Christopher McDougall and me: Born to run, or not?

Weeks after my reintroduction to running my first 5K in 30 some years, I’m getting ready to go out for a little run again. First  I tape up my recalcitrantly inflamed ankle. Next, Ace wrap my torn, aching hamstring. Then the usual stuff:  shorts, shirt, heart rate monitor, cell phone, and I’m ready to go. Turns out that running has only gotten harder, not easier, as my physical therapist and sports medicine doc can attest. So why do I still do it? I admit that most days I’m mystified myself.

If we are, as Christopher McDougall posits, born to run, why is it so hard, or nearly impossible, for most of us? I’m two years late to the party, reading McDougall’s 2010 tome, Born to Run, long after everyone else has already tried and given up on barefoot running and buying Chia pets to make their own chia seed elixir. Yet, I’ve jumped on the bandwagon, convinced that somewhere in this book is the answer to how a middle-aged women with a non-athletic body can somehow be transformed into a modicum of runner. My goal to run two miles twice a week, and a few 5k’s a summer, so far has been mostly insurmountable, and getting farther away each day, as every run I take I swear will be my last.

So I’m trying it again.  Like McDougall, I’ve been to my family doctor, who gently suggested that walking might be a better option, ahem, at my age. I’ve been to the sports medicine doc who told me that as long as I’m unable to hop on my bad ankle, I’ll have no success running on it. My bike guru who had gently discouraged me, now says “I’m surprised you’ve lasted THIS long.” The only bright spot is at  physical therapy, where, I’ve  actually garnered some understanding of my aspirations, and surprisingly, some improvement, including now being able to hop on each foot.

I could try gait analysis, but I’m afraid I’ll end up being the five-foot two version of McDougall’s running monster, as McDougall recounts here, which had me chortling uncontrollably when I first read it:

“Dr. Davis put me on the treadmill…and had me walk, trot and haul ass.. Then I sat in horror as she played back the video. …The guy on the screen was Frankenstein’s monster trying to tango.. I was bobbing around so much, my head was disappearing from the top of the frame. My arms were slashing back and forth like an ump calling  a player safe at the plate, while my size 13s clumped down so heavily it sounded like the video had a bongo back beat…my right foot twisted out, my left knee dipped in, and my back bucked and spasmed so badly that it looked as if someone ought to jam a wallet between my teeth and call for help. How was I even moving forward with all that up-down, side-to-side, fish-on a hook flopping going on?”

McDougall’s quest to run without injury brought him to explore the ways of the Tarahumara, a  tribe of super runners, and the Leadville Trail 100 ultra-marathoners, all of whom run amazing distances year after year, without harm. If those folks can run like that, shouldn’t McDougall and I be able to run our paltry little distances injury free? Unless McDougall’s writings are sheer hyperbole, perhaps I’ll find the answer by the time I finish the book.

Have you read McDougall’s book? What physical achievements have you accomplished, despite the odds tilted against your success?

© Huffygirl 2012


Spin doctor

I’m on my bike, pedaling like mad, leaning over the handlebars. The wind is blowing my hair, making it fall in my face. I repeatedly push it back, thinking I really don’t have time for this. I’m too busy working hard at keeping up with everyone else. The cyclists around me seem to be cruising along without much effort, making this ride look really easy. This is one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done. Except, this time, I’m not on out on the road – I’m trying my first spin class.

Huffygirl, fit and ready to go!

I’ve actually attempted spin class before, many years ago, before I started biking.  At that time, I found out I was not fit enough to do an entire class, felt too uncomfortable on the bike saddle (seat), and couldn’t get the bike adjusted to fit me.  But since then, three things have happened: 1.) I’ve achieved enough cardiovascular fitness after four summers of biking, that an hour of spin class should be a cinch; 2.) my gym has gotten new spin bikes with better saddles and better adjustments; and 3) I have the right bike clothes and gear to make spin class easier that I lacked before – mainly cycling shorts and clip-in cycling shoes. Of course, it’s possible to spin in ordinary gym clothes and shoes, but much easier with. And, since I’m taking spin class to maintain my fitness until the next biking season, it makes sense to make spin as much like my usual biking as possible.

