Remembering that this is supposed to be fun

Heads up: I get personal in this post.  I’ll be returning to your regularly scheduled dose of fit-feminist ranting, but first, I gotta get this off my chest.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that my husband was stressing out over his training for an upcoming half-Ironman.  He had jumped right into it with little rest after the Marathon Bahamas, and he was having difficulty getting his training to the levels it should have been.  We were talking about this, and I reminded him that all of this is supposed to be fun, that we aren’t professionals, and that we do this for the fun of it.  When it stops being fun, I said, it’s a sign that we need to re-evaluate our priorities and the way we are doing things. He ended up taking my advice and dropping the half-Ironman down to an Olympic distance, the training for which has been a lot more manageable.

A couple of days ago, I found myself on the other side of this conversation.  I had been training harder in all three disciplines, had taken up a new weight training program, had started even counting my calories in an attempt to lose some body fat, all of which I hoped would help make me a leaner, meaner racer.  I managed to keep it all going for a couple of weeks before it came crashing down on me, and I found myself scarcely capable of more than laying on the couch in my pajamas, staring slack-jawed at whatever screen was in front of me.

“Remember what you told me,” he said, as he watched me enter my dinner into the calorie-counting app, “about how all of this is supposed to be fun?”

I was losing perspective, and in the process forgetting what it was that drew me to all of this in the first place.  I was forgetting that I did all of this – that I lifted weights, that I ran, that I swam, that I experimented with making food – because I enjoyed it, because it made me feel good, because it was fun.

This all became clear on Saturday morning, when I was standing in the starting corral before the Suncoast Classic 10K.  It had been a few months since I had raced, and it was slightly surreal to look around me and see a lot of familiar faces from my racing community.  I didn’t really feel nervous, even though Brian said he wanted us to shoot for a PR because I knew I’d spent the past several days being totally lazy and eating all sorts of delicious processed garbage and generally doing everything you wouldn’t expect of an athlete in training.  Instead, I just figured I’d run hard and see what happened.

Then the warning horn sounded and we were off.  The morning was cold and drizzly – perfect conditions for running – and once I got free of some slower runners ahead of me, I fell into a rhythm that was just ahead of the goal pace.  The cold air and water chilled my thighs and my face, and made me feel alive and excited to be running.   I paid attention to the way my body felt, to each step and to each swing of my arm, to the other runners, to everyone and everything I saw around me.  It was marvelous.  At the halfway point, I said to myself, Yes! This is why you do this, because you love the way this feels, because it makes you feel so good, because it is so much fun to run like a kid in the rain.  Don’t you ever, ever forget this.

We ended up not only getting our PR but also coming really close to breaking a long-standing goal, but you know, even if that hadn’t happened, I still would have felt good about the race anyway, if only because of that moment of clarity I had somewhere around mile three.

Since then, I’ve been doing some serious soul-untangling, trying to figure out how I had lost my athletic spark so quickly.  It’s complicated and multifaceted, and I’m sure I haven’t been able to grasp everything that’s going on yet, but I will try to lay it out for you:

  • I had underestimated just how discouraged I was by my inability to break four hours in the marathon.  I had trained my ass off for that race and yet I was totally thwarted by something beyond my control: the heat, the sunshine, the lack of shade.  (Of course, there is a part of me, the part of me that always second-guesses myself after a race, that says I’m just being a chump and that if I’d wanted it bad enough I could have had it.)  I’m also frustrated by the difficulty I have with the marathon distance, as I feel like someone who can run the times I run at all other distances should be capable of much faster times.
  • I sometimes still have a hard time with the fact that I don’t “look like a runner.”  This, despite the fact that I have written about it extensively, that I know that “looking like a runner” is kind of a bullshit thing, and that recreational runners come in all shapes and sizes.  During the 10k I caught glimpses of myself in the storefront windows and my only thought was, holy shit I look like a lumbering beast.  This is also why I hate race photos.  I feel pretty good about myself as a runner, as long as I don’t see what I look like when I run.  I know that I can’t do anything about my height, but I figured I could do something about my body fat percentage….
  • …which led me to start spending a lot of time lurking in online forums for fitness-minded women.  Problem is, most of what I found was aimed at women who do fitness and figure competitions.  These are women who are interested in leaning out and ensuring their muscles have good symmetry and basically crafting their bodies in what I consider to be a performance art of sorts.  These are not goals I share, but it didn’t keep me from absorbing some of the things I was reading, and while some of that information was great, other bits of information was….well…let’s just say that I had a real moment of clarity when I realized I was reading an argument about whether it’s better to drink water before eating or during eating if you are trying to lose fat.  But I realized I was definitely internalizing a lot of what I was reading and seeing: all of those lean, glistening bodies, that fat-shaming fitspo, the glorification of suffering and pain in the pursuit of physical perfection.
  • I’d started tracking my food in an attempt to get a grasp on my nutrition, and while it was informative at first, I soon found myself thinking about food more than I cared to.  I have no real history of disordered eating – aside from a few instances of stress-induced “bulimia” – but I could easily see how thinking about calories and macronutrients and targets and grams of protein and meal-timing and fasting and blah blah blah…I could see how all of that could spiral out of control very quickly.
  • I had not really taken a break after the marathon.  I let my legs heal and then I was back at work, getting in the pool and on my bike.  Plus, I had bought a house and moved into it over the holiday break and I had not taken any time off from my job while doing this.  I was basically running on fumes already when I decided that I was going to undertake my plan to become the Best Athlete Ever!  In a way, I suppose I’m grateful that I was already so close to empty because it meant I crashed out a lot sooner than I would have had I been well-rested and fully energized.  So I was basically running at an energy deficit, which was not only affecting my training but also my work (hello, mistake city!)
  • I was taking myself waaay too seriously.  I am a freaking hobby jogger who does triathlon during the summer for fun, and there is not a damn thing wrong with that.  Sure, I would like to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon, but if that doesn’t happen, big deal.  No one is really going to care but me, you know?  It’s okay to do this stuff for fun.

There’s a common theme to all of these things, which is that I basically went against the principles I had developed over the past several years.  I cared too much about what my body looked like, even though my body was doing more than I ever thought it was capable of doing.  I willingly consumed media that made me feel like shit and contributed to bad mental habits.  My motivation was no longer positive (fun, pleasure) and had instead become negative (fat loss, changing my body.)

In short, I was doing much of what I had railed against, even though I knew better.  I guess I thought of it as an experiment of sorts, and that I was grounded enough in my body-positive principles that I could try different things – things that went against my principles – and still be okay.  I don’t know if I think that’s the case anymore.

But you know, it goes to show just how fucking tricky all of this is, and how insidious it is, too, that even a lady like me, who spends a huge chunk of her time thinking about ways to make sports and fitness more of a positive and inclusive experience for all people, can find herself susceptible to this kind of damaging thinking.  It’s everywhere – in the mass media we consume, in the fitness media we seek out, in the conversations we have, in the messages we implicitly absorb when listening to other people talk.

So yeah, this is where I’m at now, a bit humbled, a bit chastened, with a lighter RSS reader and a smaller selection of Facebook pages on my wall.  But I’m also feeling more like myself again, more excited about running and training, more excited about everything, and that, my friends is, a pretty good way to feel.

25 responses to “Remembering that this is supposed to be fun

  1. This is a fantastic post! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m in my first trimester of pregnancy, training for a half- marathon (it was to be my second marathon) and I’ve been so down about the way my body looks, my inability to compete in the same way, and the constraints on my body. I was initially excited about the fact that I can exercise during my pregnancy, but I’ve quickly grown distressed by how many of my body issues have followed me. It’s hard because those glossy images don’t leave you when you enter a new phase of working out- the pregnant models are still super healthy looking (and unbloated, what the heck!) and you feel like if you don’t look like that, you’re totally doing something wrong. This post really helps me put into perspective how happy I should be to be able to do anything physical during this process. We should all be more grateful for what our bodies can actually do!

  2. I like all your bigger, meta, political thinking of course, but just an FYI that some of us like hearing about you as a person and athlete too!

    But of course you got swept up in that kind of thinking. It’s all around us. I’m pretty impervious to it for an American woman and I still get rattled by negative self-talk when I’m around too many people with too many body-negative things to say. That’s why I hate that the gym community of women assume all other women are body negative and say things like “come on, ladies, this is fat burning!” or “let’s work off those Christmas cookies!” during Spin class or something.

    I’m there to get faster and stronger and I 100% DON’T care about the cookies I ate. Stop.

