast, far, long, or many—I can do. And I’m sick of it.

Rationally, I know that seeing my fitness as a competition with others is a reliance on outside factors and external validation to feel good about myself, and I’m slowly talking myself out of this mindset. I’m paying more attention to my inner voice and deliberately disrupting the dialogue with a new set of messages.

I’ve learned that how I talk to myself matters, and so I have started a practice of drafting pep talks. I like this practice because it encourages me to dig into some of the finer points of comparison and competition, and by writing to “you” (who is you that is reading this but also is me in the mirror) I can develop and order my thoughts in a considered, deliberate way. How we speak to others can be so much more compassionate—and, also, more objective—than how we speak to ourselves, and I’ve found this approach helpful to busting out of—or at least putting some serious holes into—the need to compare and compete. 

What Is Competition?

Before we get into reconstructing our mindset around fitness, let’s consider the characteristics of competition.

A competition is a contest in which there are winners and losers. At its core, competition is a comparative exercise. Someone comes out on top. Sport is competition; fitness is not.

In sport, we determine a winner or a ranking of the top few. Someone is identified, as objectively as possible, as the fastest, the strongest, or the most skilled. Validation comes from others; it is external to the self. The point is to win.

The pursuit of sport and the pursuit of fitness are fundamentally different. In fitness, there is no finish line, no award ceremony, and no gold star. Validation is found internally, from meeting your own needs. The point of fitness is to be able to participate.

This doesn’t mean that fitness is easy. In fact, it’s often harder than sport. Without the clear parameters of winning, how do we know when we achieve it? Without agreed-upon rules of engagement, how do we know we’re doing it right? And perhaps most confusing, without competition, what drives us?

By shifting how we think about fitness away from competition and toward participation we open ourselves up to so many more benefits beyond just the physical.

Fit for What?

Can you identify the exact criteria for fitness? Few can agree on what to measure, never mind the thresholds required, so don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to pin down. Part of the issue is identifying the fitness objective—what is it being used for?

My fitness objectives are likely different from yours, and yours are likely different from your neighbour’s. For example, I’m currently fit to care for myself, do basic maintenance around my home, carry my groceries, walk around town or hike through the forest, go ocean paddleboarding, and learn new gymnastic skills. In other words, my fitness matches my objectives. I have other objectives that I’m also working towards, and my fitness is moving in that direction. Should my objectives change, I would likely work to alter my fitness accordingly.

But I’m a competitive athlete, you say. Well, do you want to run hurdles, or long-distance cycle, or execute a tumbling routine, or fence, or play rugby? Great! Are the fitness requirements the same for each sport? Are you working on fitness specific to your objectives?

There’s no bar for fitness, nor should there be. Fitness is not an absolute. There is only the ability to do the thing you want to do, at the level you want to do it at.


When you picture yourself as a fit person, what activities are you doing? If you’re already doing those activities, mission accomplished. If you’re on the path to making it happen, mission accomplished also. Everything—everything—is a progression.

It’s All About You

Your situation is unique. Really, it is. Hear me out.

Your physical fitness and the mindset you bring to it are specific to you and your personal history. What you can do with your body, right now, is a manifestation of that lived experience.

The variables are infinite. Blow out your knee ten years ago? Recovering from a major illness? Not sleeping well or working eighteen-hour days? Your mental and emotional stressors are just as significant and combine with the physical to create the you of this moment.

This is the you that is capable of what you can do right now.

Does it make sense to compare your work-, family-, or injury-related stress to someone else’s? No? Then why would you compare your one-rep max of anything?

How about this: if you and I were to compare our fitness in a contest of shoe-tying, would it matter who wins? If it doesn’t then tell me why it matters that you lift more than me or I run faster than you. Each of us can do what we can do and it’s irrelevant to compare.

But there is a place where our unique situations are indeed relevant to others. We all experience challenges, sometimes small and niggling, sometimes devastating. And we all experience successes, be they fast and fleeting or sticky and triumphant. Though incomparable, our experiences are what allow us to relate to each other. Comparison is pointless, but empathy is gold.

