fitness · motivation · swimming · training

You can love a thing and always suck at it. That’s okay. Also in not unrelated news, Sam starts swimming lessons.

Susan gave me some framed pictures from our cruise for my birthday, photos of me in the water. Such happy memories from our cruise. Thanks Susan! I look really happy. And that’s the thing. I love being in the water. I’m not scared of fish. I’m not worried about drowning. I can tread water and float really well. It feels great moving in the water.

But you’ll never see that smile indoors. And swimming, here in Canada at least, is mostly an indoor activity. Also, my swimming isn’t at a level where it’s a fitness activity. I’m not sure why, bad technique probably, but unlike running and cycling, I don’t seem to get faster with training in the pool. When I trained with the university students’ triathlon club I was the anchor person of the slow lane. New people came and then after a time moved up to a faster lane.

Then last week this article made its way into my newsfeed, Revel in the joy of doing things you’ll never master.

And I wondered, could I enjoy swimming without getting any faster? Does everything have to be about speed and improvement? Couldn’t swimming just be pleasurable even if I remained a slow swimmer?

I begin swimming lessons later in September. I’ll let you know how it goes!

In the meantime here’s me 11 years ago, with Susan, after the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon. I was happy but I was also last out the water of those who weren’t rescued. The thing is I was in zero danger. No need to rescue me. But I was just slow, as usual. Maybe that’s okay.

Maybe part of my learning to love swimming means getting comfortable with staying in the same place?

How about you? Do you have a thing you’re not good at but that you love anyway?

Susan and Sam, 2007
fitness · running · training

“Startling” number of women runners who say they’ve been harassed isn’t so startling (sadly)

Image description: Upper body shot of strong woman running in a tank top, shorts, a black arm warmer on her right arm, hair in pony tail and a headband. Sky and rocky hill in background.
Image description: Upper body shot of strong woman running in a tank top, shorts, a black arm warmer on her right arm, hair in pony tail and a headband. Sky and rocky hill in background. (photo: https://www.pythagoreanhealth.com/best-workout-shorts/

The most shared article on our Facebook page in recent days was the CNN report, written by David Williams, with the headline, “Startling number of women say they have been harassed while running.” The article references a 2016 reader survey in Runner’s World which asked:

“How often, if ever, does a stranger whistle at you, comment on your body, needlessly honk at you, or give you other similar unsolicited sexual attention?”

43% of the women who responded said they sometimes, often, or always experience such behavior. Only 4% of men did. Now, the article is meant to be helpful. It offers advice (keep running; change your route; ignore) and ends with:

if you need support or advice on how to deal with harassment, call the toll-free National Street Harassment Hotline at 1-855-897-5910.

When I shared the post on my timeline, I added “Surprise!” Seriously, women who run were the least likely to find the numbers “startling.” Indeed, if anything, it’s startling that only 43% said they’d experienced harassment while running.

Here are some of the comments about the post from our readers (thank you everyone for your comments):

“Yep. Any women actually ‘startled’ by this?”

“I used to run in a cemetery. It felt safer. I’ve been harassed many, many times.”

“I run on an indoor track. Can’t feel safe outside.”

I’d be more surprised with a headline saying: we found most women aren’t harassed while going on about their daily lives.”

I actually feel like I don’t know any female runners who have not been harassed.”

I see I’m not the only woman deriding the use of the word “startling.” Not startling at all. Not even surprising when it happens. Pretty much par for the course. Welcome to being a woman in this world, author of story.

Only startling to a man.

The only startling thing about this is that CNN finds it startling.

Women are harassed everywhere 🙄 #EverydaySexism”

And walking, and cycling, and taking the goddamned bus.

Yeah, I just assumed close to 100% of women runners have been harrassed? This is not news, it’s common knowledge.

Every. Single. Run. 🤦🏼‍♀️

In short: not startling. Not limited to running. The harassment women experience while running, while going about their daily business, spans the gamut from unwelcome sexual attention to body shaming and body policing. No one among those who commented on the post found it at all surprising that a large percentage of women runners were routinely harassed.

It becomes something we learn to live with, to ignore. Mostly that’s the way to minimize unpleasant interactions — just keep on running. Mostly it doesn’t turn violent. But that’s not always the case. Last month in Iowa, Mollie Tibbetts went out for an evening run and didn’t make it back home alive. Her suspected murderer, “Cristhian Bahena Rivera, followed her in his car as she ran along a country road before assaulting her.”

