If I needed proof that I am, in fact, getting older, I got it this week.
My shoulders hurt to the point of struggling to extricate myself from my sports bra (more than usual, I mean), and my knees protested when descending stairs.My intensified workout schedule caught up to me.
Is it affecting mobility throughout the day? Getting worse instead of better during warmups? Yes? Then it's time to recover.
In my opinion, recovery is like anything else ~ that is, it's best approached with intention. Here are some keys I try to bear in mind:
Three Keys to a Productive Recovery Day
1. Decide Ahead of Time
You know that tendency to feel guilty about taking a recovery day? The niggling doubt that you might be "recovering" just because you don't really want to keep your date with the gym?
I even go so far as to plan specific recovery activities. That way, I feel productive rather than wimpy when I do yoga instead of hill sprints.
Incidentally, this decide-ahead rather than decide-in-the-moment idea also applies to other disciplines. If I'm going to open a bottle of wine with dinner or skip a horse's training session, for example, I like knowing that I made a considered choice to do so.
2. Honor Your Habits
Wouldn't it be easy to throw away the usual, allotted gym time on a bit of social media scrolling? So easy! And yet, so not the point of a recovery day.
I also kept up my daily recovery activities, including red light therapy and meditation. I also maintained my usual level of general activity, including farm chores and a ride on Bellalunaa. I would have thrown in a hot bath with Epsom salts, but alas, I didn't have time.
Not only does sticking to my usual routine ensure that I actually do the recovery activities, but it makes it much less likely that one or two recovery days will lead to a week of lounging. Keep those habits habitual!
2. Feed Your Healing
Taking time off from the gym? Boo-yah, baby, let's have a cheat day. Eat all the pizza!
Personally, I don't attempt to cut calories on a recovery day. I might choose extra non-starchy veggies instead of a sweet potato because I don't need to refill glycogen stores, but I'm not going to stress over it.
For what it's worth, I'm coming from a context of being lean and wanting to build muscle and improve running performance. I could make an argument for lowing calorie intake a little on a recovery day if I were trying to lose body fat. But not much. Regardless of long-term goals, recovery always requires plenty of nutrients to make the necessary repairs.
Are You Recovering, or Just Resting?
I just made the sad discovery that the Whole 9 blog, once run by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig (although they went separate ways years ago) has been taken down. Sad face. I was hoping to share with you a couple of their classic posts. One of them was titled Are You Recovering, or Just Resting?
That title has stuck with me for many years. The article noted that while there is nothing wrong with resting, just resting isn't the same as recovering.
Recovering means taking intentional action to support your body's healing: Engage in light activity. Eat well. Break out the foam roller and massage gun. Enlist professional help for persistent pain. Get extra sleep. Go outside and enjoy nature. Skip the alcohol. And also, enjoy a bit of rest.
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Y'all know that the more focused I am on something, the more I dive into content about that thing. Health and fitness are always on my hot-topics list, but I'm especially focused on them right now as I shift into a new fitness cycle.
Here's where's I'm putting my content-absorption time these days:
Nerdy Health & Fitness Podcasts
I listen to a lot of podcasts on the subjects of nutrition, fitness, and mental and physical health. My standards are high. I want knowledgable hosts who are willing to change their minds based on the evidence. I want to question and expand my knowledge rather than sitting in an echo chamber of comfortable "truths" or poking into unrealistic "bio-hacks." Here's a small handful of titles that are presently stretching my brain:
The Peter Attia Drive -- Peter Attia is a former surgeon and active physician who focuses on longevity. He and his team produce extraordinary content, specializing in roughly 2-hour, long-form interviews, listener Q&A, and topical podcasts with extremely detailed show notes. Attia drills down on research-supported facts in a context of experienced observation of real people. Biohacks are not his thing. This podcast is about the details of exercise, nutrition, lab work, etc. for listeners who are serious about maximizing longevity and healthspan.
Attia is pleasant to listen to, extremely knowledgable, and willing to change his mind based on the evidence. He does get pretty technical at times, so be prepared to pay attention and even commit some time to watching the video so you can follow along with graphics.
A limited scope of Attia's content is available for free, but full access will cost you $19 per month. It's worth it.
FoundMyFitness -- Dr. Rhonda Patrick is another very bright, deep thinker on the subject of longevity and healthspan. While Attia's content leans a little more in the fitness direction, Patrick is more likely to explore alternative (but still not bio-hacky) therapies. Her 1-hour plus episodes are long enough for thorough interviews and exploration, and her style is relatable enough to help us lay folk absorb the more technical content.
FoundMyFitness podcasts are free. Paying for a premium membership will get you access to an additional podcast, Q&A's with Patrick, and other perks.
Pushing the Limits -- Lisa Tamati is an ultramarathoner whose fascination with optimizing human performance shines through in her in her hourish-long podcasts. Usually via conversations with other experts, Tamati explores ideas ranging from research on human metabolism to intriguing methods of (legally) enhancing athletic ability. Though some of her fascinating topics are out of reach for the average person -- or at least the average budget -- she remains grounded in the basics tenants of mindset, health, and longevity that apply to us all. Plus, her kiwi accent is fun to listen to!