    • I hate those people too, and I always correct them / let them know I don’t equate my exercise (which I do for enjoyment, fitness and strength) against my food (which I eat for, you know, FOOD, to help me be alive and shit*. And, of course, for enjoyment also,)

      (*the “and shit” was meant metaphorically, but, well, it works both ways!!)

  3. I think it is so hard to work out for non-aesthetic reasons, but I think it is something we should do or at least try to do. Media and pictures = my two enemies this weekend.

    • It really can be so hard, and I’ve found that limiting the kind of images/media I’m exposed to helps keep me focused on myself and not on societal ideals. Of course, it also helps when I don’t actively seek that junk out. Bah.

  4. There must be something going on with the planets…Or something. Whatever it is, I’ve been thinking entirely too much about calories and body fat and blahblahblah. I just want to run, and have fun, and feel good.

    Congratulations on regaining your perspective.

    • Maybe they should redefine Mercury retrograde to include something about people’s body images getting all out of whack. Hope you can shake the thinking soon.

  5. Caitlin, Thanks so much for your insights. I find something that hits a nerve each time I read your blog, especially in regards to goals, fitness and self-image.

    It might be useful in another blog to expand on the bulimia comment above. When I read: “I have no real history of disordered eating – aside from a few instances of stress-induced bulimia – but I could easily see how thinking about calories and macronutrients and targets and grams of protein and meal-timing and fasting and blah blah blah…I could see how all of that could spiral out of control very quickly.” I felt shocked–because bulimia is Serious, even if its only a instances. But then I wondered if it was instead to describe how nerves can upset the body. I admit the phrasing sounded almost blase in regards to a very scary and complicated topic.

    Anyway, thanks for the reminder to keep it fun. I needed it.

  6. I was feeling the same way recently, namely after joining Fitocracy after injuring myself and suddenly feeling sucked into serious self-loathing. I wanted it to give me good tips on gaining muscle but it only made me start counting calories and lamenting that my stomach doesn’t look cut and I had a breakdown similar to yours. The only thing that pulled me back was trading Fitocracy in for a book on running, so I could appreciate what running gives me. I’m glad you’re getting excited again, too.

  7. All of this.

    I have been beating myself up because I haven’t been keeping up training (triathlon and weights) despite MS and the snow and the fact that I’m traveling 50% of the time for work. I woke up yesterday morning in a Courtyard Marriott thinking what a crying shame it was that not one day in my adult life (>40 years, probably) has gone by without me thinking at some point about how fat I am.

  8. Such a good post! And one I definitely relate to. I suspect that I would run better if I were at a lower weight, but I am too committed to my happiness/mental health/etc. to actually make any changes to (possibly, and probably temporarily) make that happen. I try to stay committed to intuitive eating (so no counting calories, and no cutting out food groups) but I have an internal dialogue in my head (which, unfortunately, has intensified as I’ve gotten faster) in which I imagine my coach pulling me aside and telling me that I would be faster… if…
    It’s such a tough line, especially when what’s potentially best for athlete-you isn’t the same as what’s best for you as a whole person.

    Matt Fitzgerald has some stuff in his book “Run: The mind-body method to running by feel” about how important it is to train happy. Apparently we learn better, and are more likely to improve, when we’re doing something we enjoy. He actually suggests working in the type of workouts that are likely to make you happy and/or increase your confidence, whether or not they’re physiologically beneficial, just because of how important it is to be happy with your training. I think that there’s probably something to it, and I think it applies to how one approaches placing running in the context of your life. Some days I know I have taken an unscheduled rest day, just because I am tired/not feeling it, and if I place too much emphasis on following a schedule rather than how I am feeling, I get resentful of the schedule and eventually resentful of running. I’ve learned that the benefits of squeezing in an extra six miles before work isn’t always worth it, especially when it’s 16 hours later, still at work, and desperately wishing you’d gotten that extra hour of sleep.

  9. I love your posts and your attitude! Is there anywhere on your blog that talks about you and your history of working out, exercising, etc.? Just wanting to know your backstory and how you got into working out, Thanks!

