fitness · motivation · running · training

Running with headphones, or not

Image description: drawing of a line of musical score with a trebal clef and notes, with the lines diverging apart, curling off in a different directions at the right end.
Image description: drawing of a line of musical score with a trebal clef and notes, with the lines diverging apart, curling off in a different directions at the right end.

When Sam posted a link to Peter Sagal’s article, “The case against running with headphones” I was ready to object. But I kind of liked what he had to say (which I’ll get to in a minute). Personally, I like running with headphones sometimes and other times I don’t.  In the morning, it helps me get going when I’m feeling sluggish. But I occasionally reach a point, especially on a long run, where I just want to take in the silence, be alone with my thoughts, focus on my body and my form, on my immediate surroundings, and listen to my breathing.

I have friends who feel differently, who specifically listen to music when they run so that they don’t need to hear their breathing. But I find the sound of breathing, even the exerted breathing of a run, to be meditative.

Peter Sagal started his journey to music-free running by wanting to present for big events:

It occurred to me that if I was going to train and practice and focus on achieving something, when the time came to actually do it I could at the very least pay attention. A race, most especially and counterintuitively a marathon, requires more focus on the moment than someone who’s never done it might imagine. We scan our bodies for discomfort, we check our pace, we count the miles and measure our remaining strength against the remaining distance.

On race day, I go both ways. When I got my personal best on the 10K in September, I ran to a playlist for much of the time. But when the last couple of K came, I turned off the music and did exactly as Sagal described. I didn’t want to zone out to the music, I wanted to be mindful and present to what was happening. My thoughts also narrowed to exactly what was going on and positive affirmations and reminders from my training.

I did the same for the recent half marathon. For more than half, I ran without music because I was with Anita. But at a certain point, we agreed to do our own thing and we both put in our earbuds. I enjoyed my new playlist, but as is my habit, I don’t play the music all the time. Periodically, I hit pause and focus on the people around me, the sound of my feet on the pavement, my stride, my breathing, the next sign post, the feeling of the wind on my face, my body position and whether I’m relaxed or tight. Music tends to distract me from that sort of thing. Sagal agrees.

If I don’t leave my headphones behind when I run, I wouldn’t spend a single minute of my waking life free from input.

In other words, in a day there are few opportunities to unplug. Running can be one of them. And in place of the noise from a device, running let’s you work through thoughts — conversations you wish you could have, perhaps some venting, all the build-up. I also experience some creative bursts when I’m running. Or insights about areas of my life where I’ve felt stuck and then, on a run, especially a long run alone, I can sense a shift. These are all the more likely if I’m not listening to music.

The upshot of Sagal’s article is that the only way to run mindfully is to run without music as a distraction. Of course, not everyone wants to run mindfully. Or perhaps not all the time. When I run with people, for example, it’s even more likely that the social aspect will overshadow the running itself. We run, but we use each other as a distraction. Anita and I comment all the time about how quickly the time passed on a given run when we were together, chatting. True, we check in once in awhile with “how are you feeling?” and true, we are “unplugged.” But if Sagal is making a case for more of an inward and mindful approach to running, then that would require going solo too.

My formula is to mix it up. I include a combination of group runs, solo runs, runs that include music, runs that don’t, and runs that have a bit of both. There are times I want to be mindful, times I want to be distracted. It sometimes depends on the type of run. I am less likely to want music during fast intervals because I need to be very focused on what I’m doing to maintain my speed during the intervals. So I’m far from all-or-nothing when it comes to headphones. In fact, making and running with a fresh playlist is one of life’s little pleasures for me.

Where do you stand on running with headphones?

 

boats · fitness · motivation

Tried anything new lately? I vote for SUP

In our Fit Feminist Challenge Group we have a thing every Tuesday called “Try This Tuesday.” It’s a way of encouraging people to try new things, using the “Try This” entries in Fit at Mid-Life as prompts.

This week when I posted I realized I haven’t actually tried anything new myself in ages. When Sam and I did our challenge in the run up to 50 a few years ago, one reason I got excited was that I discovered triathlon. It was new and a bit scary and super challenging. It involved a learning curve and pushed me in a different direction. And I haven’t felt that way about anything workout and training wise since.

