You Gotta Have Balance

At the end of last year, I asked my running coach for a week off.  To be honest I was burned out.  I had trained intensely all year to run three marathons.  Mentally, I just wanted to check out for a bit and not be driven by a training schedule.  It seemed as if my life revolved around training runs and cross training days.  I had one rest day a week and it never seemed like enough.  I longed for a day when I could curl up with a book and doze off.  The irony of the situation is on my 2017 vision board I had the goal to “improve physical and emotional balance.”  Well, that sure didn’t happen.

Coach Jenny blocked off a week – we called it the “Chill Week” – where I was expected to do nothing.  No running, no cross training, nothing.  Funny thing was I couldn’t do it.  I took a Pilates class.  I ran a couple of days.  I even ran a 5K race.  I guess that is what happens when a Type A amateur athlete takes a break.

It was then I realized my life had become very one-dimensional.  My entire life revolved around training to run races, planning race trips, running races, and recovering from running races.  Hmmm.  Doesn’t sound too balanced.  It sounds boring.

I am not alone.  It is a challenge for all athletes (professional, collegiate, amateur) – how to balance their commitment to their sport with other aspects of their lives – family, friends, work to name a few.  I have heard stories about football players who are so dedicated to being the best they can be on the field that every waking moment is devoted to their sport.  They have intense workouts to build up their strength.  They watch films of games to glean lessons learned from wins and losses.   They follow carefully regimented diet protocols.  They probably dream football plays.   But there is more to life than football, just like there is more to life than running.

I decided to fix the balance in my life.  On my 2018 vision board I put a few goals that have nothing to do with running, marathons, or training for a marathon.  One goal is to become more connected with my Airedale, Alex.  I want to work with him and train him to compete in several different dog sporting events.  Alex is very engaging and wants to have a job.  We can work together to develop our teamwork to compete in things like Obedience, Rally, and Nosework.  Alex is happy to have more time with me.  Our first few times in competition weren’t as successful as I would have liked.  Okay, so I can’t control the outcome every time I do something.  Lesson learned.  I know if I continue to work with him, he will master anything we try.  In the process, Alex will become an even better companion.

My other goal is to read more books.  I love to read as evidenced by my bookshelves that are spilling books out onto the floor.  I want to clear out some of my books but I need to read them first.  During my Chill Week, I organized my books and started reading them.  In one week, I finished three books – a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. There was something energizing about reading. The books entertained me, informed me, and inspired me.  I bored a few people as I excitedly explained things I discovered in those books.  (Just my advice – avoid getting bit by sand flies.)

I read “The Double Helix” by James D. Watson about his Nobel Prize winning work on the discovery of the structure of DNA.   It was fascinating to learn about the people who did the scientific research into one of the most important biological discoveries, a discovery critical to understanding genetics.  I was surprised by how competitive scientific research can be.  Winning a Nobel Prize is like winning the Super Bowl for a football player. Although Watson worked long hours on his research, he also understood the importance of having time to do things outside the lab.  Playing tennis, spending time with friends, taking in a cultural event.  He felt he needed to do other things “to avoid narrow-mindedness and dullness.”  Good advice from a Nobel Laureate.  That is exactly what I want to avoid.

During a recent race, I found myself thinking about another book, “When Breath Becomes Air.”   The author, Paul Kalanithi, was a neurosurgeon who at the age of 36 was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  In addition to medicine, Paul was very interested in the philosophy of science.  His book is about his life and his death.  In the book he tries to answer the question what is it that makes a life meaningful?  He faced many challenges following his diagnosis as he tried to make sense of his life.  Paul quoted a line from Samuel Beckett’s novel “The Unnamable”, a quote he kept repeating to himself: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”  Sadly, Paul died before he could complete the book.  His wife, also a doctor, finished it for him.

One of my mantras for race day

That quote popped into my head during a recent local race when I questioned whether I would be able to finish.  Okay, I was whining.  The reality is my race was nothing compared to what Paul went through during his final days.  But it made me adjust my thinking.  In running, particularly endurance running, the mental aspect is just as important than the physical aspect.  If I am struggling during a run, I think of that quote and Paul.  Whenever I think I can’t go on, I know I can and I will.

