fitness · Guest Post · martial arts · motivation · planner

The Power of the Planner (Guest Post)

By Sarah Skwire

Today is 50 days until my second degree black belt test. I know this because after the previous test in June, I decided to see how long I had to get ready. On the day I happened to count, the total came out to the pleasantly even 130 days.

For a long time, I’d been saying to myself that the trick of fitness in general, and of my martial arts practice in particular, would be to do one thing every day to improve. It probably didn’t even matter too much what that one thing was, since there were so many things–cardio, strength, flexibility, core, balance, etc–that contribute to improving martial arts performance, SO MANY of which I needed to improve. I knew what I needed to do, but I was having trouble doing it. 

Although I was always dedicated about attending classes, I was sporadic about doing things outside of class to support that work. I’d go through streaks of regularly stretching while my youngest daughter took her bath, and then I’d get sidetracked one night and would drop it for weeks. I’d run consistently for two weeks, then have to skip a run or two because of meetings and would drop it. I had been on a very good schedule of weight lifting, but a shoulder injury sidelined that. Like everyone else, in other words, life kept getting in the way. 

But I knew that, life or not, in 130 days I’d be expected to perform at the top of my game. And more than that, I wanted to perform at the top of my game. I needed to find a simple way to stay consistent.

A friend of mine in college always used to say that you could solve any problem with office supplies, heavy artillery, or a large enough plastic bag.

So I bought a planner.

I got a really small one–it’s about 4×6–with a page spread for each month and a small box for each day. It didn’t have any dates in it, so I could start right where I was. (I hate starting planners in the middle. So much wasted paper flapping around. And I hate starting mid month because of that depressing white void at the top of the page..) 

I labelled it with months and dates. Then I put a countdown every 10 days of how many days were left until the test. On the front of it I wrote “130 Days” and a somewhat belligerent and accusatory “What did you do today?”

And then I started to fill it in.

I used it to track anything I did, any day, that would further my goal of performing well at the second dan test. I recorded class attendance, time spent assisting in instruction, stretching sessions (no matter how brief), runs, physical therapy, and so on. When I travelled and did lots of walking, I recorded that. When I spent hours doing yard work, I recorded that too. 

And when my body told me that I need to take a day doing nothing, I wrote down “rest” as well. (That was a big deal for me, acknowledging that sometimes even I need to take a break. Maybe that’s another blog post for another day.)

I’ve learned quite a bit from having a planner dedicated to a single goal. A few blank stretches remind me that I get knocked out of my routines easily, so it’s better for me to find time to fit things in than to say “I’ll get back to it tomorrow.” Travel throws me for a loop, so I need to have a plan before I go about how I can keep working toward my goal even when I’m not at home. It’s best when I don’t use this planner to schedule ahead (though sometimes I do). This is meant to be a record of what I have done–not of what I intended to do. I’ve learned that writing down what I’m doing helps me feel like I’m making progress, even when I’m feeling stuck on a plateau, or frustrated about not being able to make it to class one day, or just generally feeling old and creaky. I can look at my planner and see how much I’m doing and how hard I’ve been working. I’ve learned that I’m sufficiently nutty to be motivated to add new things to my routine just to be able to write them in my planner.

I know that the trend now is for bullet journals, where you track everything all in one book–daily calendar, shopping lists, work out schedule, movies to watch, favorite quotes, and so on. And I’m as seduced as anyone by the elegantly laid out bullet journals I see on Instagram and on my friends’ Facebook pages. But I don’t want to make earning my second degree black belt just another part of the daily run of stuff I do. It’s more important to me than remembering to stop by FedEx, or pick up more tea on the way home from work. I wanted to set it apart.

Having a dedicated space where I record my work towards this goal reminds me that it’s more important, and reminds me to treat it that way. Work and family and kids and illness and everything else still go one, and still call on my time, energy, and attention. But now there’s a little book in my bag or on my desk belligerently asking me, every day, “What did you do today?” and reminding me that it matters. 

Image description: The cover of a planner called ‘the small monthly planner.’
Image description: A monthly planner with days of the week at the top, filled in with handwritten notes about training

Sarah Skwire is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund and Senior Editor at AdamSmithWorks.com. Her academic research primarily considers the intersections between literature and economics, but ranges widely from early modern material to popular culture.

habits · martial arts · motivation

Day 4.5 – A little bit of a kick

I feel almost completely human today.

However, I know from experience that the first day of feeling better is a trap!

You think you feel like yourself but it’s only in comparison to how bad you felt before. With that false sense of security, you jump right back into the swing of things and find yourself feeling awful again.

So I did not want to fall for that ruse again.

On the other hand, all of this sitting and lying around has left me with a very stiff back and hips. I also knew from experience that movement is the only thing that will help.

