Cardio survival strategies

Over the past year I’ve made some major shifts in my approach to working out. Incorporating a weight lifting routine into my workouts has been eye opening – turns out I love barbells. Who knew?! I’m also seeing major changes in my body composition, which is super exciting.

But here’s what I’ve figured out: no matter how great the weights are treating me, I still need to keep cardio in my routine if I want to see the scale move in the right direction. And I hate cardio. So much. I love SoulCycle classes, but I’m already investing a hefty chunk of cash in my gym and Crossfit memberships, so it’s really hard to also swing SC on the regular. I try to save it for a treat class when I really feel like I need that particular brand of cardio catharsis.

So instead, I end up spending a LOT of time on stationary bikes and treadmills at my gym. Which is kind of the worst, to be honest. I have a very no-frills gym these days and there aren’t TVs at every machine, but I’m not really much of a TV person in the first place, so I wouldn’t use them even if they were there. I also can’t manage to flip pages on a magazine, no matter how many tempting copies of People and Us stare at me from the communal magazine rack. Instead, I’ve been trying to find some alternate ways to pass the time, and I figured I’d share the wealth with all three of you who regularly read this ole blog (thanks, guys. sorry I’m so boring.)

I wasn’t kidding about the magazine thing… flipping pages while on the treadmill inevitably ends up with me tripping over my own feet because I am just not coordinated enough to walk and move my arms at the same time. Texture solves that problem for me. This subscription service comes with a TON of magazines that you can download to your tablet to read, and flipping the page is as easy as tapping the screen (aka about all I can handle most days). The magazine selection is amazing and includes a lot of great content that I’m way too cheap to actually subscribe to (looking at you, New Yorker). I also love that it’s super easy to screen shot pages — I do this a lot when I’m reading food or cooking magazines, so that I have a quick reference to recipes for future kitchen experimentation. That link above will take you to a 14 day free trial, and from there it’s either $10 or $15 per month, depending on which level you choose (the more expensive level includes more magazine options). Honestly, this is my second most treasured monthly subscription service, after Spotify – I get a ton of use out of it and definitely feel like I’m getting a great value.

I also like to use my cardio time to indulge my love of trashy romance novels. Secret shame time – I will DEVOUR these horribly embarrassing books like it ain’t no thang. Thank you, Kindle, for making it possible to do this without any judgment from the people around me – for all they know I’m reading about Dickens instead of, well, dicks. (I’m not even sorry about that last one, I couldn’t help myself.) I never pay for these books – I rely on Bookbub to help me find free Kindle downloads so I can comfort myself in the knowledge that at least I didn’t spend any money on the trashy novels. Through Bookbub, you choose your favorite genre(s) for reading material and your preferred e-reader platform, and they send you a daily digest of free or deeply discounted books (think $3 or less). I mostly use it to stock up on free romance or detective novels, but I’ve also scored some bestsellers or less popular works by popular novelists for awesome prices.

There are definitely still days where reading on a treadmill is just more than I can handle, and on those days I turn to either audiobooks or podcasts. For Audiobooks, I use Audible; my favorites are memoirs that are read by the author, because it really just feels like they’re telling you a story. Rob Lowe’s first memoir is shockingly good, and it’s great to hear him tell stories about making The Outsiders or his time in the Brat Pack. I also downloaded Holly Madison’s autobiography and marathoned it during one recent drive to New York, though, so take my suggestions with a grain of salt – I will devour any and all pop culture.

Lately, though, I’ve been listening to podcasts nonstop, both during my cardio sessions and when I’m driving. I’m getting all of my election updates through podcasts because I can carefully filter out the crazy. Keepin’ it 1600, the political podcast produced by the Ringer network, is hosted by former Obama staffers and is my current favorite option, but I also highly recommend the FiveThirtyEight Elections Podcast for information on polling and generally intelligent, higher-level info on the current state of politics. Intelligent commentary shouldn’t be that hard to find, but, well, it’s 2016 and Donald Trump is running for president, so that’s our new reality.