As I looked back on the last couple months where I have worked on rebalancing my life, I had an A-ha! moment.  I realized my non-running activities were teaching me lessons that helped improve my training and running.  I might have initially thought I was wasting time.  Instead of strength training, I was reading books about science and philosophy, and teaching Alex to do a recall.  How could those things make me a better runner?  But they were.  The lessons I was learning can be applied to my running.

A good example of this is Shalane Flanagan.  She suffered a back injury a year ago that prevented her from running for two and half months and kept her from the start line of the 2017 Boston Marathon.  Shalane had been running competitively for over 10 years.   Her injury put her on the sidelines but it enabled her to do things she never would have been able to do if she was in heavy-duty training mode.  She co-authored a best-selling cookbook.  She took a vacation with her family.    When she came back to training, she came back strong.  (I bet those recipes for good food in her cookbook helped too.)  We all know what happened next.  Boom!  She won the New York City Marathon.

To improve a skill, we sometimes have to step away and do something totally different for a bit.  When we come back, we are refreshed and have a different frame of mind.  It will be reflected in an improved performance.   I have seen how it has helped me.  I’d say it helped Shalane, too.

 

 

Just 30 Minutes

While I am a big fan of running, I also realize that running is not for everyone.  Due to knee problems, my husband, for example, is not able to join in my running adventures.  He makes a terrific spectator, though, and can ring a mean cow bell.  For people like him, walking is the perfect way to keep moving.

I found this YouTube video by Dr. Mike Evans called “23 1/2 hours:  What is the single best thing we can do for our health?”  It is a very interesting video, about 10 minutes long but worth it.  If you haven’t guessed it already, the “thing” is exercise – 30 minutes a day. According to Dr. Evans, walking is the ideal exercise.   Walking (along with other lifestyle changes) helps deal with a number of maladies.  Things like diabetes, knee arthritis, dementia and Alzheimer’s, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.  Best thing yet – it is free!

I shared the video with a couple of people last week and they all had the same reaction.  They got up and went for a walk.  I just hope they keep doing it.

A few of my Volksmarch medals

A few of my Volksmarch medals

For people who still want to earn a medal, there are Volksmarches.  A Volksmarch is an organized, non-competitive 5K or 10K walk.  Participants in Volksmarches are given medals or other commemorative items when they complete an event. There are Volksmarch clubs all over the world.  Some clubs also organize hikes, bike rides, swimming and cross-country skiing events (collectively known as Volkssports).

My husband and I took up Volksmarching many years ago when he was recovering from ankle surgery.  The low impact exercise was perfect to keep him moving and help him regain mobility in his ankle.  Since we had recently moved, it was a great way to get to know our new home state.  We traveled to local events as well as some in neighboring states.  Going to a Volksmarch event was an excuse to get out and explore.  I was reminded of the adventures we had when I came across my Volksmarch medals while cleaning out a closet.  Looking at my collection of medals, I have to say some rival marathon medals I have earned.

Walking is the Rodney Dangerfield of exercise – it gets no respect.  People think that walking is a waste of time.  Done properly, walking can reap huge health benefits.  It is worth every moment you put into it.   So grab your coat, put on your walking shoes and head out the door.  Thirty minutes a day is all you need.  Every step counts.

Interested in learning more about Volksmarches? You can visit the American Volkssport Association (ava.org) and the International Federation of Popular Sports (Internationaler Volkssportverband – IVV) web sites to find more information about Volkssport clubs and events in your area.

Another organization that promotes walking is the Freewalkers (freewalkers.org).  This informal group organizes events and provides information to encourage walkers, such as training plans, checklists for walkers, and a useful guide on preventing blisters and dealing with them if you get one.  They even organize international walking trips.

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I’m Back

It has been awhile since I last posted on my blog.  Recovering from my broken toe has taken longer and been more difficult than I expected.  The last 2 months have not been filled with adventure or running.  I have been on a detour along my running journey that I never want to take again.

When I broke my toe in early July, I expected after 5 or 6 weeks of rest I would be able to ride a bike or swim.  I was totally unprepared when, at my 4-week check-up, the doctor told me there were really two fractures in my toe, the second a lengthwise crack down the bone.  He was concerned that the bone would pull apart if I flexed my foot as I might while biking or swimming.  He told me that I had to continue resting my toe for 4 more weeks.