Tamati's podcast is free. If you love her style, you can check out her books and coaching services
As I noted, all three of the podcasts listed above are fantastic, but can be quite dense. If you're in a mood for something a bit easier to digest, try these:
Revolution Health Radio
Mind Pump: Raw Fitness Truth
The Healthy Rebellion Radio
Nerdy Health & Fitness Books
I don't have time to read as much as I'd like, but I do consume as much non-fiction as possible. Between tangents into adventure survival stories and equine physiology, I generally have at least one health and fitness book going. Lately, I've found the following titles both engaging and useful:
Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Endurance by Alex Hutchinson. Hutchinson's book Which Comes First: Cardio or Weights? is also a fun read (if you're a nerd, of course).
Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to do is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel Lieberman. I also liked Liberman's book The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease so much I read it twice.
Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Lose Weight, and Stay Healthy by Herman Pontzer
If you check out several of these titles, you'll find that the authors don't always reach the same conclusions as one another. Also, they'll all admit that, as much as we want answers, sometimes we just don't know enough to be sure.
I like that. The idea is to explore concepts, apply those that ring true, and don't get bogged down in the weeds of uncertainty. Eat real food. Move your body. Sleep. Love. The rest is details.
Well, that went fast.
Summer, I mean.
Mr. Sweaty just went outside in the dark (!) to drive to work. He texted me from the driveway: Brrr!
It's true. The horses are already fluffing out a bit, despite 85 degree days. I've been sponging their backs with warm water instead of hosing them down after evening rides. The last cutting of orchard grass is drying in windrows at the bottom of the hill.
Autumn serves me cocktail of emotions. Relief. Frustration. Melancholy. Excitement. Satisfaction.
The negatives are mostly because I didn't make it to the Autumn Sun Pioneer Endurance Ride over the weekend. Ledger might have been ready, but I wasn't sure. Between work and personal travel, I spent more than half of the past two months out of town, leaving his conditioning schedule fragmented at best. I didn't feel like it was fair to ask him for a 50 without proper preparation. So, I didn't.
On the bright side, I'm very pleased with both Ledger's and Bella's training. We're back in the swing of things now that I'm home for a while, and they're responding well to the consistency. (That makes three of us.) I ride them on alternate days during the week, and can usually make time for both on Saturdays and Sundays. Everybody gets regular work, and everybody gets regular rest.
Except me. Ha.
Meanwhile, I'm shifting into a new gear on my own conditioning. Having run my last race of the year at Crater Crawl a couple Saturdays ago, I'm putting running in the back seat for a while. My four-per-week running schedule is now aimed at edging my Zone 2 upwards and increasing VO2 max rather than mileage.
In the absence of long runs, I'm ramping up my strength training for the winter. I'll finish out MAPS Anabolic plus the Butt Mod (don't knock it 'til you've tried it), then work on MAPS Aesthetic through the end of the year.
In January, I'll scale back the lifting and head into another half-marathon training cycle. I have an eyeball on the Race to Robie Creek. Robie is a tough, springtime challenge that is love-hated by the Northwest's trail running community. Until this year, I never considered entering. How things change!
Anyway, all this focus on the physical has me tuned in to my nutrition and recovery, not to mention a curated selection of books and podcasts that have my braincells doing the backstroke in a pool of nerdiness. I'll share some favorites later this week.
Early morning. Dark outside. Treadmill whirring. I'm halfway through my warmup when *ZING!* Pain stabs my forefoot. It's familiar. Dreaded. My old demon, Metatarsalgia.
This isn't a running injury, per say. In my case, it's a chronic condition caused by an unfortunate genetic cocktail of bunions, arch construction, and long toes. (Seriously? Long toes?) Most of the time, I keep it under control with custom orthotics, stiff-soled shoes, and an anti-inflammatory diet. But occasionally, it flares.
We all have something, don't we? Whether it's periodic acute injuries or aggravated chronic ones, there will also be times when pain gets in the way of our goals. As I sit here with my foot wrapped in a frozen clay pack, I realize that age and experience have improved on my skills when it comes to maintaining fitness while managing injury.
Here's what I've learned:
#1 - Know When to Fold 'em
Kenny Rogers was right. Sometimes, it's better to give up than to push through.
When my metatarsalgia attacked mid-run, I seriously considered finishing my planned workout anyway. It was only a recovery run! Just 4.5 miles of undulating hills! Maybe if I stretched my forefoot a little? Nope. Ran with my toes curled? Nope. Ignored the pain? Sure.
Right on cue, my online trainer started saying things I already knew. Ignoring our bodies' whispers will, eventually, force them to shout. What could have been a minor injury requiring a few days off may blow up into a serious problem that decimates race plans and wipes out months of gains. He was right, of course.
Sadly and brewing with frustration, I did the hardest thing. I stepped off the treadmill.
If you've ever been an athlete on a roll, you know it is terribly difficult to give up on a workout. You feel like you're violating your own commitment. Cheating. Wimping out. But think about it: Isn't it better to sacrifice a few miles today in order to avoid a month of missed runs? To skip those final few bench presses rather than taking several weeks off to nurse a nagging shoulder?
When injury strikes, base your decisions not on the workout in progress, but on the longer term. You'll achieve higher training volume overall by backing off early and recovering quickly than you will by pushing through. Injury will always call your bluff.
#2 - Focus on What You CAN Do
We left my tale of woe with me stepping off the treadmill mid-run. I was worried. I was irritated. And, I was prepared to shift gears. Instead of heading for the shower, I limped across the gym and switched my running shoes for cycling flats.