My two other favorite podcasts fly directly in the face of what kicked off this post in the first place – namely, that I can’t just zone out to TV while I’m cranking out the cardio. I’m completely obsessed with The West Wing Weekly and Buffering the Vampire Slayer, two podcasts that delve deep into two of my favorite TV shows, episode by episode. I’m terrible at keeping current with what’s on TV now, but if you want to have an in depth discussion about an episode of TV that first aired in 2002 and is now on Netflix for your binging pleasure, WELL, I am your girl. I am LOVING revisiting two of my favorite shows through the podcast lens, and these totally distract me from how much the stationary bike makes me want to die.

So that’s what’s getting me through the cardio grind lately – what are your survival strategies? Any podcasts I should be listening to? Hidden gem trashy romance novels that I should add to my reading list? I love suggestions 🙂

Self care is not selfish

The one lesson I seem to have to keep learning, over and over and over and over again: If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t be there to take care of other people. It’s not a crime to take time for myself. A thousand other variations on a theme: Self care is not selfish.

It took thirty freaking years for me to start realizing this, and it has really only sunk in over the past year. I most certainly did not arrive here on my own – the friends who are closest to me (those single-name-in-the-cell-phone friends, the OG ride or die team) have been trying to hammer this through my thick skull for years now.

Apparently I haven’t learned my lesson yet.

I won’t get into details here, but it’s been a real fucker of a week. 99% of the time I feel pretty at peace with the universe, and then a week like this happens, and I just have to take a hot second to shake my fist at the sky and wonder if the powers that be are deliberately malicious jerk-faces, or if someone’s just drunk at the wheel. My constant refrain when things like this happen – and they seem to keep happening, again and again and again, with unfair frequency to the people I care most about in this world. We’re told, in trying times, that God only gives us what we can handle. Well, universe, I either need God to have a little less faith in me, or the dude needs to reevaluate his definition of “handling it.” 

Frankly, y’all, for the past week, I haven’t been handling shit.

I had to send my check in to my trainer today, and I almost skipped it, because I have been a trainwreck for the past nine days. I got some bad news, and then a little more piled on top of that, and then just a bit more for good measure, and all that translated to skipping workouts, eating like shit, sleeping terribly, and letting things slide.

And the thing is, I don’t feel any better. Eating cookies and drinking wine after getting shitty news just translates to a shitty workout the next day. Skipping time at the gym just robs me of an hour that I can throw on some loud music, ignore texts and emails and voicemails, and just be with myself and without my thoughts. Nothing shuts up the voices in my head like heavy plates on the barbell for some back squats or deadlifts.

I am realizing that I need to create more space for myself. I need to give myself permission to indulge in the things that bring me joy and help me to remain centered. Those are the first things to go for me – when I drop everything to try to fix things, I just end up hurting myself in the process. And maybe I made a difference in the short term, but I’m perpetuating a terrible habit.

I want to be the best daughter and friend that I can be. And I can’t be that person if I’m not healthy, and strong, and mentally sound, and I can only be all of those things if I give myself permission to put myself first, at least once a day.

Self care isn’t selfish. If I keep learning the lesson whenever things go wrong – and history shows that things will go wrong, because history repeats itself, and my family doesn’t get a magical pass from that, this I guarantee – then maybe, someday, I’ll actually believe it and the lessons will pay off.

Pick your battles

I’ve tried a lot of fitness-y things over the past 3-4 years. One of my personal philosophies in life is that I’ll try anything twice, because one time is just not enough to conclusively decide that you hate something. It’s that second, third, and fourth attempt that pushes you further outside of your comfort zone, past the initial gut reaction to a place where you can actually assess if this is something you might grow to love. (For the record, I feel this way about pretty much everything in life – food, books, travel destinations. That first-time reaction only tells a very small part of the story, and you need to give everything at least a second shot before making a final decision.)

Sometimes this philosophy helps me out. For one example, consider my GHD panic, documented in my last post. I went from actual tears-in-my-eyes panic over the machine, to grudging respect, to now actually loving the equipment. I had a similar moment with handstands last night at Crossfit.

The Crossfit box I go to (Crossfit Iron Spider in Salem, MA – not remotely convenient to where I live or work, but I absolutely adore the coaches and the members, so I’m hooked and I tolerate the traffic. Seriously, it’s that good.) posts the WODs on their website the night before, and on Monday night, I saw that handstands were on the menu for Tuesday’s workout. Bear in mind this was my first day back at the gym after eight days off, so I was already a little skeptical about how the workout would go. Throw in handstands, and I started talking myself out of the workout before it had even started.