Abundance

Sport is competitive, as are many other things—a game of chess, a spelling bee, a job opening, an audition, the last seat on your bus-ride commute. What do all of these have in common? There is a winner and there are those who . . . didn’t win. The reward is limited to one, sometimes to a few. The system is based on scarcity.

For many of us, the competitive mindset is in our blood. We feel driven to lift heavier and move faster than those around us. We want that personal best. We want to “catch up” to our friends who can do more than we can. We want to regain a skill, a speed, a body we once had because we think we used to be a better version of ourselves.

We’re comparing a past or an imagined future to where we are now and judging our current selves lacking, less worthy than before or not yet enough.

Your fitness doesn’t exist in a system of scarcity. It is available to you now, or later, whenever you decide to strive for it and regardless of who else is working on theirs. There’s no podium and no limitation on who can have it, how much you can have, when you can have it, or how long you can have it for. There is no competition—it just doesn’t exist.

Moreover, you don’t live in the past or the future. You live in the now. So how are you not enough? You are, literally, everything.

In the land of fitness there is infinite room, space for all, enough for everyone.

That Feeling

It’s okay if you see something that someone else has and want it for you, too.

Maybe you see a stranger climb a local pitch, or your friend completes a Gran Fondo with style, or someone at your gym has a two-pull rope climb.

You might feel . . . jealousy. It might be hard to admit, but there it is. It’s no surprise, really. We’re taught to compare ourselves to others. We expect to compete for limited resources. We learn that there are winners at the expense of losers and that the rewards go those at the top. But with fitness there is no competition. You can have it too.

Here’s the important bit: your response to others’ achievements paves the way for your own. If you celebrate the success of others, you’re saying yes to that success for yourself, too, whether it be now or in the future. None of us exists in a vacuum. Your support of others matters—to them, to a future you, and to everyone else who wants to succeed. It creates an environment where we all can strive and where more is possible.

Likewise, if you put down the success of others, you’re saying that you’re not interested in that achievement for yourself. You are, in effect, saying that the achievement has no value—not for you or anyone else. This creates an environment of apathy.

If, by watching your peers increase their fitness, you discover a sharp desire to handstand, increase your bench, or row a lightning-fast 2k, channel that motivation into your training. Now you have a goal and the drive to make it happen. Go get it! Your achievement won’t supplant someone else’s. But do this first: cheer on the person who is inspiring you.

BIO: Shana Johnstone is an editor and writer who lifts, learns, and loves in Vancouver, BC.

competition · race report · racing · running

Mina Wants to Be Noticed

These last six months, running and I have been on a rollercoaster ride together—queasy stomachs and screams of joy. In March, I agreed to do a half-marathon with a friend on her April birthday and immediately started dreading it. I swore off road races about a decade ago. The running events I participate in once or twice a year are off-road. Runs on forest trails or in the mountains. To compound my dread (or perhaps because of), I trained poorly and my race result was disappointing; actually, extremely so. I wish I’d read these wise insights right after, it would have helped me process: So You Had a Crappy Race … Now What?

I don’t want you to notice that crappy half marathon.

In an attempt to redeem myself (for myself), one month later I recommitted to running by joining a Hood to Coast relay team. That’s a 200-mile relay run from Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood (near Portland) to Seaside on the coast of Oregon. Our team of 12 ran 36 legs (three each) ranging from just under 4 miles to as long as almost 8 miles. My legs (as runner 6) added up to 17.6 miles (plus the two bonus miles I had to run just to get to the handoff points when our van was held up in the event’s inevitable traffic snarls (with more than 10,000 participants, imagine the people moving pile-ups). Did you notice how challenging the event sounds?

I am not much of a joiner. This event was uncharted territory for me. I felt a responsibility to train properly, not just to re-energize my own relations with running, but for my team. Fortunately, I was in my favourite place to run for the weeks leading up to the event. Every summer I spend a good chunk of time in California’s Sierra Mountains. There was a period of a few years when I would run for hours by myself training for an ultrarun. But in 2016 I had surgery to remove a Morton’s neuroma from my foot and I seemed to have lost that source of joy. This summer, with Hood to Coast on my calendar, I recaptured the bliss of long runs alone in the mountains. In addition to my longer runs, I added a new training discipline. There’s a short-ish loop my partner and I have always loved as our super-efficient workout. Glacier Way. 4.2 miles. 45 minutes (give or take). 724 feet of elevation gain (and loss). This year we did the run once a week as fast as we could go. As a friend of mine used to say of such intense efforts, “I almost coughed up a lung.” It had been a long time since I’d pushed my speed like that.  