So, I figured out a plan that would let me move, do a few kicks and still take things very slowly.

I looked at the exercises for today and realized that they wouldn’t be very intense if I did them separately.

With that in mind, I decided to do a small warm up (mostly to warm up my muscles rather than to get my heart rate up), then do one stretch and one drill. Then, I would wait 30 minutes (you know I used my timer, of course) and try another warm up, another stretch and another drill.

I also decided to make the following rules for myself:

1) If I felt bad at all, I would stop immediately

2) I wouldn’t do the exact exercise that caused the crunch

3) I would modify anything that seemed very hard or required me to move fast

And it worked out fine!

A white woman wearing a green bandana over her light brown hair gives a slight smirk for the camera. The walls behind her are two different colours of green and feature family photos hanging on a frame shaped like a tree.
Small smirk of victory for me today.

I did four ‘sets’ of the warm up/stretch/drill combination over the course of two hours and it felt great.

I had no pain, no dizziness, no weird feelings.

My back and hip stiffness is gone.

I feel really great about it. I had to adjust a few of the planned exercises but I could feel a real difference in my hip mobility during every exercise that I did.

I’m not sure my kicks are much higher yet but they are BETTER and they feel more effective. I feel like I am executing them with more skill.

And, now that my hip mobility is improving, I can clearly see how I need to increase my leg strength to add a different type of improvement.

Bonus: My wall splits* have definitely improved since Sunday! Not a huge amount but enough for me to see and feel a difference.

I’m calling Day 4.5 a victory!

A top-down view of a medium-sized dog with light brown and white fur resting on a green yoga mat that is sitting on a dark brown floor.  A person’s right foot can be seen next to the dog and part of their left foot is visible on the left side of the photo.
In case you were worried that I was exercising unsupervised, Khalee stayed close by the whole time.

*The exercise I’m referring to is lying on the floor with your legs up a wall and then doing a sort of split by letting your legs fall open to either side while they are still touching the wall.

martial arts · training

Christine’s Kicking It Day 3 – plot twist

I can feel that this kicking program is helping. I’m not testing my kicks every day so I can’t report back on that per se but I can feel a definite difference in my hips.

I even feel a bit more mobile when I’m walking or crouching down to get something.

Today’s exercises introduced the frog stretch. Now I’ve done this before in yoga but I hadn’t really thought of it in relation to helping me with my kicking.

My challenges with the frog stretch, and with some of the other stretches over the past few days, are making me wonder if overly-tight adductor muscles are a bigger factor in both my kick height and my overall tight hips than I realized.

I’m going to do some extra stretching for those muscles over the next while and see if it helps.

Today’s workout ended up being a bit strange because something weird happened.

I woke up with a stiff neck this morning and I thought that I had managed to move and stretch the stiffness out. However, when I started to do one drill that involved holding onto the wall with one hand and practising my kicks while my foot was looped into a strap, my neck muscles spasmed and I got very dizzy.*

I took a break to recover and then, since it didn’t seem to be related to exertion,I went back to the exercises. I took it easy, and lay on the floor to do the remaining work in case the dizziness came back.

It did.

So I called it quits for today.

A white woman with light brown hair is visible from the shoulders up. She is wearing a black shirt and a blue headband. She is smirking.
You will notice that my smirk is more grim than mischievous today. I felt horrible while taking this.

I have to say that while I expected to have some hip issues or at least some tight muscles in that area, I did not expect a problem with my neck to interfere with me completing a set of these exercises!

I’m still calling today a success though. After all, I returned to my practice for the third day in a row, I can feel progress, and I can identify specific things to work on. That’s all good.

*To be clear, I am not ignoring a serious injury or a major health event. I don’t have any symptoms of anything else and I have a history of feeling dizzy when this specific muscle gets tight. I will check in with my doctor if things don’t improve.

flexibility · martial arts

Christine and the kicking – Day 2

Day 2

I was expecting to be a lot more sore today.

I did some stretching and some lacrosse ball muscle massage last night but I still expected to be very uncomfortable today.

I was happy to discover that, while my hip muscles are tight today, I don’t hurt. I’m calling that a victory!

The Day 2 routine consisted of leg swings and lifts, some split stretches (She does splits but me? Not so much) and some standing leg raises of various sorts.

They were challenging but not quite as difficult as some of yesterday’s movements.

A white woman with light brown hair and a green headband, is visible from the shoulders up. She is wearing a grey shirt and there is a light green wall behind her. She is smirking.
Not quite as sweaty today but still smirky.

The real challenge today was what she calls ground kicks – leaning on the floor on one side, executing a kick and holding it.