When we're hurt, it's really easy to bask in our misery. I'm going to lose so much fitness. I'll never be ready for my race. This sucks. What if, instead, we got creative?
It's perfectly possible to train around most injuries. Get specific about what you can't do (in my case, push off my left forefoot) and find challenges that don't involve that movement. If you can't run, maybe you can walk or cycle or swim. If you've tweaked your elbow, you can probably still squat and lunge. Sprained ankle telling you standing balances are out of the question? Skip the vinyasa yoga and do hatha instead.
You might even make some gains while you recover. For example, cycling has long been hailed as a beneficial cross-training modality for runners. (Now I have time to do more of it!) Even if you don't gain, you'll minimize loss. Research demonstrates that training your uninjured bits helps preserve muscle even in immobilized limbs.
#3 - Maintain Your Usual Routine
On a related note, sticking to your usual workout schedule ~ even if you're changing up the activities ~ has benefits of its own.
Have you ever noticed that, despite initial resistance to taking a break due to injury, our natural tendencies toward laziness still kick in? "I can't run right now" has a way of morphing into "I'm going to binge Netflix and eat all the Cheetos." Don't do it!
You've worked hard to establish habits and routines, so stick to them. I hopped on the bike again this morning at my usual running time and pounded out a HIIT workout. After lunch, my strength workout is still on the docket, though I'll be working around a hamstring that I pushed a little too hard on Wednesday.
Even if your injury (or illness) really is severe enough that you can't do an alternative workout, still set aside your usual gym time to focus on your health. Use the time to stretch or read up on current research about your chosen sport. Alternatively, engage in a contemplative practice. Research has demonstrated real mental and physical benefits from mindfulness activities such as meditation and prayer, regardless of whether they are secular or religious in flavor.
Keeping your usual schedule will help you remain focused on getting back in the game instead of letting the sofa steal your success.
#4 - Actively Treat the Injury
Speaking of focus, there's a big difference between resting and recovering. Sure, rest is usually an important part of recovery, but there's so much more you can do than sit back and wait for your cells to repair. Depending on the nature of your injury, taking an active role in your recovery may even make the difference between a complete fix and chronic problems.
Don't be afraid to enlist a professional. The right practitioner (whether in sports medicine, chiropractic, soft tissue therapy, functional medicine, or whatever) is one who understands your goals and has the knowledge to help you return to full function. If you have that person's number in your phone, consider dialing it.
Of course, there are a lot of common sense steps you can take on your own. Get out your ice packs, foam rollers, and therapy balls. Soak in an epsom salt bath. Modify supportive devices, if applicable. (For me, that meant adding temporary forefoot support to my usual orthotic, per my podiatrist's direction). Tend to localized and systemic inflammation using compression, more ice, extra sleep and diet.
#5 - Eat Even Cleaner
Oh yes, diet.
It can be especially tempting to treat ourselves to junk food when we're injured. Self-medicating with food is common, including among athletes facing the depressive tendencies that accompany setbacks. The problem, of course, is that these "medicating" foods are usually pro-inflammatory choices like pizza, mac & cheese, or cookies.
Instead, try to stick to food that really does contribute to healing. You choose quality fuel to support your training, right? Wouldn't your damaged body appreciate quality building blocks even more?
Personally, I've upped my veggie and fish intake while staying away from inflammatory foods like grains and sugar. At the very least, it helps me mentally to continue treating myself like an athlete rather than a slug.
#6 - Stay Positive
It all boils down to positivity, right? The mental game is at least half the battle, and all the strategies listed above contribute to it.
Personally, I find that curiosity and positivity go hand in hand. Recovery is an opportunity to explore new activities, read some research, and get creative. You really can maintain your athletic mindset throughout your recovery and out the other side.
Bonus Tip - Take This Advice to the Barn
Oh, horse people: Don't miss the crossover application to our furry friends! Having an injured horse can be just as frustrating to having an injury of your own...and it can also offer just as much opportunity.
If your horse is laid up, look for ways to spin his down time to your advantage. Work on a low-activity training issue, like accepting the bit, touching ears, or picking up feet. Learn some physical-therapy "tricks" like carrot stretches. Bond over extra grooming and hand-grazing in the sun. Get in some extra steps on a slow handwalks.
Whatever you do, don't let an injury lay waste to your time or ambition. Recalculate your route and keep going!
For the first thirty years of my life, I didn't consider myself an athlete.
I was the kind of kid who preferred books, animals, and blackberry picking to any kind of team sport. I had good parents who made me try all the things: kiddie soccer, basketball, ballet, softball, swimming, track. I liked some better than others, but nothing stuck. By the time I hit high school, I had no interest in trying out for any kind of team.
In undergrad, I became what I'd call an "exerciser." I jogged or went to the gym, maintained a healthy bodyweight, and had no trouble meeting the demands of farm life. I rode horses and rowed rafts and spent a lot of time outdoors. I even completed a half marathon once, but that was mostly about running away.
For the first time in my life, it dawned on me that I felt like an athlete.
An athlete! Me!
But...was I really? My only official sport was endurance. Try as I might, I couldn't get comfortable with the notion that distance riding, in and of itself, was what made me an athlete. In truth, endurance riding was one of the easiest wilderness challenges (physically speaking) that I was engaged in at the time.