Two weeks before Hood to Coast, I told my partner that I felt the strongest I had since my foot surgery. He was shocked. I virtually never say things like that. Partly out of self-doubt and partly superstition. I don’t want to tempt fate by saying that I feel strong out loud. It’s like saying, “Oh the traffic isn’t bad,” right before your car comes to a full stop because of road construction. On the Monday before the event, I surprised myself with my best ever Glacier Way run, cresting the hardest climb, as if the wind were at my back. No one saw me do it. I didn’t need anyone to notice. It felt so good just to be alive in that moment.   

Despite the great run, I was scared about the relay. It was my first time doing the event, so I was worried about everything from food, to what to wear, to the mental and physical discomfort of sitting in a van for long stretches and lack of sleep. Plus, I didn’t know most of my team mates. I was overwhelmed by social anxiety. What if my van mates (each team of 12 has two vans of 6 runners) disliked me? Or vice versa. We were about to spend long, intimate hours together. 

I figured out what to eat—pre-made peanut butter, honey and coarse salt sandwiches and dried mango. I brought one pair of running shoes and three complete running outfits, plus a long sleeve shirt in case my midnight leg was that cold. And I wore the same loose pants, tank top and flipflops the rest of the time, donning layers as needed, including a knee length winter jacket for extra warmth, which doubled as a sort-of sleeping bag.  

As for my team mates. They were super nice. Easy. Good spirited. No pressure. 

Really, no pressure. So much so that they didn’t really care that I’d been training my heart out and had sharpened up my speed and endurance. Each leg I finished faster than the leg before, I felt like a child bringing home crayon drawings to be displayed on the fridge. But there was no fridge. Occasionally we’d pass a fast woman runner and someone in our van would comment on her speed. I’d assess whether she was running faster than me and if not, wonder why they hadn’t commented on my speed. If I had run four minutes per mile slower, my relay legs would have yielded the same attention they got. All crayon drawings were admired equally and discarded.  This is, of course, the way it should be on such a team. This is, in fact, the thing that made my team experience so seamless. My longing to be noticed for my contributions of speed is … Needy? Childish? Human?   

I’m going with human. 

While I wanted to impress my team mates, the person I most wanted to wow was myself. But, as I am also my harshest critic, I often need others’ praise to truly believe that I’ve done something well. I know I shouldn’t need the outside world to assure me of my okay-ness, but I do. Most people do. And that’s the reminder I came away with from Hood to Coast. I know it’s not just me who wants to be noticed. It’s all of us. I can’t do anything about whether or not someone notices me, but I can (and will) be better about noticing others. 

And this—these fleet moments come and go. If I don’t notice my own strength for my own self, then I miss the opportunity to enjoy these days of running frisky! 

What do you want people to notice about you? And what are celebrating for your own self?

boats · competition · fitness · racing · sailing

Serious sailing, serious fun: Sam and Sarah race the GCBC Commodore’s Cup

Sarah and I raced our first weekend race today on the Snipe. We’ve done a couple of evenings of short course races at the club but this was our first longer event.

“Serious sailing, serious fun” is the motto of the Snipe class. The Snipe is described as a tactical, racing dinghy. It’s 15.5 feet and it’s raced by two people. Today Sarah was skipper and I was crew.

The good news? We had fun and no one drowned. We finished the course and didn’t crash into any other boats. Our peak speed was 7 knots. We had a good amount of wind. Also, thanks to us an 8 year old racing a laser is very happy he wasn’t last! We’re a pretty good team and we’re getting better at communicating on the boat.

Also it’s a great community. People were very happy to have us out there and recognize that we’re beginners and have lots to learn. We’ve been attending Thursday night race training where an experienced sailor follows us in a motorboat offering tips and advice. Thanks Harri!