Yes, murder is a shocking outcome.

But obviously it’s also incredibly depressing that harassment is something we have come to find not at all surprising.

Are you surprised?  If you’ve experienced this, how do you handle it?

 

fitness · training · weight lifting

Sam lifts heavy things in the wild

Sweaty selfie of Sam from moving day. Wearing a light purple tank top. Extremely messy hair. Smiles.

So usually I lift heavy things in the gym, either on my own, with a personal trainer, or lately with my son Miles who is starting university at Guelph next month.

That’s controlled and deliberate lifting. You know how much a thing weighs and you make a plan to lift it x number of times for y number of sets. Though sometimes the math is complicated. The other day I was lifting a 55 lb bar with 40 kg weights.

Lately though I’ve been lifting heavy things in the wild. What do I mean?

Well, here are some examples.

Tonight, I needed to move a washer and dryer set from the back lawn into the shed. We had a wheelie thing underneath it to get it as far as the shed so no problem but then there wasn’t enough clearance in the shed to get the thing and the wheels inside. Miles and I lifted it. I was cautious at first to make sure I was okay with the weight and then once I knew I was fine, carried it into the shed and set it down being careful not to trap my fingers.

Earlier this week Sarah and I had to get the Snipe into the water and out again on our own. We use a trailer and cradle and there’s a ramp into the water but the boat isn’t light. It weighs about 381 lbs. We did it!

And then there are all the boxes of books I’m moving here there and everywhere. My books don’t fit in the new house so some are going to my office at university and others are going to Goodwill. Books aren’t light!

Now lifting actual things is in many ways harder than lifting weights in the gym. Real objects are awkwardly shaped and when you set them down on the floor you need to be careful you don’t squish your fingers. Actual things rarely come with handles. You need grip strength to hold them. We’ve blogged about real world strength here.

Sam’s dog Cheddar napping on the top step in front of a giant heap of boxes of books. When it comes to moving, Cheddar is no help!

This everyday stuff is a big part of why I train with weights, I can lift heavy things in the wild, not just in the controlled environment of the gym.

Yes, it’s for bone health. Yes, it’s to maintain muscle as I age.

But it’s also for practical things like moving washing machines, sailboats, and books.

How about you? Do you enjoy your strength in practical everyday ways?

fitness · motivation · movies · training · triathalon

“We Are Triathletes” is an inspiring film but Tracy won’t be signing up for the Challenge Roth

Last night we had a special film event, one night only, through “Demand Film.” It’s an organization that sets up film screenings that only go ahead if enough tickets get sold by the deadline. The film was We Are Triathletes and it followed six athletes from four countries as they prep for and compete in the Challenge Roth, the world’s largest triathlon with over 5500 competitors, held every year in Roth, Germany. 2014, the year the film highlights, was the race’s 30th year.

I went with a group of people who have actually done Ironman triathlon events. I ran into a few people who I used to train with when I was doing the fittest by 50 challenge and getting ready for my Olympic distance events back in 2014. I think almost all the London, Ontario triathletes who weren’t training last night were at the movie.

In addition to following a diverse group of athletes–elite and age-group, men and women, and one para-athlete who had his legs amputated as a child, and the first Chinese competitor in –the film fills in some of the history of Ironman, including interviews with legends like Julie Moss, Kathleen McCartney, Dave Scott, and Mark Allen. It also gives great context for and history of the Challenge Roth, which really does sound like an amazing day for athletes and spectators alike.

Going in I had one worry, which is that I would find the film so inspiring that I would want to do something ridiculous like start training for longer distance triathlons (or any distance triathlons). But that didn’t happen. I did find it inspiring. It’s hard not to feel a little kick of motivation watching determined athletes train hard and hearing them talk about what draws them to the event, what race day feels like, and what it means to them to finish (let alone win).

So what happened was this. I am in total awe of anyone who has ever completed an iron distance triathlon. Whether it was the athletes in the film or the people I went to the movie with, completing a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and then running a marathon is an incredible physical achievement. Timo Bracht, who won the men’s elite category at the 2014 Challenge Roth, finished all that in under eight hours (7:56)! Mirinda Carfrae, one of the featured athletes in We Are Triathletes, won the women’s event in 8:38:53. These are incredible times. So yeah: wow.