Turns out handstands aren’t terrible. Now, I didn’t actually manage a real handstand. I did the modified wall walk-up, which isn’t nearly as awful as it sounds, aside from the fact that I was walking up a whiteboard wall which doesn’t exactly have traction or grip. The problem, though, is that my upper body is my weakest area, and I’m not exactly a petite individual. Supporting my weight on my arms? It’s a tricky situation. I really struggled with getting my body up to near-vertical against the wall, because while I could walk my legs up without any trouble, when the time came to move my hands in closer, I just couldn’t do it. It’s partially a strength issue and partially a mental block – I’m convinced that the second I try to move one hand closer, thereby shifting all my weight to the other hand, I’m going to come crashing down face-first onto the floor. It needs work – a LOT of work. But I’m excited to keep working on it. I expected to hate everything about the handstands, but instead it has become another item to conquer as I keep working out at the box.

Every coin has a flip side, though, and that brings me to the item that I think I need to break up with once and for all: running.

Here’s the thing – when I say I hate running, it’s not because I’m slow, or because I’m not good at it. I genuinely hate everything about it. Nothing causes more knee pain than running. Last night’s WOD incorporated 100ft jogs in between activities, so I probably ran just around a quarter of a mile total over the course of the workout – and today I brought an ice pack to work to keep on my knees because they’re so angry with me. I also just can’t find the mental peace, the “runner’s high,” that so many people claim exists. Most of the time I find workouts almost therapeutic. I zone out, I find peace, I finally shut up all the voices in my head. Yoga class, spin class, alone at the squat rack – you name it, I will find it calming. Except for running. The entire time I’m running, the voices in my head scream at me. “We HATE this. This is TERRIBLE. This HURTS. WHY are you doing this?”

There’s this sense that everyone who wants to be fit should also be a runner. I caved to the pressure, too – witness the great half marathon debacle of 2015. I felt like distance running was something I HAD to do if I was going to legitimately call myself someone who’s interested in fitness.

Guess what? That’s just not true. I could put my running sneakers away and never touch them again and still be fit. I actually GAINED weight while I was training for my half marathon, because running left my body so sore and beat-up that I didn’t have the stamina to cross-train or do any of the things I really loved to do. Give me a Soul Cycle class where I’m actually enjoying pushing myself to improve. Throw me on an erg and let me row a 5K. I’ll happily do incline intervals on the treadmill as long as I don’t have to go over 3mph, and I’ll hike in the great outdoors all day long, as long as you give me a map and some bug spray. But running? Nah. I’m good.

So sorry, running, I’m just not that into you. I’ll have to check in with you from time to time when you end up in a WOD, but I’m not going to seek you out anytime soon. Life’s too short to waste time on something I hate, and there are too many other opportunities that I haven’t tried yet.

Conquering my GHD panic

One of the tools I’ve been using to stay positive over the past few weeks has been celebrating every improvement I can mark in my workouts. Whenever I feel like quitting or giving up during an especially intense session, I force those weaker voices to shut up, and instead I repeat to myself, “You couldn’t do this a year ago. You are getting stronger every day. You are improving and changing and that is awesome. Keep moving forward.”

It’s working. I haven’t quit on a workout. I’ve pushed myself and I’ve tried things. It’s pretty awesome. And in light of that, I’m going to try to be better about documenting these successes in blog format.

That brings me to today’s post. Meet the GHD:

rogue-gh-1-web2_2

This piece of equipment, the Glute & Ham Developer (hence, GHD) was my nemesis. We use it for two things at Crossfit: sit ups and back extensions. The GHD sit up is pretty straightforward. You face the ceiling, with your feet in the foot rests, and your hips on the larger pads, and you extend as far back as you can. People with better core strength and back flexibility than I possess are able to extend all the way back and touch the floor before hinging up into a sit up. Right now, I’m just past parallel, but hoping to get better. The sit ups aren’t bad – they’re actually kind of fun once you get used to them! – and they really do get at your abs. We did 5 sets of 15 in Thursday’s WOD, and between that and Friday morning’s Soul Cycle class, it still hurts to laugh today.

Back extensions, however, are a WHOLE other story.

