Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Danger of Pinterest Fitness

Pinterest, the wildly popular virtual-hoarding site, is a great place for planning your next meals, wardrobe choices, or crafty house projects. But as I've followed it throughout the last few months, I've grown more and more concerned with the boards that boast "fitness", but actually promote unhealthy attitudes about weight and physical appearance.

Like most women, I have dealt with my fair share of "body issues". Before I was diagnosed with Celiac, I was an incredibly underweight pre-teen. Cutting gluten from my diet and entering adolescence at the same time led to weight-gain. While I was still well within a healthy weight range, the rapidity of the weight-gain resulted in stretch marks, clothes that suddenly didn't fit, and a wary sense that my body wasn't working or looking quite like it should. I'm not going to go into details of my struggles, but for years I fought with myself over what I deemed an "acceptable" weight and appearance; it wasn't until I learned to enjoy exercise for its mental and emotional benefits that I really learned to love what my body was capable of. With this new love for my physical self, I settled into a weight that is comfortable for me, and I rarely feel guilty about what foods I eat; I no longer exercise with the idea of "burning off" any particular food, and I definitely don't exercise as punishment.

Images of "perfect" bodies, and tips and hints for attaining this so-called perfection, inundate us constantly. By "us" I mean "people", but I mostly mean "women." And these days, you don't need to subscribe to a monthly magazine to get your fill of rock-hard (or willowy thin) bodies. The internet has opened a sneaky window that allows us to badger ourselves without paying a dime.

So, back to Pinterest. Many of the boards on the site are dedicated to healthy, low-fat, low-carb, or low-calorie recipes. Fine. I'm not one to tell anyone to not eat healthfully, and why would I? With a rising obesity problem in America, we do need to worry about what we eat. I tend to go by the "everything in moderation" rule of thumb, but if someone wants to use low-calorie sweeteners in their foods to cut calories, that's their prerogative.

No; my problem centers more on the "fitness" boards. There are lists of "safe" foods for snacking or dieting. (My objection is the term "safe"...it's a word that calls to mind disordered eating habits.) There are photos of waif-like models with comments below like "Someday..." or "I wish I had her body". There are posts upon posts of leg, ab, and butt exercises promising results that can't possibly be accurate for all women. (Our bodies all build muscle differently; your waist may shrink, but that doesn't mean your body will then look the same as the model's body.) There are quotes meant to make you think twice before you eat (whether you were going for chocolate or carrots) and that strive to convince you that the body you want can't possibly go along with eating your usual 1200-1400 calories a day. These particularly raise a red flag for me. Being guilted into not eating isn't a healthy motivational technique.

I'm not saying that we should avoid websites that promote exercise and wellness. I'm not even saying to avoid the fitness boards on Pinterest. But a LARGE grain of salt is needed when skimming these boards. And if you're someone who is susceptible to exercise-as-punishment or food-withholding tendencies, then navigating these boards can be akin to navigating a minefield.

In short, the boards can be triggering.

There are many boards out there that do their best to keep the pins positive. These boards are worth going through. I've found lots of motivating quotes and ideas to re-pin to my own fitness board, and I try to keep that board focused on stretches, running techniques, and motivational quotes that aren't about making me feel guilty. I have noticed in the past couple weeks that Pinterest is beginning to sway more toward the "health is more than a number on the scale" route, which is awesome; I'd like to see more of it, and I hope that kind of attitude continues to spread. I've even seen some excellent comments on the more counter-productive pins suggesting the pinner "eat healthy, exercise, and be good" to themselves, instead of reaching for dangerous goals.

In the meantime, while this shift continues, remember that fitness, health, and exercise are about more than your physical body. Your mental and emotional well-being are also affected by food and activity. Seek motivation that doesn't seek to hamper you or make you feel negatively about your choices, but instead pushes you forward. Be purposeful about what kinds of articles you seek out. Are you looking for an easy answer, a "10 minute fixer"? Good luck with that. Don't believe the photoshopping or the strangers posting that they SWEAR a certain crash diet worked for them. Even if they're telling the truth, they're not you. Their experience may not be yours.

And perhaps I have it easy, because massive weight-loss was never my goal, but I've long believed that working out is about more than physical appearance or what the scale tells you. I seek those who share that same view, and they keep me on a path that veers away from the dangers of disordered exercising. They keep me on the path to happiness and fitness on all levels - not just the physical.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Olympic Trials

For those of you who are living under a rock, let me begin by announcing that the trials for the 2012 Olympics in London began yesterday. Now, I have always loved the Olympics; they are awe-inspiring, gripping, and fascinating to watch. As a non-athlete, I watched them in the past with a sense of unreality.

"How do these people exist? How can you possibly do a perfect cartwheel on a balance beam, when I can't even do one on solid ground? How do divers change their positions in mid-air like that? Are these people aliens?!"

Well, this year I hit a milestone. It marks the first time I will be watching the Olympics as an athlete myself. For the first time, I will watch runners tearing up the track and, instead of thinking, "Oh look, more circles to complete..." I will think, "HOLY CRAP LOOK AT THOSE PEOPLE MOVE!"