Cycling shorts and shoes? Check.

So, I’m giving it another go. Best husband helped me through the bike set-up. I’ve got my water bottle, bike shoes, heart rate monitor, so I should be good to go. This early morning class is a mix of serious cyclists, folks who just want to get their exercise over with before work, and some inbetweeners like me. I’m trying to go out hard and get a good work out, but not overdo it on my first class, but I’m having a hard time striking the balance. Instead of gears, spin bikes have a tension knob – left for looser, right for tighter. It’s hard to gauge how much tension to use for a good workout.  And I’m finding the movement and noise in the small room overwhelming. Everything is moving – wheels turning, fans blowing, people popping  up and down, cranks turning. I don’t know where to look and end up closing my eyes for a good part of the class. And the noise – fans blowing, riders chatting, music blaring. Give me a nice quiet ride outside anytime. But it’s cold outside, so for the next few months, I’ll have to make this class work, or end up riding my trainer in the basement again. Not much of a choice either way. I don’t want to look like a newbie or wuss, and I don’t want to give up and quit like last time, so I’ll have to figure out how to cope.

Did I make it through my first spin class? Find out later on “Spin Diary.”

© Huffygirl 2011

Too old to start the training, OR Mr. Toad’s wild ride

I wake up, wondering what day it is, what time it is, and why am I wrapped up in extra blankets while the fan is running full blast? My neck hurts, my knees hurt, my feet hurt, my quads hurt, my shoulders hurt  and I’m pretty sure my hair hurts. What happened? Well, fast-backward twelve hours earlier.

Twelve hours earlier

I’m on my bike, clutching the handlebars as tightly as I can. My hair that is not contained in my helmet is whipping across my face. I’m trying as hard as I can

The demon trainer (© Huffygirl 2011)

to keep up with the biker in front of me.  After all, only a short while earlier I had taunted this demon – “Go faster” I said – “I’m getting too close to you.” Jeez. What was I thinking? My right hand is numb, my left shoulder aching. Was that a pothole back there? I just missed it. I’m going so fast (well fast for me anyway) that I’m not taking in all of my surroundings. Where are we anyway? I’ve done this ride before, the landmarks should be  familiar, but I’ve really got all I can do to keep up with this speed demon, let alone watch the scenery.

Okay, now we’re going up a hill. I gear down, but that’s not enough to keep up with this demon, so soon I’m standing on the pedals, cranking away. I did it! But at the top, he’s off again. Finally, we’re at the flat part of the ride. “This should be a cinch” I think, “I’ll show him I know how to keep up.” But it seems that we’re going into the wind. I struggle to keep up on what is usually the easiest part of the ride, watching my average speed drop and drop and drop, farther from my goal. We stop for water at the corner before the turn.  “Well that was hard going into the wind, but we’re turning now so it should be better,” I say. But the demon trainer points out “Nah, that was just a crosswind, when we turn we’ll be going even MORE into the wind.” I don’t see how we could possibly be going MORE into the wind and scoff at this, until I notice the flag on the corner, spread out wildly, flapping away from the direction we are turning.

And so we continue: flats, uphills, downhills for 25 miles. I’m watching  the pedal rotations of this demon man (and his impressive calf muscles) and notice that most of the time I’m pedaling twice as fast as he is, just to barely keep up. And he’s not riding at his full potential – after all he’s taking it easy on my first training ride. 

By the time we get home, I’m feeling accomplished, but aching. I didn’t ride pretty, but I did it. My bike computer tells me I did this ride exactly six minutes faster than the last time when I was just phoning it in. All this and only six minutes? Still, for me, whose only boast is  being the slowest biker on the road, this is progress. Next time it might be seven minutes, and then eight and then…oh heck, I’m freezing and aching and need a shower.