I also noticed that, for whatever reason ~ advancing age, cumulative injuries, chronic illness, family responsibilities ~ a lot of riders made it through distance events on grit and knowledge, despite an absence of noteworthy fitness.
That's not a moral judgment; it's just a fact. And it made me consider: If someone who doesn't especially condition herself can do as well or better than a fit person in the same event, then simple participation in that event does not make me an athlete.
Back in my "exerciser" days, I was reasonably fit. But I didn't intentionally train to improve my physical stamina and skill to better engage in sport. I wasn't an athlete yet.
On the flip side, one of the athletes I respect most, ultra runner Tommy Rivers Puzey, recently spent months in a hospital bed, enduring a grueling race against a rare cancer. He could scarcely open his eyes, let alone run, but he was an athlete still.
That said, I think it's fair to say that fitness and athleticism do tend to correlate, especially over time. An athlete may not appear fit at a particular moment, but he or she will usually manifest change in that direction as months or years go by.
Indeed, this sport is special because it allows non-athletes of all ages to play a thrilling, glorious, risky, challenging game. It is a gift from the horses, really, that most of us cherish and none of us deserve.
But what if you do want to approach riding as an athlete? What does that look like? What does it mean? What would it cost, and what might you gain?
We equestrians have a way of getting prickly about the physical demands of our sport. We brag to our officemates about pushing wheelbarrows and hefting oats. I've even heard riders compare posting 25 miles to doing squats for hours at a time. (To that one, I'm just going to say it: If you really believe that, sister, you're either posting wrong or you're squatting wrong, or both.)
Ouch. I know. Ouch.
I'm not saying that endurance riding isn't hard. It is. It takes knowledge, persistence, and courage. Riding 100 miles in a single day hurts like hell. But I'll bet it doesn't hurt like doing about any other sport for the same length of time. (Except maybe golf. Or baseball.)
Hell, I'm middle-aged, short, and about as genetically average as it's possible to be. I can't imagine running or swimming or rowing or sailing or cycling or climbing for 20 hours straight. But even I can ride that long.
Being an athletic rider means that I eat well, I sleep lots, and I cross-train hard. Hard enough to build my body, my character, my feel. Hard enough to honor the effort with which my horse honors me.
I run for my horse. I lift for my horse. I stretch and fuel and recover so that I can be there for him ~ really be there ~ in the dark hour on the mountain when it's just the two of us surging over unseen trail, my hands in his mane and his body in my mind, melting together into a single, sweat-soaked creature that is worthy of being called Us.
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Did you ever get up from a chair or reach for a dropped object and think, "Damn, I'm moving like my grandmother?"
Yeah. Me too.
My joint mobility is actually pretty good. (Ignore the ice pack on my knee. Really. It's just and old ski injury that flares up on occasion.) My real battle is with posterior chain muscle tension. It shows up most in my hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
This is particularly noticeable after a long or fast run, or when I increase the weight on my back squats or deadlifts. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to ignore it until it gets quite bad. Why do I do that?
I explored that question as I was doing Stacy Westfall's 5 Steps to Blow Your Own Mind exercise (podcast episode 159). One of the steps is to list the reasons you haven't achieved a particular result before now.
#4 is, admittedly, more of a time commitment. Yoga makes a massive difference in how well I feel, not to mention how well I ride. 25 minutes is shorter than most of my runs, so it takes my running slot on non-running days and I still come out ahead. (Also, goodness no, I don't have time to drive to a yoga studio! I use the Down Dog app.)
One more thing: I'm making a point of getting to my chiropractor/soft tissue guy at least monthly. Not only is the regular maintenance good for injury prevention, but it helps keep those old twinges (ahem, knee, ahem) under control.
That's it! Habit formation is underway, and I plan to end this year feeling better than when I started. How about you?
Dr. Aaron Horschig of Squat University demonstrates his quick shoulder warmup
Movement Enhanced demonstrates a deep squat with thoracic rotation exercise
Adam Schafer of Mind Pump explains how to perform a 90/90 hip stretch
Free Printable Quick Mobility Flow and Muscle Activation Warmup Sheets
Sixteen inches of snow fell on my farm over the weekend. They turned my regular farm chores into a sweaty affair involving trudging through drifts with armloads of hay, swapping out horse blankets bedazzled with icicles, and digging out the truck in case of veterinary emergency.
In this weather, everything is harder and takes longer. Chore time winches up from ten minutes to half an hour. Eventually, I stomp back into the mudroom, dragging my coat and brushing damp hair back under my beanie… and go change into my workout gear.
What is it that compels me to maintain official workouts even when daily life offers exercise aplenty? What, in my nerdy little brain, separates "workouts" from "general activity?"
For me, this is different from general activity.
Now, general activity can certainly confer the benefits of physical exercise. It’s arguably the most natural way to stay fit. Just doing stuff – trudging up hills, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying posts, digging holes, heaving feed bags – it all makes me stretch and strengthen, bumps up my heart rate from time to time. What’s not to love?
I’ve certainly dragged inside after some exhausting days of building fence. I’ve enjoyed putting my feet up after riding a tough 50. At these times, I may consider myself to have gotten plenty of physical activity, but I don’t credit myself with a workout.
Splitting hairs? Probably. But I find value in the distinction.
On a related note, as beneficial as general activity is, very few of us do enough of it. I often hear riders claim they don’t need to work out because they get their exercise taking care of their horses. After all, just feeding and grooming and paddock scooping earns them more steps than your average Joanne!