The bad news? We lost Sarah’s hat overboard, attempted to rescue it but didn’t succeed. The line for our pole which allows us to fly the jib like a spinnaker came undone and we had to do some fixing underway. We were very much dead last.

But we’re learning lots.

Our experience reminded me of a conversation I had on our Newfoundland trip about the advantages of racing, both bikes and boats. I like riding in a community of cyclists where everyone races because there are skills you only only acquire in that context. It’s true for boats and sailing too. Everyone learns to race as part of learning to sail.

Our day ended with a moving ceremony to remember Mark Parkinson, former Commodore for Life of Guelph Community Boating Club. His grandchildren were there to raise the colours and a bench overlooking the race course has been named after him. We also awarded the Commodore’s Cup to the winning boat. At GCBC it’s filled with jujubes not beer or champagne. Congrats Julian!

Oh, and a friend asked recently about sailing as a fitness activity. I guess it depends. There’s always work getting the boat in and out of the water, even on a trailer. It weighs 380 lbs. There’s moving about the boat as we tack and jibe across the lake. Today we did lots of hiking, getting our body weight out over the edge of the boat to keep the boat flat. That’s a pretty good ab workout.

competition · femalestrength · weight lifting

CFP: **Strong A(s) F(eminist): Power in Strength Sports**

**Strong A(s) F(eminist): Power in Strength Sports** 
Noelle Brigden, Melissa M. Forbis, and Katie Rose Hajtmanek are seeking contributors to an edited volume on strength sports.

“Despite sports being a powerful site of social control and resistance in most parts of the globe throughout modern history, they have too often been ignored by scholars. Situated within this context of ongoing political struggles, and building on a literature that explores the intersectional politics of embodied practice and physical culture, this edited volume takes up the importance of sport, and analyzes the unique potential of strength sports as a site of gender contestation to the existing order.

Recognizing the importance of this radical understanding of empowerment for the future of strength sports and its potential to disrupt white supremacist patriarchy, we welcome intersectional feminist analyses of gender in strength sports, beyond a singular focus on women’s participation. This volume defines strength sports as activities in which the competition outcomes depend exclusively on the individual capacity to move weight, including but not limited to: functional fitness training, powerlifting, weightlifting, kettlebells, strongman/woman, highland games, and historic feats of strength.”

aging · competition · fit at mid-life · running · training

The Half Marathon I’m Dreading

One month ago, I signed up for the Shape Half Marathon in New York on April 14. I haven’t run a regular road half-marathon in about a decade. I do still participate in the occasional trail running event, but some years ago I decided that I’d run enough road races. To compound my dread going in, I knew I wasn’t even going to be able to start training until March 14th(literally only 30 days before the race). Sure, I would be cross-country skiing for the weeks before then, so not out of shape, but certainly not in running form. I only signed up because a friend asked me to. The race is on her birthday, so … Before I could second guess myself, I registered.

Well, I’m remembering why I don’t do road races anymore. My head. My head. My head. I know I’ll be slower than my last half-marathon, yet I don’t want to know. I’m aging. I didn’t start running seriously until I was in my late 20s. It took me a while to find my strength. Which means that I had the good feeling of beating my younger self until I was well into my forties. Not so anymore.  A lot of days I don’t think anything of my generally slower pace. When I’m not training for a race, I’m able to think: How lucky am I to still be running? How good does it feel to travel on my own two legs? How strong am I? But these days, when I’m out for a training run, I think: Why am I so slow? Why am I so tired? Where’s my spring? Where’s my lightness? My zip? 

Pile of old wooden wall clocks, by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The looming race screws with my sense of self-worth. My mind turns on me and I can’t access my gratitude. Sigh. There’s no joy in the training. Thank you, Sam, for pointing out earlier this week thatwe are not always going to have fun in our workouts. Though I want, as Tracy pointed out, to have some kid-like funwith my body. I am not having fun with this training. I’m having frustration and self-recrimination instead. 