To do a back extension, you flip over. Feet are still in the grips, hips are still on the pads, but you’re facing the floor. You actually want your hip joins to be just past the pads, so that you can freely hinge down until your body is perpendicular to the GHD, and then you use your back muscles to pull yourself back up to parallel.

It. Is. Terrifying.

The first time we had GHD back extensions in a WOD, about 2 months ago, I had a full blown panic attack. I got onto the equipment, I looked down at the floor, and I literally felt all of the air leave my chest. I refused to let go of the handles and got off the machine as quickly as I could, while trying to hold back the tears that were threatening. I didn’t trust the equipment to hold me; over and over in my head I saw a loop of my face hitting the floor in some spectacular collapse. Logically I knew that wouldn’t happen, but I couldn’t get past that irrational fear. I begged the coach for a modification and I avoided looking directly at the equipment for weeks afterwards.

Saturday, after practicing snatches for the majority of the beginners’ olympic lifting course – a mandatory element to the beginners’ Crossfit program at my box, and one that I really appreciate, as it teaches form and ensures we don’t hurt ourselves in the WODs – there was one line of instructions on the board:

“Back extension, 3×10”

“Maybe there’s some other way of doing back extensions,” I thought. “It doesn’t say GHD… it must mean something else.” I ignored it as long as possible, but come the last 10 minutes of class, I had to face my fears. It was time. I needed to get on that equipment and force myself through those sets.

Turns out it’s not all that bad – it’s actually kind of fun once you get going. I’m not going to lie, it’s still a little freaky when I first get on the stupid thing, but I’ve gotten better at telling the voices in my head to STFU while I get through my workout. I was so stinking proud of myself after banging out those three sets, with nary a tear or a panic attack in sight.

Progress takes a lot of forms. This week, my progress came in the form of conquering that stupid equipment torture device.

Now, if only I could make the jump rope my bitch…

Jagged Little Pill

Remember that weight management clinic I mentioned in the last post? I had the mandatory orientation meeting tonight. I was sorely tempted to bail on the whole thing – the WOD tonight at crossfit looked great (rowing! deadlifts! my favorite things!) and I would have much rather been there, but I felt like I had to give the whole thing a fair shot.

WELL.

I walked in and the coordinator handed me a piece of paper. It was a flyer listing all of the possible pharmaceutical treatments to aid weight loss. I took a seat at the table; each place had an array of flyers on it, including weight loss surgery options and a brochure for a medical shakes/prepared food program that restricted calories to 800-1000 calories a day (medically sanctioned Jenny Craig, basically). I immediately felt uncomfortable and knew this was not going to be the place for me.

The program offers two options – 1:1 meetings with a physician (but be ready to wait 2 months for an appointment) or a group meeting (you can get in by next week!). The coordinator went into the group meetings in detail, and it sounded basically like the doctor reviewed your record ahead of time, then went around the room and handed out prescriptions based on your background. What? How is this safe or appropriate?

We then went over the medications in great detail, which entailed the coordinator trying to downplay various side effects while also talking through all the ways to afford the medications if your insurance wouldn’t cover them. I think my favorite part was when she described the black box warning on one drug by saying “It caused thyroid cancer in rats when they gave the rats 10-12 times the normal dose, but there hasn’t been any instances of cancer in humans yet, so it’s probably fine.” Great. Thanks. Where do I sign up?

I felt dirty leaving that room. I made an appointment – for October, mind you – to meet with the physician one on one, but I think I’m going to end up canceling it. If I do follow through, it would be just to get a referral to have my resting metabolic rate assessed, more out of curiosity than anything else. I definitely don’t want anything to do with the pills or the surgery – that’s not for me.

I left that appointment and directed my car to Soul Cycle. I hopped into a 7:30pm ride with a new-to-me instructor (picked solely because he was the most physically appealing option out of the available 7:30 instructors – so what if I like a little eye candy with my workouts?!). Johnny turned out to be amazing and exactly what I needed tonight. The playlist felt like it was pulled straight from my brain – opening with Holidae In set the tone for the ride for sure, but it was right around the Linkin Park “In The End” remix that I finally got my brain to shut down and gave in to the ride. Add in the new Chainsmokers feat. Halsey song, Closer, and my current favorite mashup to come down off of arms – seriously, just give it a listen – and basically I was LIVING for those full 45 minutes.