Despite being in awe and full of admiration, I really don’t have the desire to do that type of training, which the film made clear kind of has to take over your whole life. I mean, I found Olympic distance training tough to sustain, so I can’t even imagine staying motivated to train for an event like Challenge Roth.

But what it did inspire in me is motivation for the training I’m doing now, which is my 10K training. Time is closing in on my September 8th race, where I put my summer of fairly consistent training to the test. I’m not sure if I can but I would love to get my time under 65 minutes. We’ll see.

I think documentaries like this are amazing for showing what humans can do. It doesn’t necessarily mean you want to do exactly the same thing, but it can inspire nonetheless. I remember how Anita used to love watching The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats Its Young:

She liked it not because she wanted to do it, but watching the people do it inspired her to want to do her things.

We Are Triathletes was like that for me (but my friend Ed now wants to do the Challenge Roth, so clearly it has a different impact on different people). Here’s the trailer:

What about you? Do sports documentaries inspire you at all? In a particular way? Not at all?

Fear · fit at mid-life · fitness · Martha's Musings · motivation · training · weight lifting · yoga

Little steps leading to big leaps

This past month has been one focused on change. We went from a relatively cool June to a muggy July seemingly overnight and training in the heat has been difficult.

My trainer and I have been experimenting, from shifting when I train so I can manage the heat to trying different deadlift and bench approaches. I am still following my trainer’s lead regarding my program, and it’s a relief to let someone else take the reins of planning and directing. People hire me for my expertise in communications and let me take the lead all the time, so I’m perfectly fine relying on my trainer’s knowledge and experience to show me the way forward in the gym.

IMG_5893
Picture shows a person wearing flowered gym tights and grey sneakers in the sunshine

 

It’s a choice that has let me successfully continue with powerlifting as a training focus for almost five years. In that time, I’ve managed recovery from a hyperactive hip joint, a shoulder with attitude, and a knee that constantly whined for attention.

So when Vicky said let’s try a few things, I said okay and we carried on with me lifting heavy things and putting them down, albeit in some very different, challenging variations. We used bands, blocks, pins and posts. We took apart processes and put them back together, and not always in the same way.

I wasn’t always excited about change in the gym. I really worry about reinjuring various parts so I tend to look at new moves with suspicion and a decided lack of enthusiam. However, I trust my trainer and when she proposed deficit deadlifts, I said yes. When she added bands, I said yes, and kept my fingers crossed they wouldn’t snap mid lift. When she proposed pinch presses for bench, I said yes and hoped like heck it didn’t mean I was the one who got pinched. (I wasn’t).

Each shift made the lifts more challenging and I quickly mastered the new ways of lifting, despite how weird it all felt. Each shift meant I had to change the way I carried out my work compared to the traditional approaches.

I find deficit lifts challenging as everything tends to get squished the closer you get the floor and it isn’t so easy breathing either. I quickly discovered I needed a new way to fill my lungs as the heavier the bar the more energy and breath I needed.

I tried a couple of different moves and workarounds until I felt as comfortable as I would ever feel shifting a lot of weight around. I had to do the same thing with bench presses and squats too.

Well, those tiny changes had a big impact. After three weeks of tiny steps, Vicky brought me back to traditional deadlifts and bench presses. I’m thrilled with the results — new personal records in bench and deadlift for four repeats at 100 pounds and 200 pounds respectively.

When I think on it, all my progress has come from tiny steps: from making that first decision to hire a trainer and actually walk into the gym to the actual nurturing of trust in the process, the trainer, and myself.

Each stage builds on the next, creating a space where gains in strength and comfort are possible. Most importantly, I have seen changes in how I have made fitness a part of my life. I added swimming last year when my neighbourhood pool reopened and this summer I took up yin yoga.

When I did the latest survey on my Carrot app, I was delighted to see how much time each week is now devoted to a specific physical activity. The old joke asks “how does one eat an elephant? The answer: one bite at a time. Or in my case, one step at a time, consistently.

— Martha lives and trains in St. John’s.

 

fit at mid-life · fitness · meditation · training

The power of the pact

Image description: low angle street shot of Tracy and Sam with a building and stop sign behind them on an overcast day. Tracy is standing, dressed in running gear, wearing sunglasses. Sam is on her bike, standing, left foot on the ground, right foot on her bike pedal, wearing black workout shorts, a black tank that says
Image description: low angle street shot of Tracy and Sam with a building and stop sign behind them on an overcast day. Tracy is standing, dressed in running gear, wearing sunglasses. Sam is on her bike, standing, left foot on the ground, right foot on her bike pedal, wearing black workout shorts, a black tank that says “FEMINIST” and sunglasses.