Also, I did not ease into my training. I decided that with only a month to train, I’d start with a 14-mile run. You don’t need to tell me how ridiculous that was. Plus, I wore not just new running shoes, but a new kind of running shoe I’d not tried before. So smart. Turns out the new shoe style did something nasty to my calf, which has taken a full two weeks to almost heal. Two weeks during which I continued to run haphazardly, because how could I not do at least four 2-hour runs before the race? More like 2-hour lopsided slogs through a haze of discomfort. Last week I was only able to run once after my long run, because my body was in pain and exhausted. And I’m not even sure that my “long” run was actually a long distance, because I was in Illinois, running somewhere unfamiliar, and I don’t track distances. All I know is that I was running for more than 2 hours; who knows how far or not far. 

You get the picture. I’ve done a lot wrong to prepare for this race. I might have done better to rest for the full month and then run on the day in my old, familiar running shoes. Am I self-obstructing so I have an excuse (other than time and years) for a poor result? And by “poor” I just mean relative to my own past results.

I’m writing this with 10 days to go before the race. Here’s where I’m at: I know I can run 13.1 miles. That’s not the challenge. The real obstacle is my thinking. I’m competing with my younger self and that’s a losing battle. I need to make the mind shift. As one of the guided meditations I often listen to asks, “If I am not this body, who am I?” Or, I could just keep being disappointed in my physical self for the whole rest of my life (!). But that doesn’t seem like a wise choice. I know that how I think and what I think are choices. That’s step one. Step two is actually implementing that knowledge. 

So hard. Working on it! 

Anyone else slowing down? I’d love your thoughts and insights on how you’ve come to peace with the new normal.  

competition · cycling

Undeniably Young

“In 1936, NORA YOUNG, a 19-year-old force of nature and multi-sport athlete, breaks into the wacky world of Six-Day biking in a historic women’s race. Will she win the race and change history?”

The plan is to make a short, animated film about Nora Young, Canadian cyclist, force of nature, and athletic pioneer.

The film maker Julia Morgan writes, “When I first met Nora, I knew right away there was something special about her. And as I got to know her more, I discovered that not only was she a force of nature with an incredible love of life, but she also had been a TOP athlete, in many sports, during something I’d never heard of – the Golden Age of Women’s Sports (1920s and 30s) in North America – of which Nora was an extremely important example. And then when my team and I began filming Nora – she was 95 – I was wowed by the sheer number of her amazing, historically significant athletic achievements, particularly in cycling, her favourite sport. She was one of Canada’s most important early female competitive cyclists – if not the most important. “

You can support the film project here.

And read more about it here: Toronto Star: Toronto’s audacious ‘girl cyclist’ left riders — and stereotypes — in the dust


NORA YOUNG, 1936, AGE 19

Public Domain. Credit: Estate of Nora Young/UndeniablyYoung.ca

competition · eating · food

Competitive Eating: Is Excelling at This Good for Women? Good for Anyone? #tbt

We are in the middle of a deep freeze here and I’m drawn to this past post to totally take my mind off of it. Here, I considered the case of competitive eating and whether it’s something we should be impressed with.

I confess that I love the idea that this 120 pound woman can scarf down a 72 ounce steak and all the accompaniments in record-breaking time because it challenges stereotypes. It’s also fascinating (that’s the best word i can come up with) to watch her in action.

But my thoughts about competitive eating haven’t really changed. Of the various things we can aim to be good at, shoving down as much food as we can in as little time as possible doesn’t seem like the most worthy of pursuits. And could even be dangerous and is almost certainly bad for one’s health. Nevertheless, here you are. Draw your own conclusion. And Go, Molly!

FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE

Molly Schuyler with a 72 ounce steak dinner.Last week I saw a report of a competitive “achievement,” in which a small woman did what no one expected her to do.  Now, I’m usually pleased by this sort of thing. I like it when women, large or small, do things that defy “type.”

But this time I wasn’t so sure about the achievement. Molly Schuyler from Nebraska is a competitive eater. She weighs just 120 pounds.  What did she do?

She ate TWO 72 ounce steak dinners in less than 20 minutes at Amarillo’s Big Texan Steak Ranch. This happened in May, but it got another round of attention when it got recycled by Fox news in January.

My reservations don’t stem from my vegan convictions.  It’s nothing like that at all.

It’s just that in the realm of things that it’s a good thing for women to be good at, competitive eating doesn’t make my…

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