Also? Don’t take Soul Cycle the day after Crossfit decided to work your abs. Just trust me on this.

Anyway, I have a new favorite SC instructor (on this coast, at least) and I left that studio feeling wrung out and cleansed. Walking back to my car, I couldn’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, I’m being too hard on myself. Bodies are weird, frustrating, stupid things at times – but they’re also pretty goddamn amazing. My body let me push it right up to the edge of my abilities on that bike tonight (standing runs, we’ll get there. Jumps, I SEE YOU, and I’m getting there. Wait for it.) It let me push it through 90 wall balls… and 90 sit ups… and 90 burpees… and 800m of running… all in less than 30 minutes last night (26:29, to be exact, but who’s counting?) and every time I pick up a barbell I feel a little more confident about grabbing a heavier set of plates.

I need to stop being so hard on myself and remember to take these moments to reflect on where I am today versus where I was a year ago, and to be appreciative for all that I’m able to do each and every day. The physical change will come with time, and in the meantime, the mental growth will be enough.

(Over)thinking things through

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my head recently.

On Sunday, I took a charity yoga class to benefit the Dear Jack Foundation. DJF was founded by Andrew McMahon, aka my favorite musician, to help young adult cancer patients and survivors with support and community outreach. Adolescent and young adult cancer rates have not improved over the past 10-20 years — while survivor rates have improved in every other age range, the 15-39 group has shown no change. There’s a lot of reasons for that. This is the age range where individuals are least likely to be proactive about their health, avoid or discredit any symptoms, and skip their annual physicals, often due to lack of health insurance or the financial means to cover their healthcare. Considering that my $1500 FSA was 80% depleted after the first of four annual Dana Farber dermatology appointments required due to my own history of melanoma and basal cell carcinoma, leaving me wondering how the hell I’m going to pay for my remaining appointments, biopsies, and treatments for the rest of the year, I gotta say, I sympathize. But DJF is also committed to addressing the isolation and feeling of “otherness” that comes from being a young adult cancer patient – that feeling of “I’m too young for this” or “This shouldn’t be happening.” There’s a serious dearth of programs, organizations, and opportunities for YA cancer patients and survivors to seek out support, and DJF strives to address that.

I wasn’t exactly in prime shape going into Sunday’s class. It’s been a rough week for me in a lot of ways, and I was mentally and physically wiped out when I set my mat down in the studio. As the instructor led us through a heart-opening flow, I found myself reflecting back over the past few years. Last Friday marked four years since I received my melanoma diagnosis, and a lot has changed since then. That whole experience was a wake up call that I needed to start being more proactive about my health. It’s what inspired me to join Studio Poise in 2013, and it remains the driving force behind the choices I make when it comes to nutrition and fitness. There’s absolutely nothing I can do about my skin – I use SPF religiously, but there’s no changing genetics, and I know that my future is going to be marked off by one biopsy after another, hoping that I catch any future instances of melanoma early enough to avoid metastasis. Realizing this, I’ve been a lot more proactive about the areas of my health that are within my control. I’m far more mindful about my diet, and I have made exercise not just a habit or something I do because I feel like I need to, but something that is actively contributing to my mental health and sanity. Working out helps me to manage my stress, helps me to sleep better, and also gets me closer to the overall physical health I’m striving for.

That’s why I’m in such a shitty place right now – because nutrition and fitness is something I can control, and so when my body isn’t responding to those efforts, I panic. So much of my health is completely outside of my control, and to feel like now I also can’t control my weight is just more than I can take. I scheduled an appointment with my PCP yesterday to get her thoughts on this, and it was equal parts validating and frustrating. I’m really lucky to have a PCP who trusts me, so when I outlined for her all the steps I’ve taken over the past 8 months with minimal change to my weight, she never once questioned whether I was telling the truth. She affirmed that I’m doing everything right, and seemed just as stumped and frustrated as I am. She did do a blood test to check my thyroid, but it came back completely normal. She basically said that she can think of no medical reason that my body isn’t responding to the work I’m doing, and she thinks maybe I need to try a medication to help the weight along. I’m going to an informational session with the weight management clinic next week, but I’m not wild about the idea of adding a medication into the mix. I feel like these types of drugs have so many risks attached to them, and I’m skeptical of what will happen when I go off them. They’re usually appetite suppressants, and that’s not my issue – I’m doing okay sticking with my nutrition plan from Janie and I very rarely feel like I’m so hungry that I have to go off-plan to eat something. I don’t want to take a pill that will suppress my hunger and end up eating less – that feels like a recipe for long-term metabolic disaster, and short-term shitty performance in the gym.

