Executive Functions and Fitness

What I really wanted to do yesterday afternoon was talk to my friends online. What I did was jump on the trampoline with my kids. We laughed a lot.

What I really wanted to do last night while watching Game of Thrones was pour another glass of wine and have a bowl of ice cream with strawberries. What I did was have a bowl of strawberries. Game of Thrones was just as riveting and the strawberries were delicious.

What I really wanted to do this morning after I taught class early this morning was go home and get back into bed. What I did was go running for 40 minutes. I bet you can guess how much better I feel.

These are decisions we make every day, several times a day, when we want to make changes in our lives. They don’t have to be dramatic changes, like giving up a certain food or activity for the rest of your life. After all, what fun is that? Once you start though, these changes quickly become habit. Habits relieve the pressure on your mind – the executive function in your brain – to constantly vacillate between the behavior that hasn’t served you and the one that does.

What small changes would you like to make today to help you meet your fitness goals?

With You in the Struggle

The half marathon began and everyone moved forward slowly then picked up the pace as we crossed the starting line. Alone with my playlist for the next grueling few hours, I hadn’t trained very hard for this race. Expanding my business while still managing household responsibilities gave me less energy, less motivation for my workouts. I told myself, “Well, it’s not going to be pretty, but you’re going to get through this.” Watching all the participants and spectators and not even a mile in, an overwhelming feeling of gratefulness came over me – gratefulness with this moment, the air in my lungs, my body (as feeble as I felt), my life, my friends and family, the gifts I’ve been given, the work I am meant to do. This was early on of course, before the pain set in, the doubt, the impatience to get this thing over with. Sometimes even though I had done much harder things in my life, I have to hold fast with what I know I can accomplish with time, encouragement and determination.

In the last 2 years, I have completed two Tough Mudders, one full marathon, one half marathon, and a very hilly 9 mile trail race. And those are just the physical obstacles, not the countless psychological hurdles I climb every day. “It’s not going to be pretty, but you’re going to get through this. You will be okay.” It’s what I tell myself but also what I tell many of my clients when I see them struggle, get frustrated, close to quitting. The process of getting stronger, fitter, and physically tougher is not usually straightforward. There are setbacks, detours, and false summits along the way. Urban Agility attracts very smart, strong and funny people – people who often give selflessly to others, people who have struggled through injury, depression, illness, and losses sometimes unimaginable.

We don’t usually share our lapses and failures. It’s hard to admit when I’ve failed to provide for people when they most needed me. I’ve failed to provide for my own needs, like actually training for my half marathon. I strive to do better. Each day I wake up with the will to try again. And these are the people I seek to join me: People who try, people who fail and keep trying, people who are willing to laugh at themselves and be grateful for the process (at least some of the time), people who know they can’t do it alone. If this is you, I want you to join me. I am with you in the struggle.

Hidden Greatness

In the 6th century, Roman Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of Yerebatan Sarnıcı, or The Basilica Cistern, an underground cavern under the city of Istanbul. It was an amazing achievement for a city that had been almost entirely destroyed in the massive political riots and fire in 532. It was used to supply fresh water to the nearby palace and as an emergency water supply for the city, should they be cut off from the rest of the empire. But after many hundreds of years, it had been forgotten, sealed off in some places, used as a dumping ground in others. I read that only a few people had access to the water through a hole in the back of their shops, though they weren’t necessarily aware of the beautifully designed cavern below. Inexplicably, they could lower a bucket and retrieve cool fresh water, and occasionally a fish! It was officially rediscovered in 1545, renovated and restored to its former glory. Today it is one of thousands of incredible sights to see in a city of 13 million.

Before the journey this spring to one of the oldest cities in the world, I was not a well-traveled tourist. I was often overwhelmed by the antiquity of everything I saw and heard – clay jars dating back 3,000 years ago, the opulent sweeping palaces of the Ottoman Sultans, the marble inlays inside the Hagia Sofia, the rhythms of the call to prayer from 500 year old mosques. My children climbed around ancient ruins of a church left in a city park while we ate our lunch. My 110 year old house is a baby in comparison.

As I descended the steps into to Basilica Cistern, the heat and light of the sun disappeared. I walked along the raised walkways, taking crappy pictures of the pillars which we were told were recycled from much older buildings. Of course everyone was heading for the Medusa columns, two pillars with the head of Medusa. Nobody knows why they were put there, one on its side and one upside down. A hidden message or happenstance? A wonderful mystery.

The things we do and build in our lifetimes might never be discovered by tourists 1000 years from now. Modern culture doesn’t really build things to last. But I believe there is still greatness inside each of us. What we do with our bodies and minds to change the course of history is ours to control. To build a strong and flexible body so that our lives can function, to perfect a talent or skill, to work for justice even at the cost of your own privilege, to realize a dream, to teach children kindness and compassion – we are just as important as the stonemason laying marble slabs in a vast temple. And just like that mason, we may never be recognized by name, the work we do matters. My journey toward greatness – my hidden greatness, I suppose – has just begun. I am building something I can look at years from now and be proud of. It takes focus and energy I sometimes lack on my own. I need a community of people working toward their own greatness. Let’s help each other.

The Strength You Seek Is Inside You

I want you to look at this picture closely.

What do you see? Yes, that’s me doing a Tough Mudder in 2012. I’m in a lot of mud surrounded by yellow strings. Those are not strings. Most of them are live electrical wires, and I’m all by myself surrounded by them. Do you see the people in the background? There’s someone who looks like he works for the organization, most of them look like they are just waiting their turn. The women you see in green shirts are on my team, the Tough Titties. We were in a group of about 13 people, mostly women. Some of them had done Tough Mudders before and even harder events, but many had not. The goal was to try to stay together and reasonably injury-free. After going through the freezing ice bath and climbing all the walls, crawling through hours of mud and jumping into the lake from a high platform, all in high elevation, we had almost finished the course. But there was one more obstacle we needed to clear before crossing the finish line: those live wires. I’d been through them before, I knew what it felt like get shocked, like a punch to the skeletal system. There were a few people on my team who hadn’t experienced it before that day and were really scared, which is not an irrational fear. After all, what we were doing defied every conceivable survival instinct – seriously, who does this?! And so, I took it upon myself to help ease their fears. I didn’t expect to walk into the field alone, but here’s how it happened. We had just scaled the quarter pipe and turned a corner to the field of yellow wires in front of us. On the other side, this animated dude with a microphone was shouting, egging us on, encouraging someone to come forward and make it look good. Then he tossed 3 empty water bottles into the middle of the wires and told someone to go pick them up. I looked over to the 6 or 7 men standing there, waiting for them to go. They weren’t going. I heard a voice in my head saying, “It’s you.” I marched into the sea of yellow, searching for those bottles. Look at my face in the photo, screwed up with grim determination. I knew it was going to hurt, but I did it anyway. Because I gave myself no choice, because I was helping my team get through this obstacle. I had no doubts whatsoever that each one of them could do it. But something inside of me knew I could help them feel less scared. When I came through the other side carrying all 3 bottles, I threw them on the ground and let out a roar of triumph. I then turned around and saw a sea of green shirts rushing through the wires toward me. We embraced in a muddy sweaty scrum. It was a moment I will never forget. I treasure each person who made that day happen, who surpassed their own expectations.

I do not pretend to be the strongest or fastest or fittest. I certainly try to keep my fitness up by setting goals and pushing myself a little bit more every year. My abilities lie in something harder to define, but something that makes me a great trainer nonetheless. Every time I’m faced with a challenge, even something as mundane and getting my kids to school when I hadn’t slept well the night before, I have memories like this to hold on to. You too can be strong and resilient and do amazing things. Sure, it might hurt. I can guarantee it will be uncomfortable. But if you surround yourself with excellent humans who bring out your best, you can face any obstacle.

Everyone deserves to have a moment like this at least once.

The Time I Joined the Track Team

I was 14 years old, a freshman in high school. After the afternoon bell rang, I would take the shortcut next to the football field on my way home and glance over at the runners and jumpers on the track team in their shortie shorts and spikey shoes doing their thing around the dirt track. I thought to myself, “Maybe I should join the track team, maybe I could learn to love running the way they seemed to.” So I joined the track team, got my spikey shoes and shortie shorts and showed up for practice.

I did not learn to love running. I learned to hate running. With the heat of a thousand suns. Here’s why.

Our first track meet, I showed up not knowing what event I was going to run. Then all of a sudden, I was put into the 4X100 meter relay. I was the second leg. We spent about 15 minutes doing the baton pass drill, and I was so nervous. I didn’t know these girls, they were probably older and more seasoned at these events. I didn’t want to let them down. We took our positions and waited for the gun. The gun goes off and I see the first girl running around the bend. I can’t hear anything, the sound of blood rushing in my ears drowns out the girl who is now screaming at me “GOOOOOO!!!!!!” I turn around and start running, my hand behind my back. She passes me the baton and then I trip and fall, a cloud of track dust exploding all over me. She’s still yelling at me, “GETUPGETUPGETUP!!!!” I get up and run to the third girl, who is now far behind the other competitors. Everyone’s pissed at me, I’m pissed at me, and everything seems very bleak.

Oh, but it gets better. I mean worse.

My band teacher had been judging the long jump competition right next to where this all happened. From that moment to the end of my high school days, he would often bring up that incident, calling me “Thunder Thighs” with a chuckle. He called me Thunder Thighs for four years. Don’t ask me why I took that kind of abuse from a teacher. I learned to suffer through similar indignities growing up, this was just another on the list. Suffice it to say that what I learned from this experience was that running was not my thing. Failing so spectacularly, and being humiliated for it, taught me never to try. And that is why what I just did is so miraculous.

On Sunday, March 23, 2014 I ran my first marathon. It was hard. I was in pain. And it took me more than 30 years to complete it. First I had to stop saying things like “Running is stupid.” And then I had to stop saying, “I don’t run.” And then, “I run but I’m not a runner” and “I’m a runner but I don’t race” and “I do half marathons but I’m never doing a full.” Every time I challenged the mental and physical roadblocks, I destroyed the words that so crushed me as a child.

When I crossed the finish line, that 14 year old girl covered in dust was with me. And then they put a medal around her neck.

3 Ways to Get the Most from Your Workouts

Here are 3 basic guidelines to help you take better care of yourself and make the most of your workouts. The more closely you follow them, the better prepared you will be for anything I might throw your way, and you’ll have way more fun.

I know what it’s like to run out of water in the middle of nowhere and force myself to press forward regardless of feeling lethargic, uncoordinated, and a little bit scared I was going to careen head-first off a cliff. Because I neglected to plan ahead, I set myself up for a potentially catastrophic emergency, a lesson I have learned repeatedly in my recent endurance training. Our bodies need to be fully hydrated well before starting a workout. You should be drinking at minimum 64 ounces daily. As you become more active, you sweat and breath more, which requires more water. As little as 5% dehydration can effect your energy and performance. Proper hydration also helps you insulate against the extremes of both hot and cold weather, aids in digestion, and a whole host of other functions. The minute you wake up, begin replenishing the water lost during the night. You can lose as much as 2 pounds just through exhalation during sleep, so one little glass of water isn’t going to cut it. Since Urban Agility workouts are only an hour, there’s absolutely no need to get fancy with your beverages. Unless you are recovering from an illness and are seriously dehydrated or you are training for an endurance event, water is the cheapest and most effective way to give you the necessary hydration, and it’s calorie free! In order to be ready to exercise properly, teach yourself to drink water throughout the day. Set a water bottle at your desk and remember to drink from it during posture breaks. Bring it with you in your car, drink from it at stop lights. Keep track of how often you refill it. About 1-2 hours before your workout, you should drink small amounts of water in order to maintain the proper levels. If, however, you have neglected to drink water until 30 minutes before your workout and then guzzle down a quart just before or during, all you’re going to experience is a lot of liquid sloshing around in your stomach. Not fun, especially during burpees and sprints. Once the workout is over and your body returns to stasis of rest and recovery, feel free to gulp down that quart of water. It will help aid in the digestion of your next meal. And speaking of food…

I once ate an entire burrito just before a spin class. I had waited too long to eat and suddenly I was so hungry, my logical brain had taken a siesta. That burrito, much to my chagrin, sat in my gut through the entire class. I was in serious distress, but I learned my lesson. When you eat, you are signaling your brain to send your blood away from your muscles into your digestive tract. You need to give your system time to process the food and send it back into your body in the form of energy. Your workouts will suffer if you haven’t nourished your body with the right balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and water well before your workout begins. As with hydration, you need to plan ahead. Know when your workout begins and work backward. If you have an evening training session, have a snack between lunch and your workout. I recommend something with fiber, protein and carbohydrates, like an apple and some almonds or peanut butter. Experiment with different protein shakes or bars or other whole foods. If you are slow to digest like I am, you’ll want plenty of time – at least an hour – to digest this snack. If your blood is still working on your last meal, it will not be much good to your working muscles.

I design each workout to give you a full body workout experience, combining upper body, lower body, stabilizing, trunk and core strengthening exercises with cardiovascular and agility drills. But not everyone can complete every exercise. Since I’m not a mind-reader, I don’t always know whether something feels right to you. I try to check in with everyone before the workout to gauge how things are going, However, it is your responsibility to learn how your body works – how it moves, what it can and cannot do. Many clients return to training after an injury, illness or pregnancy with some limitations. Or many limitations. I encourage anyone rehabbing a shoulder or knee, etc. to bring PT exercises to do when you feel you cannot do a particular exercise. That said, it is vitally important that you spend some time in between workouts to facilitate your recovery, improving range of motion, strengthening weak muscles, and becoming more in touch with how your body should and does function. And if you haven’t learned yet how to modify an exercise, I have become quite skilled at this, so please ask. Exercise shouldn’t cause pain, but it sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable, and you should learn to distinguish between something that will hurt you and something that will help you grow. As we work together, I will start to see how hard I can push you. Each workout gives you an opportunity to see where your physical and psychological limitations are. Don’t miss out on getting to know how strong you really are.

If you are training for an endurance activity of more that 90 minutes like a half marathon or marathon, here is a great article on ways to keep your body functioning and happy in regards to fuel. I encourage you to experiment with different sources and see what works for your body.

Meditating in the Target Parking Lot

My son is obsessed with a few things, and it goes in cycles. Bey Blades, these little fancy spinning tops, Pokemon cards which he stores carefully in binders to show and trade with his friends, those rubber band bracelets, making origami cranes and paper airplanes with corners so sharp they will carve out your eyes. Once he latches on to an activity, he is trapped in a vortex, hours upon hours of ripping, trading, looming, and folding, leaving the evidence of his latest hobby scattered through the house amongst my daughter’s art projects. Lately, he’s back to Bey Blades. He tells us there is a new and improved product that one of his friends brought to school: a newer, cooler, more rippier version of the 10 he already had. And so, there we were, heading over to Target before school so he could buy it with his own carefully saved money. I’m not a fan of impulsive purchases, but he’s a pretty simple kid and is usually happy enough with a stack of scratch paper to fold, a book from the library or a hill to climb.

I sat in the car while Becca took the kids inside the store. I too struggle with impulsive consumerism, so I opted to stay away from temptation. All of a sudden, I was very solitary. Then I remembered I had agreed to be part of my friend’s project, 21 Days of Mindful Meditation. Here are her instructions:
Find a quiet space (preferably somewhere you can be alone and uninterrupted for 5 minutes). Find a comfortable seat (on the floor or in a chair). If physically possible, sit up straight without leaning against anything. As you sit, bring your awareness to your breath. Imagine the crown (top) of your head reaching toward the sky as you ground your sits bones down. Try to keep your focus on your breath for the next 5 minutes. You may open or close your eyes while you focus on your breath. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath.
I had been resisting doing this. Every time I remembered, it was at the end of the day, while laying in bed. I told myself, “It’s only 5 minutes a day, why am I being so stubborn?” How many of us are good at sitting with nothing on our lap, nothing in our view, nothing in our mind, with only our lungs to keep us company. My brain is full of past actions and future possibilities. Checking email, checking my phone, going here and there, being busy. Looking busy.

Fine, I said. I’m here doing nothing, I’m going to try this. I turned off my music, closed my eyes, brought my awareness to my breath. Opened my eyes, watched a woman unload her packages, wondering whether she was going to bring her cart back to the storage area or whether she was going to leave it there against a curb like so many people do. Oh, good for her, she walked it to the right place! Close my eyes, back to my breath. I felt all the aches and pains in my body. My foot that’s started to hurt more continually with this marathon training. My knees, my hips, my upper back and right shoulder, my neck. Basically everything. I took a deep breath and started to feel the tension slide away, bringing my attention to each body part brutalized by a lifetime of injury and dysfunction. Breathe, loosen, breathe, loosen. 5 minutes rolled by, while I laid claim to a more relaxed state. I can improve, I can choose to take these opportunities to be more okay with the present. I can be a meditator, woo!

Five minutes a day to be fully in the present, to let go of past regret and future potential. It’s really not too much to ask, and I gained so much from just this one time. Can I be a different person, a more present person, if I give myself over to this as a daily practice? I’ll worry about that when tomorrow becomes today.

Iron Sharpens Iron

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17

I am the daughter of a Baptist minister. I was raised in the church all my life until I started making trouble by being gay. But the church, the music, the language of Scripture, the sermons from the pulpit are in my blood. And so when I think of metaphors, analogies, things that teach, inspire and sometimes horrify me, that is where I go. To the culture and imagery of my people, those culturally conservative, hand-raising, tongues-speaking, Jesus hippies. Which is why when I stood at the bottom of the steep hill waiting for my friend to run it with me I thought of that passage from Proverbs. I am certainly not new to challenges. I’ve run races over the last few years, done some obstacle courses, I’ve gone shopping with kids in full-on tantrum mode. It’s not pretty, but we’ve all survived.

I stood at the bottom of the hill waiting for my friend, who was a few minutes late. She loves hills, and I hate them so I kept putting it off, putting it off. I don’t run up them so much as trudge. I labor; I plod. Eventually I gave up waiting and started up. Not because it was enjoyable, it never was. I went because I knew she was coming. She would catch up even if I was 10 feet to the top. I went and did not get back in my car because I put it out into the universe – and on Facebook – that I was going to do it.

We cannot come to fitness or any kind of inspired life change by going it alone. We all need the strength and support of others around us or our resolve will crumble. Other people can lend us the wisdom of their experience, teach us techniques and skills, help us persevere through hard moments, hold our hand to prove we’re not alone. The right person can mine for rubies even when we ourselves only see the rubble of despair. If we don’t foster these relationships, nothing worthwhile would ever get done. Whatever you want to change about your life, it won’t change without the help of the iron around you, the iron that sharpens even the dullest blade.

I’ve discovered that doing hard things allows us to do harder things.

Stronger Than You Think You Are