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  11. I happened upon your blog a few weeks ago when I finally decided to post my long sat-upon reflections on my own slippery slope experience of equating weight with health nirvana. I finally published my thoughts last week, and loved reading yours. It’s so true – it is all supposed to be fun, both the athletics and the food. And when we seek out new information it does lead to tricky situations that can take us off the fun train and where we don’t want to go. Thanks for sharing your reflections!

  12. I always like your personal posts.

    I can relate to this because like you, I am an uber competitive chick, and if I’m going to compete at something I am going to do absolutely EVERYTHING i can do to my absolute best. And that can get a little (a lot) obsessive. So the answer for me is to not compete, because I know I can’t do formal (even if they are casual) competitions and still retain the balance of being healthy and happy and doing it for fun. I wish I were one of those chicks that could do it but I’m just not.

  13. Thank you for your post!

    Since the beginning of February, I am suffering from a cold that just does not go away (I stayed another day home in bed today, mostly sleeping), and all these thoughts about how all my fitness must have gone away in this month, how I lost everything started creeping into my head. And they are not helping much.
    Your post helped me to remember why I go running. And this has nothing to do how fast I’ll be once I’ll start training again (a cold can’t last forever, can it?)

  14. This is a really great post because (as evidenced by all of these great comments), it shows how insidious the world of fitspo and its ilk are, even among people who are focused on performance first–I know I’ve felt the frustrations you listed above, and the most I expose myself to it are the obnoxious pins I see from friends on Pinterest and the occasional browsing of FitSugar and Yoga Journal as they have some decent yoga sequences I like to bookmark, but even now I have to be more judicious with what I expose myself to, you know?

    I shared this with my husband (he thought it was great, by the way) and he told me about how there’s this famous true story of a male bodybuilder who literally died on stage and that the guy who tried to revive him marveled at his lack of body fat.

  15. This amazing post prompted me to reevaluate fitness goals I set for myself at the beginning of this year. For nearly 2 years now, I’ve been learning to figure skate and doing weight training. I’m having a blast doing it, but my Dad’s death last fall threw me off for a few months. Wanting to get back to more consistent workouts, I set a goal of 3 skating sessions and 3 weightlifting sessions per week. Then I found that occasionally, I just want to take a day off – to rest, read a book, cuddle with my husband, whatever! But I felt as though I needed to “stick to the schedule” at all costs. I’m a perfectionist, and I told myself that missing a session, or even modifying my goals a bit, would mean I had failed.

    Then I took a hard look at what I was doing and realized “the schedule” wasn’t what mattered, but the consistency and pushing myself to do a bit better each time. I’m doing that whether I skate or lift weights two or three times per week.

    After all, I used to skate 45-60 minutes at a time, and now I’m out there for 70-90 minutes. My weight training used to take 40 minutes; now it takes an hour. I’m always pushing to improve my endurance and performance, and that has nothing to do with sticking to a rigid schedule.

    I will probably still do 3 workouts on most weeks, but I think allowing myself the occasional “sanity break” will help me continue to enjoy what I’m doing, rather than to wear myself out thinking you have to suffer to get fit.

  16. Yes, you identify (and experienced) a part of being human — consciously knowing something and ignoring it at the same time. Funny how we do that, but we do. We all do.

    I hope you continue to remind yourself of the (recreational) place running has in your life (and the unimportance of your appearance). Those are the right lessons, even if they’re hard to absorb when caught up in the discipline of serious effort.

  17. This really spoke to me because it took getting injured for me to remember why I loved running. I used to run in 90 degree temps in my crappy cotton clothes and was just happy to be healthy in the sun. Then, I discovered The Marathon and it started to become tedious. I wanted to run all the races my friends ran and rack up numbers. If they could do 2-4 marathons a year, why couldn’t I do at least 2? Then, I became almost angry about “having to run”. My times got slower and slower and eventually I ended up with a pretty bad hamstring strain (or tendonitis). I have had to slow down my pace quite a bit, but I’m still out there. Now I just want to run freely and happily and pain free. It’s been a LONG time since I felt that way and I hope to never take it for granted again (if I am lucky enough to get back to that place).

  18. This article really hit home. I’ve hit that funk as well – and I think the big part of it comes from my reasons for running! I used to run for fun, because it was awesome to push myself and to run in races, and to see how I could improve. Now I feel like I’m running/exercising to look good or for weight loss … it’s not so fun anymore. I definitely need to refocus my purpose. Thank you for sharing!

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