By the time I’m done showering I’m chilled to the bone, from all that cold wind rushing quickly past me no doubt, and despite the summer heat, wrap up in extra blankets and a heating pad to crawl into bed.

So now flash forward twelve hours again. I untangle myself from the extra blankets and get up to turn off the fan. It turns out I can still walk after all, and isn’t this why Tylenol was invented anyway?  So, will I let my husband be my trainer again? Absolutely!

The Huffys, on an easier ride (© Huffygirl 2011)

© Huffygirl 2011

Related post:

A journey begins with 10,000 steps


A step-counting pedometer. (Image via Wikipedia)

You’ve heard that expression haven’t you? Well, probably not, since the actual expression is “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” attributed to  Confucius. But this journey, the 10,000 steps one, is about lifetime fitness.

I’ve been working on writing information for my diabetic patients on eating and exercise, and ran across some literature that advocates taking 10,000 steps (about 5 miles)  a day. I’ve read some different variations of this, and if you want to know the basics you can read here, or do a search on your own. The basic premise is that walking 10,000 steps per day (the rough equivalent of 5 miles for a person with an average stride) is thought to be a reasonable amount of exercise to maintain fitness and weight, and is something that an average healthy person should do just about every day. The suggestion is that one should take a brisk 30-60 minute walk for the first 5,000 steps, aka 2.5 miles, then accomplish the rest by one’s regular activity. If your regular day is sedentary, you’ll have to do more in the planned walking part to make up for it.

In researching this, I began to wonder if the average person has enough activity in a typical day to rack up 5,000 or so steps a day. I found a pedometer lying around the house that counts steps, and tried it out. Since my exercise is biking instead of walking, which my pedometer cannot record, my goal is to see if I can get around 5,000 steps during my typical day. Then if I add on the calorie value of biking (100 calories = one mile) that should be the equivalent of walking another 5,000, to bring the total for the day to 10,000 steps.  I’d probably have to bike 45 minutes to get the additional exercise I need. I do more some days, less some days, so let’s hope it all evens out. 

So here’s what happened.

Day 1: I hit the trainer in my basement in the morning, and didn’t clip on the pedometer until after I’d showered and dressed. I spent the day doing a few short errands, working around the house, and up and down the stairs several times doing laundry. Pedometer total: 5,580 steps. Not bad. Let’s see what tomorrow brings – I’ll be at the office so this might be tough…

Day 2: I was at the clinic all day. I do a fair amount of walking around there but it’s  a small building. Probably at least one-quarter to one-third  of my day is standing or sitting. Today I went out at lunch time, so that added some walking to the car, the restaurant, and back again. At home I did my usual evening activities, went to the gym to lift weights. Pedometer total: 5,443 steps.

Day 3: Thirty minutes on the bike, then doing some shopping, errands and work around the house. I had two appointments that required sitting for two-three hours, plus some time in the car. Did some up and down the stairs for laundry too. I thought with all the sitting I did that it wouldn’t be enough steps. But at the end of the day, Pedometer total: 6,506.

Day 4:First thing in the morning  I participated in a 5K (3.1 mile walk). At the end of the walk my pedometer showed 12,164 steps. It seems like my 5K walk should have recorded as 5,000 to 6,000 steps, which makes me think this pedometer is counting two steps for every one I take. Later, I did some more walking around town, shopping, and walked a little bit at a park. Pedometer total for the day: 18,349.

 After my four-day walking experiment, I’m starting to think that either: a) getting 10,000 steps a day is way easier than I thought it would be, or b) this pedometer is recording too many steps.  Perhaps  it’s recording any kind of side to side movement that I do as steps, or counting every step I take as two. It was not an expensive pedometer, so I guess I’ll never know unless I buy a more expensive one, or have someone else try this one and see what kind of numbers they get. But if my pedometer is correct, than it seems that even office-bound people should be able to walk at least 5,000 steps in the course of a day fairly easily.