Doing them with my right leg made me acutely aware of the tightest muscle in my body – right at the crease of the front of my hip. It hurt to do them but not in the ‘you should stop’ way. It was more of a ‘this is where you have to do the work’ way.

My left leg didn’t give me the same trouble.

Overall, it’s really becoming clear that weakness/tightness in different muscles on each leg is affecting my kicks on both sides…just in different ways.

I’m enjoying this kick-specific focus and the short duration of each workout. This approach lets me work on one challenge at a time which, it turns out, is much better than trying to do all of the things at once.

Who knew? 😉

PS – Yes, I do realize that this is news only to me. 🙂 Ha Ha!

fitness · martial arts

March ends with more new things: Catherine discovers Qigong

March is almost gone, but to fill the March sadness void (and also exercise ennui for me), I’m trying yet another new thing. Sam wrote about how the Fit Feminist Team is trying new things, Not to be competitive, but I seem to be in the lead here, with parkour class, aerial silks yoga, and now a 2-hour Qigong workshop I went to on Saturday.

Why am I doing this? Really, the answer is that I am looking for different sorts of movement in my life these days. I have been feeling the need for more strength and agility and flow. Also I want to feel solid and stable– I want to feel my feet under me, my legs solid, my back strong, and my core engaged. This way I can use my upper body to lift and grab onto things, swing me or hold me in place, help me balance, and other things. Like leaping, for instance:

I happened upon the Qigong workshop, through Artemis, my local studio. Jules, one of my favorite instructors, was teaching it. I knew basically nothing about it. So here’s an intro blurb in case you’re in the same boat:

Qigong can be described as a mind-body-spirit practice that improves one’s mental and physical health by integrating posture, movement, breathing technique, self-massage, sound, and focused intent. There are likely thousands of qigong styles, schools, traditions, forms, and lineages, each with practical applications and different theories about Qi (“subtle breath” or “vital energy”) and Gong (“skill cultivated through steady practice”)

Qigong is credited with all sorts of beneficial and even therapeutic powers. Here’s what one website has to say about it:

Physically, slow gentle qigong movements warm tendons, ligaments, and muscles; tonify vital organs and connective tissue; and promote circulation of body fluids (blood, synovial, lymph). Thousands of studies have shown qigong effective in helping to heal life challenges ranging from high blood pressure and chronic illness to emotional frustration, mental stress, and spiritual crisis.

Hmmm… Thousands of studies? I took a look at the PubMed database and found loads of studies, including this one, suggesting benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi for some of the following:

bone density, cardiopulmonary effects, physical function, falls and related risk factors, quality of life, self-efficacy, patient-reported outcomes, psychological symptoms, and immune function.

Okay, so there’s evidence that Qigong is good for what ails ya. That’s nice. But what is it like? I found it to be different from yoga in that we were mainly standing in place, doing body and arm movements, syncing with the breath. They were done slowly and repeatedly. Even though the movements were (mostly) slow ones, we did generate some heat. You can definitely work up a sweat doing Qigong. But it’s also meditative, focusing on the breath and body movements. The names of the movements are poetic and descriptive. We did movements called:

  • King draws his sword
  • Cat gazes at the moon
  • Gather the sun and press the earth
  • Double hands hold up the heavens
  • several others

Some of the things I liked about these movement patterns were the ways they used my whole body. For some of them I was raising up, lifting my heels, arms in the air, balancing and holding myself up. We did lots of arm movements, which were slow, but involved control, focus, and attention to detail (some of the movements required thought). They also provided opportunities for grace. I loved one movement where we crossed our wrists in front of our navels, began a sequence, and then replaced the wrists to their original position, fluidly and elegantly.

Elegance– that’s really what I took away from Qigong. It’s meditative, it’s physical, and it’s elegant in its simplicity and efficiency of movement.

It also seems to make people happy. Here are some people doing qigong:

There are Qigong classes at yoga studios near me. I will be checking them out. Will this new form of movement become a regular part of my rotation? It’s too soon to say. But I’m intrigued on multiple fronts.

Have you or do you do Qigong (or Tai Chi)? What do you think? What does it do for you, and for your other forms of physical activity? I’d love to hear from you, dear readers.

equality · femalestrength · fitness · Martha's Musings · martial arts

The only way to keep going is to keep getting back up

zhen-hu-674290-unsplash
Image shows two Lego minifigures, with Wonder Woman in her red and blue one piece swimsuit on the left and Wildstyle in her purple and black flight suit on the right. Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

By MarthaFitat55

I went to see Captain Marvel on the weekend with my family. I enjoyed it very much. The characters were nicely developed; the story line was engaging; the writing was clever. The hero was not hyper-sexualized and there was no love story. As much as I liked Wonder Woman, I was more than ready for an action movie featuring a woman in a central role that did not require a skimpy outfit.