I’ll grant you that. But is Average Joanne the right benchmark? “Average” these days is pre-diabetic with chronic back pain and mood swings. I don’t want to be average.
I could probably maintain reasonable health on farm chores and a decent diet. I could certainly still ride long distances. People do it all the time! But I wouldn’t get any better. You know what Henry Ford said: Do what you’ve always done, and you’ll get what you’ve always got.
I want more. So, for me, general activity – even when it gets an extra boost from snowfall or unexpected groundwork with a frisky pony – is only a baseline. I’ll spin and run and lift my way up from there.
All the best riders I know make their own fitness a priority. Can you be a distance rider without working out? Yes. You can be a knowledgeable horseman and get your horse fit and make it through 50 or 75 or 100 miles. But will you be the best rider you can be?
What do you think? What is a workout? Is there a different definition that works better for you?
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Despite its challenges, nothing could have been better for my personal fitness than this pandemic.
Working from home saves me about 90 minutes of commuting. By the time I add that to my usual workout allotment, I can put in over 2 hours of gym time most days ~ especially while winter keeps her thumb on my riding opportunies.
Since our new treadmill arrived in early December, I've found myself on an unusually cardio-heavy binge. Don't get me wrong: I still believe that strength training is queen, especially as we age. Nevertheless, I have really been digging the cardio.
The great thing about having extra time is that I've allowed my usually-overzealous mind to settle into a very gradual building phase, particularly in the running department. I've been a casual runner since undergrad: did a half-marathon once, incorporated hill sprints for HIIT, enjoyed some trail runs.
Over the last year, though, I've battled foot pain courtesy of bunions, flat feet, and (my podiatrist informed me in a frustrated tone) longish toes. Seriously? Yeah. Apparently, my toes are long enough to place extra burden on my already-taxed forefeet. Awesome.
Anyway, orthotics are helping. I've spent the past two months reintroducing running to my repertoire...veeeeeery gradually. By "gradually, I mean that I started with one-minute jog, one-minute walk intervals and took 8 whole weeks working up to 40 minutes at a 12-minute mile pace.
Not fast. Not impressive. But right where I needed to be.
As I walked and jogged, day after day, Rivs talked about systems and structures. Our systems are things like respiration and circulation; our structures are our muscles, tendons, and bones. Both need to be brought along slowly enough that we don't injure our weaker bits because the rest of our components feel strong.
You know what? It feels fantastic. I love the exhilaration of stepping with confidence onto a foundation that was built slowly enough to be solid. Feeling my lungs and muscles burn with effort, not with pain. Layering capacity on those systems, those structures, one tough workout at a time.
Of course, I never complete a single run ~ nope, not a single one ~ without the horses on my mind. Their turn is coming. Spring lies just beneath the four inches of snow that fell last night. I can feel it.
I've been spending time with my new mare lately, touching up her feet and lunging her a bit in the round corral. She has the foamy sweat of a seasonal pasture potato, but the energy of a spring wind. It would be so easy to climb astride and ride too fast, too far, too soon.
I'm grateful to have the benefits of long, slow distance freshly drilled into my brain. In the coming weeks, all the hard workouts will be for me. My mare will get the easy ones, week by week, until what once seemed hard is nothing at all, and what once seemed impossible is only a stretch away.
It’s February already! How are your 2021 goals coming along?
We all know how common it is for early enthusiasm to wane in the face of everyday life. Ambitions bow to apathy, and soon we find ourselves saying, Well, I’ll start on that next Monday. Or next month. Or next year.
And yet, some people manage to do great things. Whatever “great” means. They lose 50 pounds, ride 100s, raise kids on their own, finish triathlons, write books, recover from illness, step away from the rat race, master public speaking.
“Great things” are the things that matter to us, as individuals. Are we making them happen? Today, are we doing something to make them happen?
Like Rivs, I’m a big fan of process goals.
Want to get that challenging filly trained? Spend some time with her every day – even if you can’t ride, at least get out there and pick up her feet an whisper in her ear.
Want to run a 10k? Lace up your shoes and go outside – any pace, any distance – just get out there. Everything counts.
Want to lose bodyfat? Choose to cook salmon instead of ordering takeout tonight. Not for the rest of your life, but just tonight.
If you’ve fallen off the wagon on some of your 2021 goals, so what? Hop back on. Zoom in from the end goal to the process. Doing something hard doesn’t mean every step needs to hurt.
Today is the day to replace inertia with momentum: Just do something. Then, keep doing that.
The only key is consistency.
My goal, whether standing or riding, is to be able to draw a straight line down through my ear, shoulder, hip, and ankle. The overall picture should be balanced and relaxed, not forced. This will minimize strain on my muscles, joints, and connective tissue. Not only will it look good, but it will minimize injury risk and fatigue both today and over the long haul.
The problem is that my lifestyle bears the hallmarks of modernity. I work at a desk, commute 45 minutes each way, lounge on a sofa, and spend way too much time staring down at a laptop or phone.
Posture Impacts Our Health and Our Horses
Unfortunately for me, the research is clear: Poor posture has a detrimental impact on health.
The unnatural strain that slouching puts on our spines can lead to chronic back pain and even degenerative disc disease. Lopsided musculature throws joint alignment out of whack, as well as leading to inflexibility and lousy balance. Slouching even interferes with digestion and breathing!