I plan to make another post (if not a couple more) on the Olympics when the games officially begin. But watching the trials last night lit something wonderful in me which I needed to share. I will do my best to put it into words.

I suddenly feel I kind of...understand. I have always loved the Olympics, but now I get it. I understand the amount of training and sheer force of will that allows these few athletes to trump any others. I understand what it means to run a 10k on a track, in the rain, in racing flats, in front of TV cameras, in under 30 minutes. I understand that even finishing last in that trial is an amazing feat. I understand that falling, as Rogers did, and still finishing 2nd is utterly astounding, even if her time didn't end up qualifying her for London. I understand the utter insanity of running for 3 hours (completing 28 miles) on a Monday to train for a 10k on a Friday that means nothing (as Flanagan did, running the race for "fun" [training] but choosing not to compete in London in anything short of the Marathon).

I understand the tears, the collapse, the hugging, the shaking limbs. As I posted as a status last night as I watched in awe, I am overcome with warmth and affection as I watch the runners congratulate each other on finishing. The camaraderie is overwhelming and joyous. Runners understand the pain, sweat, and hard work that has gone into their preparation, and although running is individual, all the runners are connected through that effort. As Hastings said after she qualified for London, she received all kinds of support from the most random people during her training, but it was just what she needed.

Runners don't tear down their competitors. They cross the line, turn around, and cheer on the rest. This is not a sport where players connive behind their teammates' backs, or even insult their opponents. Running is a humbling sport, and perhaps the most grueling of the summer Olympics.

The men and women in the trials took my breath away. I have never watched the Olympics through this lens before, with a deeper connection. It's at once motivating and truly daunting. The athletes have honed their bodies into the perfect condition for their one sport. The sprinters boast powerful thighs; they're a little more compact and take off like bullets, shockingly fast. The long-distance runners tend to be leaner, longer, more whittled down. The divers have formed their bodies into the perfect combination of long swimmers' muscles and powerful quads and cores.

I am so excited for the Olympics this year, but in a more honest way than before. In a way that says I won't stop caring once they're over. As a fellow athlete - so much further down the totem than these fine specimens, but still existing somewhere in their world - I find I'm taking an interest that goes beyond summer entertainment.

I actually feel invested this year. It's a funny feeling; I feel a little silly caring so much. But I finally get what I've been missing, and looking forward to this year's Games is just one more step in my own journey to becoming the runner I want to be.


Monday, June 18, 2012

A Different Kind of Post

It feels funny opening up a blog post with 16 days gone since the last one...and the last run.

As I mentioned previously, my absence was due to my spending 10 days in Israel. The experience was truly extraordinary and too complex to put into words. I'm not going to try...for many reasons, not the least of which is that this is a running blog. I may do some existential exercises here, but only if they relate to The Run.

It was hard at first, as it always is, to forgo my routine. I had run a race just-for-fun the day before I left, but the first few days of my trip involved a lot of bus riding. I was itching and aching for a run. With only so many clothes packed and no laundry in sight, I knew running wasn't an option. After I finally wrapped my head around that and decided to just live in the moment and enjoy the crazy hustle of the trip, I almost forgot I was missing running. Almost.

I got back to the States on the 14th, but didn't get home until the evening of the 15th. My goal for the 16th was to eat pancakes for breakfast and stay in pajamas all day. Mission accomplished! And yesterday and today were spent almost entirely posting photos, reviewing photos, and running the kinds of the errands that can be very fun if viewed in the right light. The kind that make you feel you've somehow miraculously organized your life.

This evening, as I drove home from such an errand, I said to M, "I may run tonight. It's 7:30, I can do just a mile to get back into things, I'm not starving or full..." But of course, an hour later found us reorganizing things we had just bought, and now it's nearly 11pm and I didn't get a run in.

I'm in a weird place. I'm not really avoiding running again, although there is some anxiety there because of the two weeks off. Mostly I just feel overwhelmingly lethargic. It's brutally hot. I've been traveling on the kind of vacation that is not at all a vacation. It's nice to just sit. At the same time, I'm feeling over-charged and antsy. I'm waking up at 6:45am naturally (probably due to jetlag more than anything), but instead of going for a run, I spend a few hours reading in bed.

(I still have not figured out the art of becoming a morning runner; and yet, in Israel, I was able to roll out of bed at 3:30 to hike Masada for sunrise. Where are my priorities?! haha.)

I guess I'm just not feeling a lot of pressure to get back into it. That's fine. I run for fun, for myself. I'm not trying to prove myself to anyone. I didn't gain weight on the trip so I don't feel an overpowering urge to whip myself back into any kind of shape. But I feel better all-around when I'm active. So this week, I will get a run in. Maybe only one or two miles, but it will happen. I will reconnect with my physical body, which I cut some slack (for the sake of my emotional and mental bodies) during my trip.

I am both looking forward to it and not at all motivated. It's a very strange place to be. I suppose I should enjoy it now, because we all know what happens when the running bug bites again, and then it's all about the next run and the next and the next...

To be honest, I'm actually looking forward to the bite. I have a feeling my next few runs will prove to be some of the most challenging and wonderful of my year so far.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Welcome to the Tribe

Before I start my main post for today, let me give a brief recap of today's race. It was the FMTC Membership 5k; it wasn't officially timed, and participating automatically makes you a member of the FMTC. Although I've only been running two-milers for the past few weeks, one of my goals this year is to run a race a month, and given my travel schedule, this was my only real chance.
Our route.

The race started at 7:30, and by the time we got to the starting line it had rained and the sun was doing its dirty work on the wet blacktop. Basically, this race was hot, muggy, and included a couple stretches along grass and sand trails. Ouch. The good news was that my ITBS didn't act up until the very end (my brace loosened a bit; I hadn't tried this remedy for longer than a two-mile run). Going along with my plan for summer runs, I took walk and water breaks and kept my pace slower than usual by about a minute. I tried not to feel too disappointed in my time. I'm really glad I went, but it was pretty brutal.

Crossing the finish line
Alright, so the real purpose of today's post is to reminisce on things I wish I'd known when I started running, things to remember, and some things to try. Summer, although it's seriously the worst time to start running, seems to be when many people start. So this post is for the newbies.

First of all, I urge you to remember that the minute you buy running shoes and set foot out the door, you have the potential to be a runner. There is a difference between a "runner" and a "person who runs", and time, dedication, and a slight obsession tend to be the defining differences between the two. It took me years to really decide I was a "runner", but now I haughtily guard that title and refuse to relinquish it.

Running is an amazing, freeing, frustrating, and daunting experience. Don't give up! You won't love it right away, but if you stick with it, the rewards are simply...innumerable.

Advice: There are dozens of excellent articles on websites like Runner's World and Cool Running (and most of these websites have magazines, publications, and twitter/facebook accounts to follow), but I really prefer starting with a more fun, down-to-earth approach. Cracked.com has an excellently funny (if not a little inappropriate) article about starting to run, found here. Remember not to overwhelm yourself with things like this at first, though. You could easily get so overwhelmed with well-intentioned advice that you never get off the couch. But, if you come to find you're having weird digestive issues, developing black toenails, or have a weird rash...consult the experts! Resources are wonderful; the internet makes them super easy to come by.

Intervals: When starting out, I recommend intervals. I had no clue what these were until two years into my running career, and what a blessing they turned out to be! I was that person who ran, coaxing myself to avoid a walk-break until I hit a certain landmark - and usually, I failed to reach it, and shuffled on feeling disappointed. Now, the first time I successfully ran a full mile, I was jubilant! But I could have saved myself a lot of grief and disappointment if I had planned my walks from the beginning. Three to five minutes running, interrupted by a two minute walking break, can ease you into running. Running isn't all or nothing. Don't expect yourself to run a marathon your first time out. Set a goal of 20 minutes, do intervals, and over time your running times will increase and your walking times will decrease until you're running the full twenty minutes. At that point, start adding time to your run - aim for 30!

Injury: Running should be uncomfortable, but it should not be painful. If you feel pain in your shins, knees, or hips, something isn't right. It could be your shoes (good running shoes really do cost $100 or more; be willing to shell out some serious cash), or your stride. It could just be that you need a better stretching routine. I recommend finding a podiatrist or a specialty foot store (like Foot Solutions) that can diagnose the problem. This also ties into getting your first pair of shoes in general...I highly recommend going to a specialty running store and having them test your stride and pronation (foot strike). Don't buy shoes that don't feel comfortable, and take them for a spin before you buy them.

Accessories: One of the fun things about running is buying your running outfits and accessories. This is completely up to preference, of course, but it's worth mentioning that shorts, tops and bras designed for running are cooler, lighter, and impact your experience and performance. I recommend light or reflective colors for running at night. Depending on where you live, you may need to buy pants and/or a long-sleeved shirt along with your usual shorts and tops. Also, some people like to run without music, but I never could. You may want to look into an mp3 player if you don't already have one. Just remember to keep the music low enough that you stay aware of your surroundings. (See tips on safety here.) Running with a belt to carry your cellphone or ID is ideal. I also recommend getting a RoadID.

Get involved: Running is an excellent solo activity, and provides solace from a busy, jarring, frustrating world. But running alone can get stale. Joining races or running groups is a great way to solidify your feeling of being part of the tribe, and keep your running fresh. Active.com allows you to look up local races. You can use social networking (twitter and facebook!) to find running groups. Those specialty running stores I mentioned earlier? Also a great place to find resources on joining groups or clubs for runners. DailyMile.com also allows you to not only post your own runs, but follow others to offer support or encouragement, or to meet up for group runs.

The bottom line amongst all this is that you're entering into a challenging and rewarding experience. Embrace it! Don't be scared off. Be willing to work through the first week or two of soreness and fatigue. Fight through the urge to give up. Tell your excuses and doubts to shut it. When you hit that stride, that moment where going for a run improves your entire day, you'll know it was worth it. Your mental, physical, and emotional health will thank you. You'll sleep better; your energy will sky-rocket; your daily mood will improve.

And above all else, remember: there are a million mouthpieces (myself included) spewing advice that you might not feel ready for. The important thing is to take the first step. Get outside. Go. Run.