During the media around the book, someone, somewhere described Sam and my Fittest by 50 Challenge as a “pact.” Maybe it was that time we were on TV.  We’d never described it quite like that ourselves, but it was a pact. Our challenge was to be the fittest we’d ever been in our lives by the time we turned 50. We made the pact when we were 48.

Now, there were lots of factors that kept us going through the challenge — not the least of it was the public accountability of the blog. But looking back, I think one of the most important factors was that we made a pact with each other.  The dictionary definition of a “pact” is a formal agreement. It involves a kind of mutual commitment to do something.

Having that commitment in place made it harder to back out. It didn’t exactly have the moral weight of a promise. But it still had some binding force or at least a sense of accountability.  In other words, the pact became a motivating factor in our fittest by 50 challenge. It also provided a framework for mutual support and encouragement. And a sort of shorthand for what we were undertaking to do — i.e. “planning to be the fittest we’ve ever been in our lives by the time we turn 50.”

We weren’t doing it for each other, but we were doing it together.

I realize that I quite like pacts. I’ve got a meditation pact going with a friend right now. We’re both committed to getting back on track with meditation. I started out on my own, deciding that I would do 90 meditations in 90 days. I’m on day 15 now. I mentioned it to my friend last week and he liked the idea. So we made a pact. Now we check-in daily–usually by text–to say we’ve done our meditation. And we agreed to have an actual conversation at least once a week about what our experience of meditation was that week–what shifts we might have noticed; what challenges we might have faced; anything we want to share about the previous week of meditation.

The pact has helped me stay on track, and has also given me a nice way to connect with someone with a shared commitment.

That idea of connecting with at least one other person who is trying to do exactly the same thing, even if not in exactly the same way, has power. Samantha and I each did very different things for our fittest by 50 challenge — she dedicated herself to training for the Friends for Life Bike Rally. I dedicated myself to training for an Olympic distance triathlon. Similarly, my meditation friend and I haven’t given any ground rules for what style or length of meditation we need to do each day. We might do quite different things and experience it completely differently. But having the pact means that we are more likely to do it, to report to each other about it, and to feel a sense of camaraderie about it.

So pacts aren’t just about being accountable. They motivate more by fostering a sense of connection and common purpose. I love a good pact!

Have you had any experience with pacts?

fitness · swimming · training

Thanks, Coach! Thoughts on Drills, Good Form and the Importance of Mixing it Up (Guest Post)

Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, medium length blond hair, blue eyes, smiling at the poolside, outdoor pool with lines on the bottom, deck with deck chairs, and trees in the background on an overcast day.
Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, medium length blond hair, blue eyes, smiling at the poolside, outdoor pool with lines on the bottom, deck with deck chairs, and trees in the background on an overcast day.

I had an epiphany in the pool last week. I finally figured out what was wrong with my kick! And as anyone who has struggled with mastering an athletic or other skill knows, nothing beats the sweet satisfaction that comes when you suddenly get it and never look back.

This underscored for me why regular technique check-ups are an essential part of a good training regimen and highlighted the critical role that coaches can play in that process.

Spring is a time of renewal for me. After the relentless pace of the academic year, I need time to recover, to recharge and then to reflect on the big picture and set goals for the coming year. Part of this process is to take a look at those things that tend to turn over year on year unless we think consciously about them, such as course content, teaching methods, service activities, volunteering, kids’ activities, finances and … fitness and health!

Over the years, I have found the refreshing change of format from indoor to outdoor swimming is a great time to check in with where I am at with my training.

First, in addition to being outside, I also go from swimming at night to swimming at sunrise. There is something about the early light of a summer morning (I swim at 6 am), with its promise of day ahead that fills me with inspiration.

Next, unlike the rest of the year where, aside from open Sunday practices, we swim twice a week at a set time with the same swimmers, we can swim as often as we like in the summer and choose from 15 different practice times. Since lane composition on any given day or time is rarely the same, this adds an element of spontaneity and fun to practice. Training with different swimmers gives us a chance to break out of old patterns and habits (like who leads the lane, who is “best” at this or that stroke etc). I also love being able to reconnect with friends who swim at other times during the year and to meet new people.