So, at this point my four-day unscientific experiment has shown inconclusive results. The accuracy of the pedometer remains unknown. It would be interesting to hear from others who have tried the 10,000 steps per day to see what kind of results you’ve gotten. Meanwhile, maybe I can get someone else around here to give my pedometer a try to get some comparison numbers.

No, I’m good, I think I’ll climb down now

I’m hanging in a rope harness 20 feet above the floor. My hands and feet are sweaty, my heart is pounding. I know if I look down, or up, or anywhere, I’m done. Now it’s time to let go of the wall. This is the hard part. Most of the time I’m able to do it, although I have been known to climb back down, rather than  make myself let go of the wall and belay down. In fact, almost every time I’m up there I think about just climbing back down. But Steve, the philosopher climbing wall guy usually talks me out of it. So I let go of the wall, grab the rope and experience two seconds of terror as Philosopher Steve starts to belay me down. Once I’m past the letting go part, then I’m usually okay the rest of the way down, and mange to land on my feet.

So, you might ask, why is Huffygirl subjecting herself to such terror? Is this some strange kind of initiation ceremony? Some crazy office team building exercise? Is Huffygirl stuck in a horrible Ground Hog Day type dream where she must relive her most terrifying day over and over and over? No, this is my regular Wednesday night workout – climbing the 20 foot rock wall at my gym.

Before my gym installed the Rockwerx wall, I’d always thought that climbing

Philosopher Steve

 was for strong, elite athletes, which naturally meant that I was not qualified. I’d watch other people do it, all the while my palms sweating and heart pounding, glad to presume that I probably was not strong enough to even try it. But one night I wandered over to the wall and no one was climbing. Philosopher Steve was waiting for someone to belay and had nothing better to do than convince me I should give it a try. So I did. I stepped into the harness, clipped in to Steve’s belay line and started up. Turns out I was good enough and strong enough to climb, despite being terrified of the height. About 8 feet up I figured I’d had enough, but Steve kept egging me on with witty banter and sage encouragement, which earned him his current nickname, Philosopher Steve. About three feet from the top I was ready to quit, but Steve’s coaxing convinced me to go the rest of the way. Then came the terrifying part. I had to let go of the wall in order to belay down. Now logic dictates that there was nothing inherently safer about holding onto the wall than not holding on to it, but logic had been pushed aside by fear long before I got that far. I’m in a harness; even if I started to fall off the wall the safety mechanism would catch me. Short of a malfunction in the harness at precisely the same time that Steve unexpectedly dropped dead at the bottom, there is no way to fall or get hurt. Yet, here I am, afraid to let go.

And the next Wednesday night I was back. And the next. Some twisted logic was telling me it was good to challenge myself and made me come back each week, but it’s hard. Harder than giving up chocolate or trying to figure out which way is north, or speaking in public. Yet, I keep doing it.

So simple a child can do it!

The climbing part is getting easier, although I still stick to the easiest route. My arms are stronger, I should be proud that I’m getting better. But the trouble is, I still can’t let go when I get to the top. As climbing walls go, this one is pretty tame. It’s only (only!) 20 feet, with three routes. Anyone who’s really into climbing would think it pretty lame. The little kids on family day scramble up and auto-belay down, falling flat on the mat and getting up to do it again. But it’s not tame to me.

Soon my climbing career may be coming to an abrupt end. My gym has decided that it’s too expensive to staff the climbing wall with belaying assistants. Instead climbers must take a climbing safety class, then will be on their own. No coaxing climbing guru to help you on your way. You can bring someone to belay for you, or use the auto-belay, which takes you down so fast that inexperienced climbers, and those paralyzed with fear like me, end up falling at the bottom. I tried it once and have been too terrified to try it again. 

Steve and Huffygirl

But Philosopher Steve is coaxing me back. I climb up three feet, auto-belay down and Steve is there spotting me so I don’t fall. Then four feet, then five. This poor guy should be nominated for sainthood. Is that smile on his face when he greets me genuine, or does he have to paste it on whenever I come by. “Not HER again,” any sane person would be thinking. But not Steve, with the patience of Job,  and the good nature of a  puppy.