I needed some sort of physical activity for my physical and mental health.  I kept asking the doctor to suggest some activity that I could do, some way to keep moving.  My doctor just shook his head and said “sorry, I can’t let you do anything.”  I cried as he delivered the news.  After I left his office, I sat in the parking lot in my car and cried some more.  I had been a good patient for 4 weeks.  I had stayed off my foot.  I took extra calcium and Vitamin D.  I had done every thing I was told to do and it did not seem fair that I had to wait another 4 weeks until I could resume my active life.  I have to be honest.  I was depressed.

My enthusiasm for writing my blog took a big hit too.  I tried to rally and write about the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.  As is the case with every Olympics, there were stories that fascinated me and I had wanted to write about them.  Stories like Usain Bolt’s triple-triple (3 gold medals in 3 straight Olympic Games) and Mo Farah’s double-double.  Mo’s gold in the men’s 10,000 meter race was even more astounding considering he fell about halfway through the race.  (I wish I could learn his secret of falling and springing back up to finish a race.)   Or the collision of Abbey D’Agostino (USA) and Nikki Hamblin (New Zealand) half way through a qualifying heat for the women’s 5000 meter race and how Abbey and Nikki helped each other to get back up and finish the race – they personified true sportsmanship.  Or that among the competitors in the women’s marathon were two sets of twins and one set of triplets.  Or that the Belgium team in the Men’s 4×400 relay race included 3 brothers – Kevin, Jonathan, and Dylan Borlee.  (It was a family affair for the Borlee’s – their sister Olivia competed in the Women’s 200 meter race.)  No matter how many times I sat down to write I just couldn’t get motivated.  If I couldn’t run, I couldn’t write about it.

I tried to think of activities I could do that would not aggravate my broken toe.  I had spent the first 4 weeks of recuperation reading and finished 9 books.  I couldn’t imagine reading anymore. I didn’t want to watch movies. I wanted to be moving. I tried to think of any activity I could do to keep my body from turning into a blob.  The only activity that I could think of was Pilates.  I signed up for private lessons 3 times a week.  The instructor listened to me explain all my physical limitations from my arm with its limited range of motion to my healing toe.  She was confident despite these challenges, I could still get a work-out.  Since I started taking Pilates, I can tell that I have gotten stronger.  If there can be a silver lining to my broken toe, it is that I discovered how  Pilates can improve my running – a stronger core and more flexible hips.  Pilates classes saved me from total despair.

Last week I was finally given the ok to resume exercising.  I started riding my bike and walking on my treadmill.   I even pushed things a bit and did a short run this week.  After 8 weeks of inactivity, my body isn’t the same as it was before my fall.  I feel like I am starting all over from square one.   But the ability to get moving again has turned my frowny face into a smiling one.  I am a living example of the positive effects of exercise on one’s mental health.

I did learn a few things during this ordeal.  I got a deeper appreciation of how much I value the ability to move.  It is a gift.  While I was unable to run for only 8 weeks, there are people who are permanently unable to move including those with more serious cases of Transverse Myelitis, MS, ALS, or spinal cord injuries.  I am fortunate to be able to lace up my shoes again to run.

I also learned how important it is to have multiple hobbies or interests.  Running is my only hobby.  When I was unable to run, I had nothing other than reading to keep me occupied.  Reading is extremely important but it was not enough to sustain me.  I need to develop other interests so my life doesn’t come to a screeching halt when I can’t run.

Despite my latest injury, I still have my goals of completing each of the 6 Major Marathons (only 3 left to run) and a full or half marathon in each of the 50 states (17 states to go).   It just might take me a bit longer to finish them.  I learned that it is all part of my running journey.

The Importance of Moving

I don’t claim to be an expert in anything.  I have dogs but after raising six dogs, I would not be so presumptuous to advise others on how to train their dogs.  I still rely on my go-to resource, Auntie C., with any dog-training questions.  I have run 11 marathons and 35 half marathons but I would not coach someone else.  I know what works for me but everyone is different.  I sure wouldn’t want to steer someone down the wrong path.  The one thing I do know is that you have to keep moving.  I am a firm believer in this.  It is a “use-it-or-lose it” world.  That is something I learned the hard way.

