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, Tommy 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.
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. I believe that how I eat and move impacts not only how I ride, but how I think and feel. This blog is about the practice of being my best self for my horse. I hope you'll come along for the ride. ~ Tamara
The Sweaty Equestrian