If that isn't enough motivation, consider what dressage rider and coach Gina Allen says about how rider posture impacts our horses:
"The hunched or rounded upper back, known as “kyphosis”, is a common postural problem. It can inhibit breathing, interfere with digestion, and cause tremendous stress to the discs between the vertebral segments of the thoracic spine. All this offers little support to your equine partner and often results in pushing him onto the forehand. Stretching through the front (anterior) chest muscles and strengthening the mid-upper back muscles can help correct this problem as long as the kyphosis is not too advanced.
Exercises to Correct Posture for Riding and Life
When I got the wake-up call from Mr. Sweaty's photo, my initial inclination was to hitch back my shoulders and stand up straight...and somehow remember to keep doing that day after day. I quickly realized, however, that there must be a better way. So, I did some reading.
It didn't take much googling on the subject to remind me of the highly-relevant fact that our muscle groups are designed to work in pairs: Quadriceps along the front of the leg balance hamstrings along the back of the leg, biceps work in opposition to triceps, and so on.
Fixing this takes both stretching out the shortened muscles on the strong side and strengthening the muscles on the opposing weak side. Here's the plan I've selected to target my own weaknesses: upper back slouch, forward-thrust neck, and lower back pain:
It's not as much as it sounds like, because several of those moves are already built into my regular workouts and yoga. However, getting all the stretching and strengthening in does take some extra intentionality.
This is a good time to remember not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Even if you just pick one stretch and one strengthening exercise to target your problem area, you'll be miles ahead of where you'd end up if you took no action at all.
Building Habits to Improve Your Posture
Building new habits tends to work best when we hitch the new habits to existing ones.
This can take the form of adding the new habit to something you already do: Every time you brush your teeth, do a stretch and a strength exercise.
Or, take this opportunity to replace a less desirable habit: Every time you get the urge to check social media, do chin tucks instead. (I actually do this. It works.)
I also use a plain old timer system during the work day: Every 55 minutes, my phone alarm goes off. That's my cue to spend five minutes greasing the groove (get your mind out of the gutter, people -- it's pullups, chinups, and pushups) or doing a few stretches and exercises to target my posture.
As your physique gets more balanced, all you have to do is remember to apply it in the saddle. Again, try tying the habit to something you do anyway: Every time you see a ribbon or change diagonals, check in with your posture.
Your health, and your horse, will thank you.
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In last week's post about Building Muscle after 40, I mentioned that I need to pay more attention to protein intake. I had the feeling that it's been lower than optimal -- which is apparently the case for the majority of us looking to gain muscle and lose fat.
4 Reasons to Consume Optimal (not just adequate) Protein
Protein is satiating. Not only is protein essential for human life, it is also deeply satisfying. Eating additional protein keeps us feeling full, automatically pushing out lower-value foods like starches and sugars and reducing the urge to snack.
Increased protein consumption combined with resistance training is the optimal formula, but even dietary protein alone helps minimize sarcopenia (muscle loss) as we age. What horse doesn't want a leaner, stronger rider?
Protein stabilizes blood sugar. Protein doesn't rapidly drive up insulin or lead to a sugar crash like carbohydrates notoriously do. Instead, it can have a hormonal effect that actually reduces anxiety. This means that it offers not only sustained energy, but also improved focus and mood: just what we need to pilot our horses over many miles of trail. No more getting hangry on the third loop!
Protein promotes recovery. Injury recovery, I mean. Next time we take a fall or get our feet stepped on, we'd be wise to ramp up our dietary protein to supply extra building blocks for rapid tissue repair. Protein is good for injury prevention, too, contributing to stronger bones, connective tissue, and even immune response.
How Much Protein is Optimal?
This is not an easy question to answer. A bit of googling will find suggestions all over the map. After much reading (both lately and over the past decade), I've landed on two, solid recommendations:
One gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. This is an extremely common recommendation in the athletic realm. It is sometimes modified to refer to one gram of protein per pound of lean bodyweight (a calculation for which you need to know your bodyfat percentage in order to subtract out the corresponding pounds) or one gram of protein per pound of ideal bodyweight (useful particularly for those who are very overweight).
Since I'm pretty lean, but would like to get leaner while also building muscle, the plain-Jane version is a good baseline for me. I weigh 125 pounds, so that puts my target protein intake at 125 grams per day.
How to Eat More Protein
Now that I have the math out of the way, it's time to actually put something on my plate. For all its benefits, protein isn't the most convenient macronutrient to consume. I'll need to be intentional about getting enough. Here's my plan:
Don't skip breakfast. Because protein is so satiating, it's hard to pack adequate consumption into less than a full day. I find that if I don't start with a high protein breakfast, I won't be able to make up for it later.
Don't skip lunch. Protein really does keep my energy level steady. As a result, it's all too easy to motor along after high protein breakfast, completely forgetting to get more grams in at lunchtime. Once again, though, skipping a meal means I don't hit my target for the day.
Eat protein first. If protein is a priority, it makes sense to give it first dibs on stomach space. Doing so has the bonus effect of curbing any tendency to overeat because our brains have time to register that we're full before we pack in those starchy sides or sugary desserts.
Plan ahead. This one is huge. I have to make sure I buy enough proteins during my weekly grocery trip, pre-cook some of them for later convenience, and have protein-centric recipes in mind to keep me interested.