About 18 months ago, I fell during a training run and broke my upper arm in four places.  I was fortunate it did not require surgery to repair.  The only treatment was to immobilize my arm by putting it in a sling.  The doctor encouraged me to bend over, dangle my arm and move it in circles.  It would have been equivalent to raising my arm to shoulder height.  As much as I tried, I couldn’t do it.  It was excruciatingly painful just to dangle my arm.

I could tell that the doctor was disappointed each time I came into his office and showed him my progress in moving my arm (or rather my lack of progress).   I started losing muscle because I wasn’t using it.  I was at risk of developing frozen shoulder, if I did not get my arm moving.  It was clear that just a few months of immobility had reduced range of motion in my arm to next to nothing.    When I was discharged from physical therapy, I could barely lift my arm to shoulder height.

Since then I have tried acupuncture, cupping, dry needling, massage, additional physical therapy, stretching, and various therapies by my chiropractor.  At this point, I estimate my range of motion (which should be 180 degrees) is at best about 155.  I continue to get weekly 90-minute massages.   My massage therapist has made restoring my range of motion her life’s mission.

My experience with my broken arm leads me to consider the bigger picture.  All this sitting that the modern office worker does, hunched over a keyboard, is not healthy either.  There isn’t much movement involved.   The longer you don’t move something then the less your body begins to think it needs to do.  If you don’t straighten up your back, then eventually your back will probably start saying “don’t have to do that anymore.”   Evolution probably started that way.

I mentioned this to my massage therapist today.  She agreed.  She said when a new client comes in, she can tell what kind of work they do from the areas of their body that are giving them problems.  Shoulders and back pain are typical in people who have desk jobs.

According to her, for every repetitive movement, you need to do the counter movement to ensure that you are maintaining range of motion.  It is another way of saying we need to stretch more to maintain flexibility.  Runners, for example, don’t take big steps so we end up with tight hips and quads.   We need to stretch our muscles to ensure when we need to take a big step, we can still do it.

Maintaining movement is especially important in people with arthritis.  It can be painful but the consequences of not moving joints is they will lock up even more.  It is a downward spiral from there.

I am just as guilty as everyone else of not stretching enough.  I have once again resolved to start stretching every night.  In the past, when I made stretching a priority, I found that I had fewer injuries and no sore muscles.  I started getting more flexible.   If I am successful this time, a few minutes of stretching will save me from spending hours on the massage table.

So take it from me – the person whose right arm use to be as useful as the front leg of a T-Rex – keep moving!  You will be glad that you did.

Excuses

Warning:  This week’s post is R rated.

Don't think my strength training coach will let me off easy

Don’t think my strength training coach will let me off easy

A few years ago I was in a running group.  Our coach was an Australian woman who had completed multiple Ironman competitions.  Nothing stopped her.  My doctor wasn’t real keen on my running but more than anything I wanted to get back out on the trail and run.  My running coach was the one who helped get me running again after my diagnosis of Transverse Myelitis.

The running group was very interesting because among the 7 people in the group, we had 5 runners with health issues.  There was me with Transverse Myelitis and episodes of paralysis when I went to run; a person with an auto-immune liver issue who may need a liver transplant in the future; a person with Celiac disease; a person who had been battling Lyme disease since 2008; and another who had a brain aneurysm in her brain stem in 2009.  Every one of us had a pretty good excuse to say “I quit” and stay home.  Yet each of us was out there, giving our ailments the middle finger.  I would argue that being active was helping each of us stay alive.   Being around others with health issues also kept me motivated to keep going.  If they could do all this running, then I sure could too.  We did tease our coach who carried a cell phone for emergencies to remember to dial “911”, not “000” (the emergency number in Australia), if something bad happened to us during a run.

Rogue Running gave me this shirt to remind me - JFR

Rogue Running gave me this shirt to remind me – JFR

Rogue Running, the awesome running store in Austin that I wrote about last month, has a great catch phrase.  JFR, Just F%#@ing Run.  When I heard that catch phrase, I immediately understood what it meant.  It harkens back to that running group a few years ago.  There was plenty of opportunity to throw out an excuse to not meet up for the group run.  But we didn’t.  We sucked it up and went out for our run.  We just f%#@ing ran.