Captain Marvel is a woman who thinks for herself and seeks solutions. When she ends up stranded on earth, she figures out how she is going to communicate with her team. She’s not afraid of hard work nor is she afraid of training hard. Her fitness and strength are tools she uses to defeat her opponents while outsmarting them.

Like many noble warrior heroes, Marvel is challenged to find her true self. Her memory has been fragmented, but over time, the bits she has retrieved form a story. There are three pivotal moments for me in the film and they all come pretty closely together in the final quarter of the film.

The first is when Vers remembers her real name, the second when she comes into her full powers, and the third when Carol quashes her former mentor’s ego. These three moments have a lot to offer women in pursuit of fitness, strength and power in the gym.

When Vers remembers who she is, she rejects the name she was given and asserts her real name. “My name is Carol,” and she pushes back with all her strength. Women are often told they shouldn’t lift weights; that working with the bar will change their essential nature, that they will change shape and not in a good way. I’ve learned that when I walk into the gym and assume my role as power-lifter, that when I accept I am there to lift all the heavy things, then the dynamic between the bar and me is quite different.

When Carol thinks and reflects on what she is hearing, she is able to reframe what she knows. She’s been convinced for too long that she has no power except for what her oppressors have allowed her to express. She remembers all the times she fell down, the times she was taunted and told she could not do what she planned, the times she was scolded for having dreams that were too big for “normal.” Most importantly, Carol remembers all the times she got back up.

When I am at the gym, I remember all the times I got back up even though I didn’t want to. My trainer even has “Always stand up” taped to the squat cage. This winter has been hard with extra cold weather and a cranky hip. It’s surprising what strength you can find when you say those three little words.

Finally, Carol takes joy in her strength and power. She revels in what she can do — defeat bad guys, look after the good guys, and organize a plan to make change happen for the people she helps. When the bad guy tries to take credit for her skill and power, Carol tells him she has nothing to prove to him.

Indeed, if there is one thing you take away from this post (and the movie), is that the only person to whom you must be accountable is yourself. You show up, do the work, and get on with the job at hand.

How about you? Do you find inspiration from action movies?

— MarthaFitAt55 lives in St. John’s.

fitness · Guest Post · martial arts · training

The Importance of Trying and Failing (Guest Post)

Last week, I broke a brick with a palm strike.

But more importantly, before I did that, I also failed to break a brick with a palm strike.

Let’s back up a little. I teach taekwondo at a martial arts studio that just celebrated its third anniversary (yay us!) As part of our celebrations, some of the students and instructors did a small demo including forms and board/brick breaking. This wasn’t my first time putting my hand through cement for fun and training. So I stopped in to my neighbourhood Home Depot to pick up a small stack of paving stones for us to smash, much to the consternation of a few employees and customers who saw me wandering around the store with a stack of bricks under my arm instead of in a cart.

four rectangular bricks in the trunk of a car
I made it back to the car all by myself with them though!

Our demo was great, for the most part. We had a bit of trouble setting up our brick breaks in a spot where we had a good surface and people could see us. I don’t think I was entirely focused, and even though I’m pretty strong, I can’t get away with relying just on muscle and body weight to make it through. So even though I hit the brick good and hard on my first attempt, it wasn’t quite right, and it didn’t budge. (Much to the concern of some of our poor audience members, mostly our students and their parents.)

Deep breath.

Second try, all good. No damage to the wrist or hand, just a bruise.

At the risk of trying to justify things after the fact, I’m glad I had the chance to let my kids see me fail before I succeeded. I find a lot of them are still learning what is to be rewarded and what is to be valued, and I like teaching them that effort and perseverance are to be valued, not only success. And also that you can be good at a task and still sometimes fail to perform it successfully.

(This, incidentally, is part of why, during my day job as a philosophy teacher, I’m perfectly happy to say “I don’t know” to student questions when appropriate. If they think they have to know everything to be a professor, they’ll probably never see themselves as capable of it.)

But maybe failure is a feminist issue. There are some interesting gendered questions here, after all, with letting my students see me fail. The (much larger) man who was also part of the brick breaking demo broke his on the first try. I suppose I could worry that I’m just confirming stereotypes about women being weaker, but I don’t think we have to see it like that at all. I think it’s inevitable that we all fail, and one of the privileges of being a man in sports is that you’ll have lots of readily available male role models with a wide variety of trajectories of success and failure. But the girls (and non-girls) I teach know I’m successful at taekwondo. I have a 4th dan black belt, and teach them how to kick several days a week. So why shouldn’t they see that even their teachers will sometimes have to display the very perseverance that we demand of them?