Choose appealing foods. Speaking of planning, there's the obvious question of what proteins to eat. The basics are obvious: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and some plants (kind of). Naturally, everyone is going to prefer some sources over others.
Personally, I'm not a huge fan of eggs and although I do okay on dairy, I suspect it isn't the ideal source of protein for the majority of people. (Lactose intolerance is common, and the hormonal response dairy provokes can promote bodyfat gain.)
Here are some ideas I'm trying out:
I'm keeping my eyes open for new, high-protein recipes. With any luck, some of them will appear in my next Recipe Roundup. Got suggestions? Drop them in the comments!
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Mr. Sweaty and I have been talking about the X22i treadmill for over a year. We have its bicycle cousin, and between us, we spin its little magnetic-resistance wheel dizzy.
Both the bike and the treadmill are those NordicTrack machines with the iFit membership capability -- you know, where they have virtual trainers to take you on runs or rides all over the world (or in studios). It sounds corny, but I do work harder with the app than I would on my own. Mr. Sweaty especially likes having indoor options for working out on our hottest, coldest, wettest, and windiest days.
Hence, yesterday's delivery of a very big box:
NordicTrack isn't offering assembly right now, due to COVID. It took the two of us (and let me tell you, it does take two!) about two hours to unwrap and piece together our new toy. That's not bad, considering I had to move the entire contents of our gym out of the way and back again.
Now, there's nothing left to do but run!
I've been an off-and-on runner since I was 20. Trail running is my favorite, but I did a street half-marathon in about 2002. Mr. Sweaty, meanwhile, has run a bunch of halfs and one full marathon, and is faster than me to boot. He puts in a lot more miles than I ever will.
Cardio is not my strong suit. I consider myself more of a strength athlete. The truth is, while 23andMe claims my muscles produce a certain protein that makes me better at power than endurance, I'm not exactly destined for the Olympics in either category.
But, I have a goal for 2021: I want to do a Spartan race. That means I have to run. At a minimum, I should be able to do 5 miles at a decent clip in order to be prepared for race day. I've no idea when that will be, but as running is a weak point, I want to start training now. (First I need to get some foot pain dealt with, but that's a post for another day.)
Hey, a girl can dream.
Anyway, our garage gym is re-assembled and ready for use. Zoom zoom!
How about you? What are you doing to stay fit during this COVID winter?
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My body and I are having a disagreement: It is forty-two and thinks that's an excuse to not be in its thirties. I beg to disagree.
A lot of good that's doing me.
Here's the thing: I have been "the fitness type" for a very long time. Having maintained the basics with casual running since college, I got serious about strength training in about 2006. I started with bodyweight work. Within a year, I'd added a home gym complete with barbell, dumbells, pull-up bar, and bench. Within 3 years, I had kettlebells, a weighted vest, a wellness library, and some pretty respectable muscle mass.
Fast forward to now: My home gym is further tricked out with a power cage, second barbell, box jump, spin bike, and yoga mat. I use them all pretty religiously. Between late December 2019 and mid-July 2020, I worked out every single day. For something like 186 days.
And yet...and yet. My muscle mass isn't what it used to be. I can tell that I'm not as strong, both when I do "real things," and when I look in the mirror.
Part of me says that's a normal part of aging. Everyone has a harder time holding onto muscle (let alone gaining) as they get older. Sarcopenia is a thing. I'm lucky to have a solid fitness base that keeps me motoring along pretty well. I'm even luckier to have a partner who doesn't labor under the delusion that a woman's value rests upon her appearance.
However. Another part of me won't give up that easily.
It turns out that I wasn't imagining things. There are good reasons that what worked well for me a decade ago just isn't ideal anymore. There's a lot of overlap, of course. Most of the tried-and-true principles still apply. But, I can do quite a few things differently to maximize my muscle gains in (gasp!) middle age:
1. Increase Muscular Effort while Decreasing Injury Risk
With age come nagging injuries that persist longer than they did when we were young. I'm almost always tiptoeing around a touchy elbow, wrist, sacroiliac joint, or knee. If I waited for everything to feel perfect before embarking on a muscle-gain effort, I'd never get off the sofa. That said, max lift attempts aren't as appealing as they used to be.
Traditionally, most athletes build muscle by incrementally increasing the amount of weight they're lifting. Working out while avoiding injury means challenging muscles in other ways. The word on on the street is that these methods are as effective -- or nearly as effective -- as stacking on the plates.
2. Commit to Consistency
Back before COVID, I was at a backyard party chatting with a guy who was mid-50s, lean, and ripped. He commented that the biggest factor in staying fit as he got older was consistency. Unlike in his younger years, he couldn't expect to miss workouts without losing ground.
Even in my early 40s, I can attest that not only is it harder to build muscle than it used to be, but I lose it more quickly when I step off the wagon. As I overhaul my workout schedule to focus more on muscle growth, I'll be making sure that each muscle group gets worked 2-3 times per week.
3. Eat More Protein
Across many years and many sources, I have consistently been reminded of the importance of protein for muscle growth, especially with increasing age. Recommendations generally range from 1 gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. The latter is hard to pull off, but it's what I'm shooting for. This will take some planning!
4. Emphasize Mobility
Oh yeah. I know. We all know. Our tissues lose elasticity, old injuries form mental and physical scars, and we lose range of motion as we age. This makes us more prone to injury, which impacts our workout consistency, which invites sarcopenia in for a beer. I'll admit that mobility work isn't my strong suit. It always feels less productive than doing a solid workout, and it takes a lot of time. But, if I want to see gains, I'm going to have to commit to more intentional mobility work and better warmups.
Knowing may be half the battle, but it's only half.
I know what I need to do. Now, it's time to put it into action. I'm going to spend some time this week overhauling my workout calendar and menu planning for extra protein.
How about you? Do you ever get the feeling that whatever you've been doing just isn't working anymore? Maybe it's time to make some changes...and make some change.
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Years ago (twelve? fourteen? too many!) I visited a middle school with a robust physical education program. Gesturing toward a whiteboard on which students' athletic stats were tracked, the gym teacher asked, "How many pullups can you do?"
Erm... I was there for work interests, not personal ones, but apparently my reputation as a "fitness type" had preceded me. The teacher's face was expectant. Of course I could do pullups.
Except, I couldn't.
I could, however, artfully dodge the question. It stuck with me, though, and that very afternoon, I set out to correct my deficiency.
I can't remember now how long it took me to get my first dead-hang pullup, but I can tell you this: I vowed then and there that I would never not be able to do pullups again. There's something undeniably empowering about them -- especially for women. (Here's a great video if you want to learn how.)
I've kept that vow for over a decade. I've gone through phases of doing exactly zero pullups for months at a time, but I've never lost the ability. Those dry stretches take a toll on capacity, though.
Take now, for instance. Since riding couple 50's at Top o' the World this summer, I've really slacked off my formal workouts. I'm feeling pretty wimpy. Ugh. Time to get my pull-up count back up!
To do it, I'm dragging out an old technique that I've used off and on over the years: Greasing the Groove.
Greasing the Groove is a term coined by Pavel -- you know, the guy who popularized kettlebells in the West -- in his book Power to the People. Basically, it involves repeating a movement frequently, but at a weight and number of repetitions that fall well short of your maximum capacity. The idea is to strengthen neural pathways, essentially training the body to perform the movement efficiently.
GtG is usually used for bodyweight work like pullups and pushups, not least because it isn't terribly convenient to get yourself to a barbell several times a day. The simplest version is to simply do the exercise periodically throughout the day, but only at 40-50% of your max number of reps. The goal is to build neuro-muscular connections, remember, not muscle per se.
Some people do their reps every hour, on the hour. Back before the house fire, I had a pullup bar in my main bathroom doorway (ah, the benefits of living alone) and did a few pullups every time I went pee.
This time, I'm going to try a new routine that builds GtG into my work-from-home weekdays. It's minimal, as GtG goes, but it's manageable. (In my world, not realistic = not done, so this will have to do!)
Here's the plan:
I generally work at my desk for 50 minutes, then take a 10 minute break. Each of my first three breaks will begin with GtG. My schedule makes sure I do each movement at least 3x per day, 3x per week.
Day 1: Pullups and pushups
Day 2: Pullups and chinups
Day 3: Chinups and pushups
Day 4: Pullups and pushups
Day 5: Chinups and pushups
What about max sets? Those are important too, but I'm handing them separately from GtG. They're a whole different concept that I'll work into my overall workout schedule.
The plan goes into action today. Wish me luck!
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In today's cacophony of fitness and nutrition discourse, we're all choosing who is worth listening to. This is especially true when it comes to bloggers like me, who are informed aficionados rather than trained experts. I am decidedly average in terms of athletic ability -- and maybe a notch above average as a home cook -- but optimal health has been one of my passions for over two decades.
This introduction to How I Think About Fitness, together with its companion, How I Think About Food, is intended to lay out my philosophy on the subject. I don't mind if you disagree; I just want you to know where I'm coming from so you can decide whether you want to follow along. I'd love it if you do.
Fitness is Choices
I once heard fitness defined as the difference between the most you can do and the least you can do. When there is no difference, you're dead. I want that difference to be big. Huge! Expansive enough that I can say yes to any adventure: climbing mountains, descending canyons, running rivers, riding Tevis, traveling the world.
When I talk about fitness, I'm talking about maximizing my ability to truly, broadly, fully live.
Fitness is a Privilege
Several years ago, I experienced depression for the first time. Having always enjoyed an underlying sense of well-being, I was disquieted to find myself overwhelmed by the knowledge that, before I die, I will (probably) lose everything I care about: my family, my partner, my horses, my pets, my home, my strength, my mobility, perhaps even my mind.
I'm in a better place now, thankfully. Physical exercise helped me through the dark, back to gratitude and presence. It remains true that my body will eventually fail. Days will come when I can do less and less, and finally nothing at all.
But for now, I can run fast and climb hills and lift heavy objects. The more I do these things, the longer I'll be able to. Fitness is a privilege I don't intend to waste.
Fitness is an Obligation
I believe that, as an endurance rider, I am a member of a team. I have a responsibility to support my horse. That means having the flexibility to mount smoothly, the stamina to ride with balance and focus for many hours, the ability to walk many miles back to camp if my partner comes up lame.
My Fitness Biases
I have no formal training in exercise physiology, kinesiology, or biomechanics. I'm just a longtime consumer of information that has led me to a set of well-founded biases. These are subject to change based on additional evidence, but for now, I operate on these baseline assumptions:
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Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. This blog explores the mental, physical, and technical aspects of being a better horseman, athlete, and human.
The Sweaty Equestrian