What do YOU do to challenge yourself? Who is your Philosopher Steve?

(Photos by Huffygirl)

Namaste darn it!

downward dog posture I took this picture for u...

The REAL way to do downward dog. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I’m back in Yoga class after a three-year absence.  Fortunately the room is dark, or the other students would be laughing too hard to participate. I am possibly the most unflexible and definitely the most uncoordinated person to ever step onto a Yoga mat, yet here I am, giving it another try. Apparently I am unable to remember my previous Yoga stint, where after two years I was still unable to get my heels to the floor, and fell with a thud every single time I attempted tree.  Although I’m the shortest one in the class, it seems that I somehow have the longest arms and legs of everyone there. As we face the mirror, everyone tucked neatly into position, all I see are my legs, my elbows, sticking out all over the place. I’m surprised I haven’t put someone’s eye out.  We’re sitting in butterfly; everyone elses’ knees are nearly on the floor, but mine are almost straight up. Now we’re doing downward dog, something I think we do WAAAY too much of in this class. Everyone else moves smoothly into plank and alligator, while I just flop onto the floor, hoping no one will notice. The teacher, who is incredibly tiny except for her uncannily mannish arms, is hovering her whole body just above the mat, and expects us to do the same. Have I slipped into the super-advanced class by mistake?

Now we’ve moved into the warrior poses. Fortunately, this is something I can sort of pull off. The key is in the look. You stand in lunge position, your arms out at 90 degrees, and here’s the key part, you turn your head so you’re looking out OVER your arms. Now, assume a superior, snooty, serious  expression which says “don’t mess with me I’m the warrior woman” and – I’ve got it. The don’t mess with me look finishes off the pose. Never mind that my legs are not as deeply lunged as everyone else and I keep wobbling out of the pose  – at least I’ve got the look down.

Seriously, Yoga is a great exercise to improve strength, balance and flexibility. You can find Yoga classes at many different levels, from the serious, purist Yoga studios, to the gym-based classes, which tend to focus more on strength and fitness than the spiritual and meditative aspects. (My gym uses the YogaFit method.) I am definitely not an expert on Yoga, as anyone who has seen me in class can testify, so I’ll leave it up to the many expert Yoga websites available to give you the skinny on all things Yoga. If you’re looking for an alternative to your usual exercise and want a good laugh (if I’m in your class that is) give Yoga a try.

 © The author and Huffygirl’s Blog, 2010 to 3010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Huffygirl’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


It's the Janucisers! (Image courtesy of Google)

I’m looking out over the cardio room at my gym. Evey treadmill is in use. Some folks are lurking behind the users, trying to see how much time they have left on their workout, like exercise vultures moving in for the kill. Over in the weight room, folks are huffing and puffing away, lifting way more weight than their paunchy frames can bear. Every bench in free weights is taken. Towels are draped over the bars and water bottles line the aisles. Back down in the locker room, all the good lockers are in use. Towels spill out of the used towel bin. The showers are running non-stop and folks pose before their locker, hurriedly  stripping off sweaty clothes.

So what’s going on here – is it the eve of the exercise apocalypse? Exergedeon? No. It’s just the season of the Janucisers. They show up every year around this time. Like beavers late to the dam party, they appear in droves beginning January first. They work feverishly throughout the month. They’re still in pretty good force in February. But by mid month you can get a treadmill without lurking behind its user. By the end of the month there’s no trouble getting a locker. And by mid to late March –  the Janucisers are gone. No strangers monopolizing your favorite bench.  No more having to use the broken lockers. The gym has been turned back to – the regulars.

Committment to regular exercise seems to be a regular new year’s resolution for many. Why is this one so hard to keep? I don’t always enjoy exercise, but when I started biking the spring of 2008 and

Huffygirl after 30 miles along Lake Shore Drive.

discovered how out of shape I was (even though I had been an avid walker and lifter for years) I never, ever wanted to go back to that point. It’s much easier to maintain fitness than to start anew every January 1.