Finally, our canny coaches take advantage of the more relaxed summer mood and the different swimmer combinations to mix it up in our workouts too.

The switch in training focus was obvious last week when the theme was “Skills and Drills”. Not everyone was thrilled, however. Many Masters swimmers swim to stay fit and it is natural to focus on speed and endurance. But as we grind through thousands of meters a year, even the best technique degrades. These slippages are subtle but over time they have an effect. For older swimmers particularly, bad habits can increase the risk of injury, but attention to technique is also an important element of performance improvement. Getting faster or stronger is not just about pushing the heart and lungs, it is about moving as efficiently as possible in the water.

Since swimming movements are complex, it is impossible to think of everything at once. Working on technique usually requires breaking a stroke down into its components (kick, pull, catch, breathing, rotation, turns and so on) and focusing on one element at a time, often in a progression of connected steps that are brought together at the end.

For my part, I love doing drills because I always learn (or re-learn) something and I enjoy sensing the subtle variations in movement that typically ensue. Most of the time drills are useful to reign in sloppy form or to undo entrenched habits. But every now and then, a drill brings about a shift that transforms your technique. And that is what happened to me last week as we worked on flutter kick, the weakest component of my freestyle and backstroke.

Though I am very good swimmer, the relative ineffectiveness of my kick has been an endless source of frustration. As a runner, I have a lot of leg muscle and power on the pavement but in the water my torso, shoulders and arms do most of the work. Kick sets are my nightmare – moving my legs faster and harder never seems to make a difference to my speed while exhausting the muscles after a very short time. Given this, I was not relishing last Tuesday’s workout focused on kick and flip turns. My lack of enthusiasm however, was no match for my amazing coach.

Our primary coach this summer is one of the founders of our club who was, until a few years ago, the head coach of our youth competitive teams. This shows in her style of coaching, which is very relaxed and understated. Rather than emphasizing straight up effort (something kids hate, but which many Masters swimmers delight in), she keeps you busy with sets that integrate unusual drills (with names like alligator breath), designed to work on correct form in the water.

Do not get me wrong, many of these drills are in fact very hard work, but not in the usual “grind it out” way that we typically associate with effort. Rather, this kind of focus on form is taxing because isolating weak or difficult parts of the stroke takes us out of our comfort zone and requires concentration, something that is hard to sustain as physical exertion increases.

Great coaches know that to get swimmers to make changes to their strokes, they have to be creative – and sly. Under the guise of working one item, say, kick, they will design a drill that passively works on another skill, like body position in the water. Done well, leaving some of the drill work to occur naturally, without drawing attention to it directly, allows swimmers to approach the drill without preconceived ideas about what should happen. This creates the mental space for them to just experience the water, something that provides invaluable physical feedback on what the body is – or is not – doing.

So what happened last Tuesday? We did a lot of kick, but the focus was on tightening the glutes, not on leg movement. Using the large muscles of the glutes is essential for a strong kick, but it is easier said than done. Part of the problem is getting the amount of muscle engagement right. At first, I tightened the muscles as hard as I could, with little noticeable effect. When I mentioned this to my coach, she said: “Relax. You’re trying too hard. Let up a bit. Experiment with it.” I persevered, but the sweet spot remained elusive.

Then we worked on flip turns and my mind focused on hitting the wall correctly with my toes. What my coach did not mention is that turns help your kick because you must release the glutes to initiate the turn. It provides a break in the muscle effort that also allows for subtle recalibration before reengaging the muscle after the turn. Midway through the set I came off the wall and – bingo! – felt a surge of power as my glutes engaged at the just the right level.

All of a sudden the kicking felt, well, not pleasant, but like it was making a difference, not just to the forward motion of my stroke but also to keeping my body horizontal at the surface of the water. I was astounded at the change – I have been swimming since I was a toddler, and noticeable improvements are pretty rare.

It goes without saying that I will need to continue to focus on my glutes for a while until it becomes an unconscious part of my stroke – practice makes permanent, as they say. I am also curious to see whether the perception of fluidity I have now will translate into faster times.

Even if it does not, however, with each practice my kick feels easier and more natural, which is reward enough.

Thanks, Coach!

Bio: An avid runner and swimmer who also enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, and yoga, Jennifer is a mother of three and a professor in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa.