Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Kicking my own ass

As regular readers of this blog know, I've been posting whiteboard updates in an attempt to keep myself motivated and accountable for the tasks I want to get done each week. The evidence will show my batting average there is fairly mediocre, but one area where I can claim some success is the top row -- exercise.

At one point in the not-too-distant past, I ballooned up to 280 pounds (127 kilograms, 20 stone) amid stress, inactivity, etc. Ever since I got settled in Abu Dhabi, though, I set myself a target of at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise at least four times a week, and I've managed largely to stick to that. The fitness center in my apartment block is modest but has all the basics -- an elliptical machine, two treadmills (one of which even works), a rowing machine, stationary bike, free weights and one more complicated weight machine. In the interest of simplicity, I stick to the elliptical and treadmill.

Now, a little more than 13 months into my stay here, I'm down to between 235 and 240 pounds (107-109kg, 16-17 stone), depending on the day. This is down to a few different factors: 1) eating less; 2), eating healthier (cooking for myself is a big help here); 3) nagging myself into getting up earlier so I have time to work out; and 4) working in a couple sessions of interval training each week, getting a maximum amount of exercise in 30 minutes of actual workout. The idea is to alternate between periods at a 5 on the Perceived Exertion Index -- 0 being sitting down to blog, 10 being fleeing from rabid zombie tigers -- and periods at a 9.
So, how do intervals actually help? Hard-working muscles produce lactic acid. If you're running at a comfortable pace, your body has plenty of time to flush it away. But as you start to work harder and harder, there comes a point when your body can't do that quickly enough. The lactic acid starts to build up, leaving you with burning muscles and a desire to stop.
This point is called your lactate threshold, and interval training is all about encouraging your body to do all it can to offset this point, and to cope mentally when it does come – so you can run faster for longer. Your body responds to interval training by growing extra capillaries to transport more oxygen to your muscles, strengthening your heart to pump it round, and developing the capability to buffer more lactic acid.
Between the intervals, sessions on the elliptical and the occasional 5k on the treadmill, the work is showing dividends. It wasn't that long ago I was happy just to complete a 5k at all, then get it done in less than 45 minutes, all the while gasping for breath at workout's end. Now, I've whittled my 5k personal best down to 31:41, or about 10:15 per mile. I haven't run a sub-10:00 mile since high school, so this is kind of exciting. The next immediate goal is to finish a 5k in 30:00 or less. Even though the weight loss isn't as dramatic as before, I can still see benefits to the exercise -- more energy, better mood, certain articles of clothing are baggier than before, etc.

The point of this entry isn't to pat myself on the back, though. Rather, I want to talk about something that has become clear to me in the process of pushing the limits of my fitness.

One thing that has become abundantly clear is that, even with all the progress I've made, my jerkbrain continues to exert a strong influence on my thoughts. The jerkbrain, for those unfamiliar with the concept, has been accurately described as the part of your brain that is "an invisible terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth". It's that voice in the back of your head telling you you're not good enough, or that no one likes you, or that there's no point in trying because you'll just fail again.

Sometimes it's subtler but no less insidious. "I'm just not feeling it today. Let's take it easy and get back on the horse tomorrow." "It's OK to dial back the speed on the last few intervals. No one's around, and we've done most of the hard work already." "Why not take a few mental health moments and daydream here in bed? The treadmill will still be there 30 minutes from now." Make no mistake, the jerkbrain is persuasive, and it only gets more so as conditions become more adverse. It doesn't win out nearly as often as it used to, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't succumb to it every now and then.

Lately, the jerkbrain has been at its loudest about 70% to 80% of the way through interval or 5k workouts. I've been pushing the speed of my 5k runs to see how much I can stand without injuring myself, increasing half the run 0.5kph each time. For example, two attempts ago was at 9kph the first 2.5k and 9.5kph the second 2.5k, whereas the most recent attempt was 9.5kph the whole way through. The distance counts down pretty quickly, but in those last couple kilometers it never seems to go quickly enough. Then, with breathing heavy and muscles aching, I hear it: "Dial it back a few notches, wouldya? We'll still set a new personal best at this rate. Do you want to hurt your hamstring again?" [Note: I did twang a hamstring last month; nothing serious, but enough to limit me to the elliptical for about 10 days.]

What do you do when your own brain is conspiring against you? Some have suggested treating your uncooperative brain like a misbehaving puppy, not berating or attacking it but calmly and patiently guiding it back onto the proper path. There is merit to that approach, but I don't know if I have the patience to pull it off. I've been falling back on something I was taught while doing drum corps -- I'm paraphrasing here, but I'm pretty sure I'm close: "You have to kick your own ass, because no one is going to do it for you." Basically, there is no one to roust me from bed, make sure I get my workout in before going off to work, see to it that I cook something each week and tidy up around the apartment, etc. Whether I survive and thrive or lapse back into despair is all up to me. I've lived that latter life -- no energy, no social life, always feeling angry or ashamed at myself and wanting nothing more than to stay curled up in bed all day -- and I want no part of it now. It may seem simplistic, but I remember those days vividly, and being able to see the difference between who I was then versus who I am now is enough to convince me that the power to continue this positive change is within me.

That change isn't easy, but there is clear evidence that it is achievable and sustainable. The jerkbrain, while not completely exterminated, can be sidelined and silenced. Even a motivation as childish as spite can do the trick, provided it's channeled properly. (For example, "Oh, jerkbrain thinks I can't? Watch me.") The next challenge is to take this newfound bloody-mindedness beyond the realm of physical fitness and start applying it to other parts of my life -- professional, social, academic, and so on. Time management and organization have never been my strong suit, so being able to kick my own ass into gear in all aspects would do me a world of good as I continue this gradual remodeling of my life.

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