Basically, everything that’s happening with my health is forcing me to confront my desire to have control wherever I can. So much of the universe is outside of our control, and I get that. I understand that striving to control things that are impossible to change will only drive me crazy in the long run. But the thing is – I should be able to control this. I control what I eat and I control how I workout, and the work I’m putting in should translate to a change on the scale, and it’s not, and that’s really screwing with me right now. So I’m dumping my thoughts here to try to stop them from swirling around in my brain, and I’m hoping that a change will come, sooner rather than later.

Acceptance

Today’s word of the day? Acceptance. It’s something I’m trying to teach myself to be better at – and not exactly succeeding.

What do I mean? Well. There have been a few instances recently where I’ve accepted something in the moment rather than resisting or fighting against it, and I’ve felt all the better for it – and I want to reflect more on why those moments went the way they did, and what I can learn from them. And there are also many examples where I haven’t accepted something, and I look back afterwards and I kick myself for it, or I make myself miserable by actively fighting against something that ultimately is out of my control. So here are just a few of the things I need to accept.

Accept… that schedules are not set in stone. I live and die by my planner. I use the Passion Planner, and every Monday I get to work a little early so I can plot out my whole week, including my work commitments, my meetings, any social engagements, and all of my workouts. It’s a soothing process and I feel ready to tackle my week once it’s done. Nothing irritates me more than when my schedule changes and suddenly my neat, color-coordinated, perfectly structured planner is all thrown off. But here’s the thing: the paper doesn’t matter; my mental and physical health does. Monday night, my planner had 90 minutes blocked off to lift and get in some cardio, but when I got in my car, I immediately knew that there was no way I’d be able to motivate myself through a solo gym workout. I had nothing left in my tank. Rather than forcing myself to try to slog through it and ending up with a sloppy, half-assed workout, and instead of just giving up on the day entirely and heading home, I pulled up the SP schedule and grabbed a spot in the SPiit class that started in an hour, and I felt all the better for it. I pushed the lifting session out to Wednesday, and even though my planner looks terrible, I accepted what my body was telling me and I found a compromise that worked.

Accept… that I cannot control how my body responds to the work I’m putting in. I’m not going to lie. I’ve been feeling REALLY frustrated lately. The scale has. not. moved. in months – literally months, hovering in the same range of 3 pounds – and I’m starting to lose my mind. I full on cried in my office today after I sent Janie my check in for the week, because I’m just feeling so completely down on myself at the moment. I’m eating right 85% of the time, I’m sticking to my workout routines, I can feel myself getting stronger, but my weight won’t move. And that’s driving me crazy. I hate weighing myself and I’ve started to dread my check ins with Janie, because I know that the scale isn’t going to show what I want it to, and I’m frustrated. I’m trying really hard not to let it get to me, but it’s a daily battle. I have to trust in the process and trust that continuing to make the right choices, and continuing to push myself in the gym and get in all of my workouts, will eventually translate to the numbers changing. But it’s hard. And it’s going to take me a long time to get there.

Accept… that people are sincere in their compliments. This is sort of a continuation of the last point. I have serious body dysmorphia issues. I have a really hard time looking at myself in the mirror and seeing the changes that are taking place as a result of all my training. I can’t see it in myself, so my immediate inclination is to shrug people off when they comment on the changes they’re seeing in me. My first instinct is to brush off their compliments, or to immediately respond in protest (“But my ass is still huge!” “But I’m not losing any weight!” “But I can’t find pants that fit me right now!”) I need to learn to be more gracious when people comment on my progress. I need to trust that they really are noticing changes in me, and thank them for their kindness. I need to accept the compliment with grace, and then I need to help myself get to a point where I genuinely do believe them.

It’s a good sign that I know these are all things I need to work on. Rationally, logically, I can reason through all of this. But saying this (or writing about it, as the case may be) and actually living my truth are two different things. It’s a constant battle. It’s hard and it’s frustrating, but I’m working on it. I’m a work in progress and I think maybe I always will be.