Sunday, January 26, 2014

Let's talk about pain

The other day, I ran around Macritchie with Rachel, and then we sat down to breakfast. Rachel is training for the Tokyo Marathon so part of our conversation went something like this.

- When you run a marathon, is there a point that everything starts to hurt?
- Yeah, my feet hurt, knees hurt, quads hurt, everything hurts. But it's normal pain. Not bad pain. You just gotta deal with it. (Pause) Do you realise that only another runner would understand exactly what I mean?

We both burst out laughing. It's true - there are so many different kinds of pain, and runners understand exactly what the difference is.

But let's talk about pain.

In general there are two kinds of problems that runners have with pain:

One, more common to beginning runners, is not understanding the difference between good pain and bad pain.
At last year's Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon, one of the taglines on the posters was 'Brave the Pain. Celebrate After.' And experienced runners complain all the time - 'That track session hurt but it was so good.'
This can actually be dangerous to less experienced runners listening in, and lead them to do some crazy stupid things. I've heard of people doing a 30k while they're still recovering from a flu. Going from nothing to marathon or ultra in too short a time frame. Doing a marathon - even though they're generally fit - with no training, thinking that pushing through the pain is heroic.

But here's the difference.

Good pain is: Doing a long training run and needing to foam-roll out all the dull muscle aches afterwards. Or: strength training and aching gently in places you didn't know existed. Or: when the yoga instructor says 'now open up your hip just a tiny bit more'. Or: 38km through a marathon; everything is sore from all the pounding, but you know you're not going to injure yourself and you're on track to PR if you just push a tiny bit more. Or: you hurt all over the day after a hard workout, but you know it'll go away in a day or two. Good pain is never the goal, never a bragging right. Good pain is pain in service of a larger goal.

Bad pain is: Sharp bright pain just below your kneecap when you run, as though the padding has worn down and something is grinding away inside. Or: when your calves are abnormally tight and wound up, like a too-tight guitar string, and you need to stretch at every stop light but even the stretching hurts. Or: being undertrained for a long race. Or: 12km into a marathon and every step sends pain shooting up your leg. Or: two weeks after you sprain your ankle, it still twinges when you land wrong. Or: pain that doesn't go away even with rest and reduced intensity. It's psychological too: bad pain is the pain you flaunt trying to show off how tough you are.

There comes a point when fighting through the pain isn't brave, it's stupid. And that depends on whether it's good pain or bad pain. Experience will help; no one but you can tell you what kind of pain you have. Knowing which is which can make all the difference.

This is why I hate 'fitspo'. Which is a whole nother conversation for another day.

The other sort of problem, endemic among experienced runners, is not listening to your pain.

Yeah, I have a problem with this too. I know running gives you a buzz like almost nothing else. I know how addictive that buzz can be. I know no other exercise is quite the same. One of my running friends is suffering through a nasty bout of plantar fascitis and the psychological damage is worse than the physical misery.

Most people who've been running for a while know the difference between good pain and bad pain; whether today's pain means tomorrow's gain or tomorrow's DNF. Your pain is trying to tell you something. But you've got to actually pay attention to it and take responsibility for yourself, or you're in as much trouble as someone who doesn't know which kind of pain they have.

I love this.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Another year, another age group

This year is a bit of a daunting year for me.

Why? It's the year I move up into the dreaded 30-34 age group. There may be eleven months to go before I turn 30, but triathlon directors don't care. (So heartless. Those women are fast.) That may or may not be part of why I haven't decided on the annual triathlon yet. I'm not a real triathlete, just a runner who pretends to be one now and then.

Either way, it got me thinking about a few other things I'd like to do this year - both running- and non-running-related. Some of them are realistic. Some of them are more aspirational.

I'd like to...
- volunteer at a race - YES! If you're running the Twilight Ultra Challenge, come and say hi. I will have gummy bears (not these ones don't worry)
- race a distance that I've never run before (that can be 6k, 12k, 15, 30...50???). Instant PR!
- trail run at least once a month
- run Punggol Waterway again! - DONE! Fine, that was last year on Christmas Day. It's still pretty.
- run my first ultra (any distance longer than 42.2...and I have a particular event in mind!)
- run a 25:00 5k
- run a 55:00 10k
- commit to one strength/ conditioning class and one pilates/ yoga/ other 'body awareness' class at the gym once a week (it's like medicine for me - I haven't the patience to do this on my own and therefore need a class to kick my butt)
- go paddleboarding more. I tried this last year and it's great fun. ('Learn to surf' is on my not-so-secret adventure bucket list, and I figure getting used to standing on a floating board is a good place to start.)
- go on a bike ride longer than anything I've ever done before. Enjoy it.
- hike in Hong Kong again
- swim with the whale sharks in the Philippines
- visit Italy
- try five new foods or restaurants this year (visiting Italy might help with this...)
- keep a log of the books I read all year - and yes, that includes the trashy mysteries. YES! Inspired by Angela over at SF Road Warrior, I'm actually doing this. You'll get the occasional book review here, too! I'll also be rereading Annie Dillard's 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' and reading all of the 2013 Booker Prize shortlist.
- finally complete the Udacity course I'm taking, in very, very basic Python. (No, 'basic Python' was not a bad nerd pun.)
- make some progress on one of the passion projects I have for work
- complete two more Coursera or Udacity courses (please recommend!)
- camp out on a beach and watch the sun rise. While not moving. Usually when I see the sunrise it's because I'm running towards it.
- learn to be still.