Excuses don’t just have to be physical aliments.  They are anything that keeps you from lacing up your shoes – a bad day at work, being too tired, it is too cold (or too hot), it’s raining, whatever it is that stops you from getting out there.  Just don’t give in.  Sometimes a good run will cure whatever is bothering you anyway and afterwards you will wonder why you were reluctant to go.

I remember when I was a little kid, my excuse for anything I didn’t want to do was “I can’t.”  That is about the laziest excuse one can have.  My mother’s response was always the same: “Can’t never did a thing in its life.”  I won’t let “can’t” stop me anymore.

So if you were looking for an excuse not be active – remember you don’t have to run, walking or biking are fine too – it had better be a really good one.  Because if the motley crew that was my running group can get out there, everyone else should too.

Runner’s World had an interesting essay on Rogue Running’s JFR catch phrase.  It hits pretty much every excuse someone could have.  Maybe you’ll recognize a few of yours in there.  

If you live in the Austin area or even if you are just visiting, stop in Rogue Running.  I have seen plenty of running stores all over the country during the course of my travels.  This is by far one of my favorites.  And if you can’t get to Austin, you can always travel with Rogue Expeditions on one of their “run-centric vacations” to places like Morocco, Kenya, Patagonia, Lake Tahoe, and Bend, Oregon.  Their trips accommodate runners of all levels and enable you to truly experience each destination.  Sounds like an exciting adventure to me!

What’s a Person To Do?

It is not surprising that people are confused about how best to keep themselves healthy.  There is so much conflicting information out there these days.

I recall an article a while back that had the alarming headline “Sitting down is KILLING you!”  That headline would scare anyone who is chained to a desk all day.  Dr. James A. Levine, director of obesity solutions at the Mayo Clinic and the author of “Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You”, claimed that today’s office workers “sit for 13 hours a day, sleep for 8, and move for just 3.”  The result of all this inactivity, according to his research, is heart disease, obesity, depression and deteriorating bones.  Dr. Levine said we need to stand up more.  To help us all out, Dr. Levine invented the treadmill desk (probably not for anyone who can’t pat their head and rub their tummy at the same time).  So sitting is bad for you.

Other experts have suggested that we need to stand up more.  (I wonder if they have a financial stake in stand-up desks.)   But I found articles that claimed standing for long periods of time can increase your risk of varicose veins, back and foot problems, and carotid artery disease.  So standing is bad for you.

I found another article in the New York Times where a reader asked if lying down was as bad for you as sitting.   I thought the answer was pretty self-evident but they had John P. Thyfault, associate professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, respond.  According to Dr. Thyfault, lying in bed (or on the couch) is as bad as sitting.  So lying down is bad for you.

Then there are the articles that say running causes knee problems and premature death (and articles that say those claims are false).  Still other studies claim excessive biking or swimming will cause bone loss.

So far we have sitting, standing, lying down, running, swimming or biking are bad for you.  How is anyone going to know what to do to stay healthy?  The result is many people do nothing (though nothing is the equivalent of sitting all the time).  I mentioned this confusing information to a co-worker.  Her response was that everyone should just lie on the ground and roll everywhere.  Interesting answer but not practical.

NASA has studied this whole physical activity thing too.  Based on their research, they say you need to stand up for 2 minutes a day, 16 times a day while at work in order to maintain bone and muscle density.  I can see it now: cubicle farms throughout the corporate world having 2-minute breaks throughout the day, kind of like the 7th-inning stretch in baseball but multiple times, where everyone stands up.  It would be a start but I don’t see how that provides any aerobic exercise to anyone.  Aerobic exercise is important too.

The guidelines from most government and health organizations say we should be getting 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week in order to build and maintain health and fitness.  According to multiple studies, 2.5 hours is the sweet spot.  Less than that, you aren’t improving your health.  More than that, some studies claim you might actually be harming yourself.

If you think about it, 2.5 hours is not a huge time commitment but will provide measurable benefits to your health, like lower cholesterol and blood pressure to name just a few.  You just need to set aside the time each week. It is a good goal to work towards.  No more excuses.  As Nike says, just do it.