Enter Stand-Up Paddle-boarding. As regular blog readers may know, among other things I’m a sailor. My partner lives on our boat, Guinevere, and I visit him from time to time (yes it’s a slightly unconventional arrangement and it works well for us!). I’m visiting at the moment and he surprised me with an SUP. This was a huge surprise because we have been talking about it for a few years.

I always say, “wow that looks like a good workout.” He always says “I can’t see why anyone would want to do that. And where in the heck will we store it?!” (Space on a boat is at a premium). But at the boat show in Annapolis this weekend (I wasn’t even here yet) he found a great deal and texted me that he got a SUP!

I couldn’t wait to try it. So this morning I took it out for a spin in Spa Creek, where we are at anchor. I worried that I might fall in (it’s lovely on the water but not as nice here in the water, which is briney and dark). I’ve seen people struggle. Often they start on their knees.

I read a “ten tips” primer on the internet and watched a short YouTube video about paddling style. You’re supposed to bend your knees, use your core, keep your paddle vertical and your bottom arm straight, and turn the contoured paddle to face the opposite of what you think it should (you don’t want to scoop the water).

So I started on my knees to get used to the paddle. Then after a couple of strokes I went for it and stood up. Luckily it was a flat day on the water, no waves at all. The board is solid and though I did lose my balance a couple of times I didn’t actually fall in.

I paddled around for about 20 minutes or so and even stayed upright without difficulty when a couple of people went by (slowly) in small boats that produced a bit of wake. I followed the directions from the video. It’s quite the workout. I need to work on technique still, but I did get into a good rhythm and I know I’m going to love using the SUP.

But it’s actually a lot more stable than I expected it to be. Loads of fun. I’m glad I got out yesterday because the edge of Michael is rolling our way and it’s probably my last chance until the Bahamas at Christmas time.

So that’s my new thing. What’s yours?

aging · fitness · motivation · training

Are you a nine-ender? If so…

Image description: Tracy on the right Sam on the left, both smiling, wearing caps and sunglasses, medals around neck, people, trees, and sky in the background, after the Kincardine Women's Triathlon in 2013, when they weren't quite yet 49.
Image description: Tracy on the right Sam on the left, both smiling, wearing caps and sunglasses, medals around neck, people, trees, and sky in the background, after the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon in 2013, when they weren’t quite yet 49.

If you’re a nine-ender in age–that year before a decade birthday–you are more likely than members of any other age “demographic” to want to make big changes. This is especially true if you’re in a middle age nine-ender year, before 40 or 50 or even 60. And even more so if you’re a man, according to this news report in the National Post.

What are the most popular sorts of changes? No longer is it motorcycles, fast cars, and reverse highlights. No. The most popular changes are cutting back on or cutting out alcohol, going vegan, and engaging in extreme sports like Tough Mudders. Men often wait until their 40s and 50s. Women sometimes kick into gear on health changes at 30. Regardless, a looming new decade can be a great motivator.

When Sam and I started our “Fittest by 50 Challenge,” which was the instigator of this very blog, we were 48. Fifty seemed clearly in sight already by then for some reason, and we decided to take a two-year run up to it instead of a one-year run up to it. I am really grateful we did. Not because 50 is some magical age by which we absolutely needed to be our fittest, but because fitness is a process. If I’d coasted along the same way as I had been for one more year, I wouldn’t have attained my Olympic distance triathlon goal by my 50th birthday.

It took me close to a year to decided on triathlon as my goal and then another year to train for the Olympic distance that challenged me to train harder and without regard to anything other than performance goals. It also completely took my mind off of the upcoming birthday. And by the time I got there, it changed my view of what it meant to age.

I couldn’t have predicted at 48 just how transformative the challenge would turn out to be by the time I hit 50. On my 50th birthday, I posted about what it felt like to be fit, feminist, and 50. When I re-read that post it fills me with joy. And gratitude because mostly these days I have that sense of general contentment. Not that everything always feels fantastic, but overall, life is just so wonderfully good. I think the challenge had a lot to do with it.

So if you’re at a nine-ender year, or even if you’re not, and you have decided to set some new health and fitness goals for yourself, and you go at them in a consistent and sustainable way, maybe you too will experience that sense of transformation that I did. I’ve done lots of cool things to date, but I think the fittest by 50 challenge and all that has flowed from it is definitely among the most significant.

To all the nine-enders considering a big change, go for it. Choose something that excites you and chip away at it. It’s much more satisfying than a motorcycle (I know this  because I did the motorcycle thing too, in my early forties, and it didn’t do nearly as much for me as the fitness challenge did!).

If you’re in or have recently gone through a nine-ender year, did it prompt any changes? Tell us about it in the comments. We’re all ears!

motivation · weight loss

Better to be a corpse with ripped abs?: On looks, performance, and health

Here on the blog we often make the distinction between athletic and aesthetic values when it comes to exercise goals. We’re about the former, not the latter. You know, run to improve your 5 km time not to lose those last five lbs.

That said, you do you.

Our worry is that appearance, in particular weight loss, is a lousy motivator. See here. People try. It doesn’t work. And then they stop exercising even though it’s good for their mental and physical health to workout.

But looks and performance aren’t the only games in town. You might also care about health.

At the elite level health and performance might come apart. They often do. Lots of athletes train in ways that aren’t great health wise. At the other end of the spectrum, the kind and amount of exercise recommended for health might not have much effect performance wise.

Health goals might also conflict with appearance goals. I was chatting with some young people this week about the latest news about health and ultra low carb diets. Interestingly, they didn’t care. The news wasn’t that ultra low carb diets don’t work for weight loss. The news was that they are bad for your health. Low carb dieters don’t live as long as people who eat a moderate amount of carbs.

It made the news everywhere. Here’s this story from Running World on low carb diets leading to premature death.

But, said the young person, who cares about living long? I’d trade five extra years of life for ripped abs. My low carb diet is about being shredded not about being healthy. If low carb is key to weight loss, who cares if it’s bad for your health? I have a few Facebook friends who feel the same way. Some want just to be skinny. Others want to look muscular and chiseled.

I don’t want to argue the facts of it here, that is, really low carb versus moderate carb diets, but I am interested in the relative weight we give to looks versus health and longevity. And it’s interesting to see the weight loss set admit it’s not about health really after all. It’s about chiseled abs. Fine.

So where do you stand? Are you in it for the abs, the long life, or for winning the competition, whatever competition that is?

Lately I’ve been thinking that what gets left out of these goals is a broader definition of health, one that includes functional fitness, pain free living, and mental well being.

A picture of a breakfast. A mug of black coffee and a bowl of muesli and fruit
family · fitness · motivation

Sam craves early mornings but just how early?

Readers know that I’m a morning person. Here’s my piece on the allure of very early mornings.

I’ve written lots about finding time that way and sometimes about how I can struggle with it.

Still it’s my go-to way of finding time for work and for fitness.

If I’ve got a big thing due the next day staying up late to finish it doesn’t occur to me. Instead, I go to bed early and set the alarm at 4 or 5 as needed, even 3 rather than staying up late.

I admire celebrities who are very early risers. How does The Rock, for example, find time to work out? He gets up super early. My Rock app alarm time gives me the option of getting up at Rock Time. I can get set my alarm for whatever time he chooses. Usually that’s at 330 am.

I reported on my week with the Rock Clock here.

Now Mark Wahlberg has one upped the Rock, sharing his sleep and workout and prayer schedule with the world. He gets up even earlier at 2:30 am. He’s in bed by 7:30 pm.

Here’s a plea to save Mark Wahlberg from this schedule.

Can you imagine going to bed at 7:30 and rising at 2:30? He does it he says to get the exercise out of the way before his family wakes up.

For Wahlberg and the Rock looking fit is part of their job. They need those muscles and those visible abs.

I’m an academic dean. There’s no merit pay for muscles in my role. But still I’m fascinated by the super successful extreme early risers.

My mother’s theory, at least I think it’s my mother’s, is that nothing good happens in the evening. Usually it’s a time to sit around and relax. Few people write or workout in the evening. Instead, so this theory goes, we eat cookies and watch television.

(Note to friends who are super productive night owls. I see you. I know you. And I know it’s not true for all people. That’s why I attributed the view to my mother. Sorry mom.  I know night owls who struggle with trying to fit into society’s norms around work and schedules.)

But for people like me who are “Alive, Alert, Awake, Enthusiastic”  in the morning, the evenings can be a sink hole of inactivity.

We likely need some of that down time, true. But how much?

As far as getting to your goals, it’s wasted time. But I’m never tempted to turn on Netflix in the morning. The most procrastinate-y stuff I get up to is dog walking and house cleaning.

So the morning, the early morning, feels like the best time to exercise.

How about you?

fitness · motivation · season transitions

It’s getting dark out there… transitioning into autumn without losing momentum

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).

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Late summer in Bettina’s neck of the woods: blue evening sky with some clouds reflected in the river, hills, trees and the buildings of a small town in the background. This was taken during a recent bike ride with some colleagues after work.

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!

fitness · motivation · race report · racing · running

Have you amazed yourself lately? Try consistent effort and see where it takes you [aka Tracy’s epic 10K]

Image description: Ellen and Tracy selfie after MEC 10K. Ellen on left, blond hair with straight bangs, smiling, white tank; Tracy on right, smiling, short blond hair, sunglasses atop head, smiling, pink and purple tank, white earbuds cord hanging around her neck; trees and parked cars in background.
Image description: Ellen and Tracy selfie after MEC 10K. Ellen on left, blond hair with straight bangs, smiling, white tank; Tracy on right, smiling, short blond hair, sunglasses atop head, smiling, pink and purple tank, white earbuds cord hanging around her neck; trees and parked cars in background.

One thing that I’ve loved about the past six years since Sam and I started our Fittest by 50 Challenge and created this blog to document it is the way I’ve actually amazed myself.  When I was 48 and we were just embarking on challenge, I didn’t think of myself as an athlete at all. And definitely not as a runner.

Well, fast forward six years, well after the end of our challenge (Sam and I hit 50 in August and September 2014, respectively), and just two weeks shy of my 54th birthday. On Saturday morning at the MEC 10K race at Fanshawe Conservation Area I put my summer of 10K training to the test. My last race was in early June when I did the Guelph 10K with Ellen and Violetta. There, I ran with Violetta and had the goal of running a continuous 10K, no walk breaks. My time: 1:10:01.

This time I wanted to break 1:05. That’s a lot to shave off a race time, just so you know. Indeed, I confess to feeling as if it wasn’t going to happen. I trained consistently through the summer, following weekly training plans developed for me by my running coach, Linda from Master the Moments.  They were tough some days, with long interval repeats of 800m to 1K at uncomfortable paces. But I did them.

That’s when I started to amaze myself, actually. I would set out to do one of these interval workouts and think to myself, “Linda has got to be kidding if she thinks I can hit those paces for that length of an interval!” And by the time I had about 6-8 weeks of training under my belt, I was routinely hitting the prescribed paces, often even going faster than she asked me to go for all or almost all of the intervals. And that was despite a hot, muggy, uncomfortable summer.

Linda said to me a few weeks ago that she really thought I hadn’t yet reached my athletic potential. My first thought, “Coaches are supposed to say those sorts of things.” But she actually meant it. She doesn’t like to get too hung up on race time goals, but she believes that consistent effort in training can pay dividends on race day.

So I went into the Saturday race with the hope of breaking 1:05 but lacking the confidence that I would. Ellen came in from Guelph the night before to do the event with me.

Saturday morning was the first day in months that presented perfect running weather. Perfect! Cool but not cold. Light breeze. Zero humidity. When we got to Fanshawe Lake Conservation Area and parked the car we were cutting it close to the start time. We asked someone in the parking lot which was to the start line and she pointed in the right direction and then said, “Are you Tracy from Fit Is a Feminist Issue?” And then she talked about how she’s been following the blog and she likes it and she’s planning on power walking the trail race. I always get a kick out of meeting people who love the blog! So that sort of charged me up and we wished each other well in our respective races.

I am the kind of person who has to pee before movies, classes, runs, and yes, races. So as we walked past the bathrooms I told Ellen I needed to go in and she could go ahead. She said she’d wait but when I got out I couldn’t find her. Now we were really close to the start I thought, so I wandered over the to start area and saw a bunch of people with red race bibs like mine milling about. I milled about with them and Ellen was nowhere to be seen. After a couple of minutes, I asked some one if this was the 10K road race. Guess what they said? “They left a few minutes ago!”

Bam, I was outta there. Looking back, I wonder if that late start without a cohort to run with lit a fire under me that made me not just break 1:05, but come in at 1:04:25, a personal best for me!

I ran strong and continuous for the entire 10K. I eventually did see Ellen on her way back (it was 2x out and back for 5K each time, so we passed each other three times in all). I went in with a few strategies that served me well:

  1. I left my Garmin on my belt and vowed not to look at it after the race started. I wanted to check my stats later but I wanted to run by feel not the external cues of the Garmin, which can mess with my head.
  2. A friend of mine who has done a couple of iron distance triathlons said he gets through them by smiling (I’m sure it takes a little more than that, but whatever). I remembered that and decided smiling would be a good strategy. It wasn’t hard to do because I really did feel amazing on Saturday.
  3. This might sound strange and obvious, but I committed to pushing myself just enough to be able to sustain what felt like a strong pace but not so much that I would lose steam before 10K was over. I figured I could turn on the extra power near the end when I knew I didn’t need to have anything left in the tank.
  4. I absolutely didn’t want to walk at any point, and I made that decision ahead of time so there would be no question if my mind started to play tricks on me.

So, without the Garmin, smiling, pushing my pace, and committing to a continuous run, I ran the fast flat course in perfect weather. I could feel that I was running strong and steady. Instead of thinking I needed to walk, I actually felt pretty jazzed by the building momentum. I hit my rhythm and stayed there pretty consistently after 3K.

My younger faster colleague, Miranda, turned out also to be doing the 10K, and it was great to see her a few times and also at the end with her partner (also a colleague) and one of their kids. I got cheered on by a few other runners who know me through the blog and the book but whom I don’t know in person. At about 7K, one woman running towards me said she read and loved the book and that I was her hero! That almost made me cry but then I knew crying would slow me down so instead I let her beautiful comment motivate me (“you’re someone’s hero! Act like it! Go faster!”). Thank you to the lovely soul who said that to me.

When I hit the final turnaround and realized I only had 2.5K to go, which, come on, is hardly anything, I felt so good. I made a final decision that when I got to about 1K to go I would turn off the music and give it my absolute all. And I did just that.

When I crossed the finish line I hit “stop” on the Garmin. True to my word, I hadn’t looked at it since the race started. It read 1:04:31, not far off my chip time of 1:04:25. I was amazed. Seriously.

Now it’s true that had the conditions been different — a more humid day, a hillier course, less support from others, maybe even an on-time start — it wouldn’t have been the same. But whatever. I did it. I broke 1:05 and shaved almost 1:30 off of my previous personal record, set way back in 2014 at the Halloween Haunting when I was in top condition after my fittest by 50 triathlon season.

Between breaking my 10K record and consistently doing 3 sets of 12 pull-ups at the weight training studio, I’m feeling pretty amazed at the evolution of my athleticism. Confident and strong. Yes, I realize that 1:04:25 is not an epic time for some people. Lots of folks come in under 60 minutes for their 10K, some even under 45 minutes, closer to 30. Wow! I am truly in awe of those sorts of times. But I am also in awe of progress and personal milestones, and I think it’s okay to be impressed with ourselves sometimes!

That feeling will carry me to my next goal, which is to take the continuous running to a new distance–the half marathon. That will be a new challenge, but I think I can do it if I run smart at the Scotiabank Waterfront Half Marathon in October. I have the time goal of 2:25 in the back of my head. I will follow that pace bunny. But my main objective is to run continuous. Again with no Garmin. Between now and then I will stay consistent with the training that Linda has laid out for me.

Sam and I sometimes laugh about how boring our message is. No dramatic magical transformation that happens overnight. Just a moderate, easy going approach. Start small, put in consistent effort, challenge ourselves a bit, and see what happens. It really does yield amazing results, even if they kind of creep up on us.

Have you amazed yourself lately? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.