Anyone have any other suggestions?

Monday, January 6, 2014

In defense of disgusting gym clothes

I've mentioned it here, but I recently joined a gym to help with one of my New Year's running resolutions: focus on strength and stretching. I am phenomenally lazy, as you all know, and strength workouts done at home tend to go this way: I get the mat out, lie down on the floor, spot a dust bunny, go and grab the broom, clean it up, do a few squats, noodle around on the internet looking for a better playlist, do a few more, decide that my floor still isn't clean enough, and then it's time to pack it in for the day. When it comes to strength work, I am not the most motivated person.

So it slooooooowly dawned on me that I could just go to classes like Body Pump and Pilates and be done with it in a couple of hours a week. Yes, it's a rather expensive way to force myself to keep that resolution but I'll keep the resolution precisely because I'm spending good $ on it. (Economists? Anyone? What's the term you use for that? Jeano?)

In any case, I promptly discovered the existence of people who wear false eyelashes and eyeliner to the gym. I couldn't tell if one woman was coming from (why wouldn't you take your makeup off?) or going to a party (don't false eyelashes come off in the shower or have they stuck on with superglue? a friend enlightened me that there exists eyelash superglue. phew).

I'd say most people at the gym I joined are fairly serious about their workouts, though. But boy, do they dress nice. I went for one yoga class in shorts and a tech t-shirt from a race and felt a bit out of place among the people with the stretchy capris and tank tops with an intricate, inordinate number of complicated straps.

And so I read 'In Defense of Disgusting Gym Clothes' and the cutting, hilarious 'Refining the Fitness-Gear Trend' (it's from NYT's Critical Shopper, a section I rarely read, but a column about workout wear? Bring it.) and had a great chuckle.

From the former:
Here are my requirements for gym clothes: clean, comfortable, and suited for the activity. Your requirements are probably similar. It is unlikely you need fancy gear to use a treadmill. Windbreakers that wick sweat, neoprene layers, and aerodynamic running pants are irrelevant. Besides, most of today's trendy gym clothes sell themselves on aesthetics rather than performance. 
I like nice gear, and a new pair of shorts or shoes can be an excellent motivator. But I take her point. I wear tech shirts because they work, and choose shorts or tights that don't chafe, keep me (relatively) dry, and are comfortable (I'd rather run in a body-hugging tank top that doesn't flop all over the place when it gets soggy, than a baggy shirt that I have to wring out). I never skimp (pun not intended...or maybe???) on a good sports bra. So I get that capris are much more comfortable to do a split in, and you don't horrify everyone when you stick your legs up in the air.

But marketing is aspirational. Trendy gym clothes are not going to make you look like the models in the catalogues. Most of us buy ripstop nylon hiking trousers and dream about adventures that we never take, or complicated tank tops and dream about being able to hold the yoga pose the model is doing. Gear won't get you there; you will. No pair of running shorts is going to make you faster; you are going to make you faster.

But I think the bigger point here is simply not to judge. (Yes, I've seen running and fitness bloggers judge, too - judge women runners for being vain, judge runners who are faster, judge runners who are slower, judge people for running too far, judge people who are not running far enough, judge people who may have different value systems for being arrogant, judge women who lift hard, judge women who don't lift hard, etc etc ad nauseaum ad infinitum zzz.) The gym is a dense urban environment; there are always other people around and there will always be someone who is dressed nicer than you and someone who looks like they wore that t-shirt to sleep. (I reserve the right however to snicker a bit at people who wear full-length compression tights for a short weekend run, unless those are your only running pants.)

More importantly, and harder yet, don't feel like you're being judged. Most people at the gym probably aren't judging you either. They're just there to work out and do their thing - whether that's 'run hard until you're a sweaty puddle' or 'look cute to motivate yourself while working out'. And the ones who are judging you, well, aren't you're old enough not to give a shit?

On a similar but more serious note, here are two more things I enjoyed reading.

Miss Zippy: Trends I'd Like To See End in 2014
Fit and Feminist: Moving away from the cult of the body in 2014

From the latter:
I’ve seen holy wars break out over Paleo/primal/vegan/fruitarian ways of eating. I’ve seen smugnoms tell people with cancer that they wouldn’t be in this situation had they just avoided meat and processed food.  I’ve seen people try to recast cruelty towards fat people as something intended to help them.  I’ve seen people who can barely articulate a coherent thought brag about spending three hours a day in the gym.  I’ve seen fitness and nutrition professionals basically use their platforms to inflict their disordered lifestyles on thousands of adoring followers. I’ve seen people wield their healthy lifestyles and their fit bodies as clubs with which they beat the heads of lesser mortals who may not have visible abs or who might have boxed food in their pantries.
The take-home point: You are more than your body. You are your beliefs and mind and values as well, and all these things matter as much or more than whether you can achieve a six-pack. I would like to lead a more interesting life than it being all physical perfection all the time. And again, judge not and don't give a rat's ass that you're being judged either. Discuss.