What do you do for exercise? What helps you keep your committment so you don’t have to be a Januciser?

Target Heart Rate Wrap-up

We’ve learned how to calculate target heart rate (THR), why it’s important to pay attention to it for fitness, and how to monitor it. So now what?

Use one of the formulas given earlier to calculate your THR. Better yet, calculate it more than one way, and see which range gives you the workout you need. Then try it out – you may need to make some adjustments for yourself, if the range seems too easy or too hard, or just tires you out. Tailor your heart rate to your exercise goals, whether it’s improved fitness, weight loss, or maintaining your current state. Think about using interval training (more on this later) to avoid workout boredom and overtraining.

Figure out what works best for you for monitoring your heart rate – whether you count it yourself, or use a monitor. Keep a log, at least at first, of your workout and the heart rate levels you achieve, to help you see if you’re reaching your goals.

If you do different types of workouts, you will probably see that your heart rate varies depending on your activity. For instance you’ll achieve different levels of intensity from walking, jogging, biking and swimming. Further, walking on a treadmill or biking on a stationary bike/trainer may turn out to be less intense for you than running or biking outside, where there are more variables, and less boredom. If you’re running or biking with a group or in a competition, you’ll likely see further variation in your intensity. You’ll probably need to adjust your THR goals to meet these variations.

Good luck with your workout and post your comments on what is working for you. Remember, turns out THR IS important!

Target Heart Rate Diaries:Part 1

I’ve been a moderate exerciser for years. At least I think I’m a moderate exerciser. I don’t really know because I never check my heart rate when exercising. I thought that was for fanatics, people training for elite events like marathons, and men. Probably because the only people I knew who monitored their heart rate were at least two out of three of the above. At first I was a walker – I’d walk anywhere from 30-60 minutes, three to four days a week, on a treadmill, at a fairly slow pace of an 18-20 minute mile. I’d vary the workout with some incline on the treadmill to try to get more exercise. This was pretty easy exercise for me. I could carry on a conversation and had no trouble keeping this pace for an hour or more. Trouble was, this exercise was maintaining my current level of unfitness and weight, but not improving anything. I thought I was pretty fit from all that walking, until I switched to biking. At first I used a stationary bike at my gym. It had a program that randomly varied the intensity of the workout. I was amazed at how hard this exercise was for me – I could barely keep up on the simplest program and had to stop and rest frequently. Then I started biking outside on my Huffy. I struggled to keep my speed at 10 mph, which for average bikers, is pretty slow. If I biked a moderate hill, I had to stop at the top and recover. How could I be so unfit after all that walking I had done for years? I blamed my bike which was heavy, had wide tires not meant for speed, and was not quite the right fit for me.

I kept plugging away at my biking and began to improve. By the end of the first summer, I had improved my speed, and could take moderate hills without stopping to rest, but was still a pretty slow biker. The following spring I got a new bike that was a better fit, had thin road tires, and was 15 pounds lighter than the Huffy. That helped, but still not the answer. By the end of that summer, after biking 1,100 miles, I had improved a little in speed and endurance but was still not where I ought to be. I was still pretty slow and could not keep up with average bikers. When I rode with friends they would graciously slow to my pace, but I was working hard and they were hardly working. Why was I still fairly unfit after all that riding?

So one day this past winter I was talking to my very fit husband about why I wasn’t getting more fit, and he casually mentioned “…and of course you’re checking your heart rate…” Wait – what? I never check my heart rate. He should know that – we bike together all the time. When we get ready to bike I’m always waiting for him while he’s putting on his heart rate monitor. I’m checking my email, checking my messages, checking everything except my heart rate. Why should I do that – that’s for, well, you know.

Well, my irrational and sexist thinking regarding heart rate finally came back to bite me. That same week two others (one of them a woman) made unsolicited comments to me about “…of course you’re checking your heart rate..” so I decided it was a sign. Time to start caring about my target heart rate and see if it really could be the answer to my lack of exercise progress.