Arms, Oars, and What’s Below the Surface

Have you ever felt like you were putting a lot of energy out, but weren’t moving very far?

I just realized that I have been swimming the freestyle stroke “wrong” my entire life.

I took years of swimming lessons as a kid because I loved swimming. In the seventh grade, I tried out for the swim team at my local YMCA. I didn’t make the team, and they suggested I enroll in a class where they taught more advanced swim skills in preparation for tryouts another year. 

But I never got much faster and speed always seemed to leave me so out of breath. 

I got discouraged and abandoned swimming in favor of music. Now, two decades later, an injury was the catalyst for me taking up swimming again.

And I still struggled with speed in the freestyle, as when I did when I was a kid. When I tried to speed up, I would move my arms more quickly. More strokes per lap. I focused on how my arms exited and re-entered the water.

This week, it dawned on me that by focusing on what happened above the surface, I was ignoring where all the power was: beneath the surface.

Swimming “works” by using your body to displace the water. You pull the water in the direction opposite where you want your body to go. All that pulling happens when your arms are IN THE WATER. What happens above the water is pretty irrelevant.

It was a lightbulb moment. How did I never realize this before? When you row a boat, the oars don’t move the boat while they are above the surface; that’s just recovery so they can get back INTO the water. All the pulling and all the power happen while the oars are IN the water.

So I started focusing differently on my stroke technique for the freestyle. Instead of focusing on “how can I get less tired while moving my arms quickly,” I started focusing all my attention to the pull that happens when my arms are IN in the water. How can I create the most resistance, and pull through it? THIS is the key part of the stroke.

And…HOLY POWER! Now my strokes are actually doing something.  I got faster overnight. My heart rate and breathing are challenged, AND I am actually moving. Not by putting out more strokes per minute…..but by putting more muscle and focus into my strokes.

Fewer, more powerful strokes get you farther than more strokes that are less powerful.

There has got to be a lesson applicable to habits in that. I will be mulling this one over. How about you?

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The Locker Room Scale (and Some Injury Updates)

Content heads-up: This post contains scale talk (no specific numbers). Skip it if that isn’t your thing.

Swimming is going well. I’ve got my routine down pat. I am proficient in 3 strokes. After watching some of the other lap swimmers do flip turns, I was inspired to try them for the first time in years.

Yesterday I went to the beach with my family and swam in the ocean a bit. I’m not used to swimming in the ocean so it was mostly water walking. Still, plenty of movement. And even after a day at the beach (including walking and carrying gear), I didn’t have any back aches.

In fact, I haven’t had any back aches in a week or two. The three times per week swimming plus hot tub routine, plus physical therapy, seems to be working wonders.  I had my follow up with the spine doctor this week, and he said that if in three months I am still pain free, he will likely clear me to do whatever I want. Since what I am doing is working, I am going to keep doing it.

A couple things I wasn’t anticipating:

  1. I’m not sure whether it is the relaxing effect of the swimming, or the fact that it is super hot outside, or a side effect of the antidepressant I started taking…..but I have been feeling really unmotivated and sometimes sleepy.
  2. I keep feeling drawn to the scale in the locker room.

I felt a bit conflicted about the presence of the scale at first. For the past year and a half, my approach to the scale was easy. I didn’t own one at home. I got on the scale if I was at the doctors office, to satisfy my curiosity. This happened maybe once every couple months.

Now, I see a scale in the locker room three or four times per week, and I wish I didn’t feel drawn to it, but I do.

For a little while I fought it. I just didn’t get on.

Then one day I decided I was going to get on, just to get it out of my head. So I did.

Then the next time I went to swim, I wanted to get on again. Rather than argue with myself (“This is really unhealthy. You don’t need to weigh yourself that much”), I just told myself “you want to get on the scale? That’s fine. You know what you weigh anyway, and it’s not like it is going to change anything you are doing today.” So I did.

And maybe it is unhealthy to want to get on the scale every time I see it. Maybe it’s a vestige of diet culture and unhealthy behaviors. But for now, I just tell myself that it is just a number, and it is fine to get on the scale if I want to, as long as I know it is not going to change the way I am taking care of myself today. I hope I can keep up that perspective.

I’m not saying I think it is or is not a good idea for people to do this, and it may not be the “correct” fat positive thing to do…..just sharing where I am right now, and how I’m handling seeing the scale on the way to the pool a few times per week.

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Habit Update (And An Injury Update Too).

If you’ve been here a while, you have probably read my habit series, and maybe you recall that, for me, it all started with setting two goals for 2015: eat a green vegetable every day, and do 150 strength workouts.  Maybe you recall that I tracked my habits on a spreadsheet, and I added a bunch over the course of the past year and a half.  And that all worked quite well for me for the first year and change.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how my habit practice was changing and evolving, and I was considering taking a break from tracking all my habits on a spreadsheet.

Well, I did stop tracking them, so I haven’t written about my own habits for a little while. Here, I am, checking in with an update, for those who have asked/wondered.

I am still very happy with how my habit practice is going. Several habits have become second nature.  Here are some thoughts about specific habits, in no particular order:

  • Strength workouts are mostly on hold due to injury, but I’ve substituted swimming and found a groove pretty quickly with fitting it into my schedule. It is a lot more time consuming than lifting in my pajamas in my living room – since I have to commute, change, shower, wash my suit…. Anyway, it started off with a learning curve (even though I was a pretty strong swimmer as a kid!), and now I’m getting faster again. I even managed some sprints this week!
  • I have the forced habit of physical therapy twice per week. It eats up a lot of time. We do some strengthening exercises there. I’ll be glad when I am cleared to start lifting on my own again.
  • Walks have been a little more sporadic, because I hate summer. Last year I worked around this by taking my kid for walks on shady trails. This summer that is not an option for me due to my spinal injury (yes, I can walk, but all my walks have to be stroller-friendly since I don’t have the option of carrying my kid on my back when he gets tired). I’m not sweating it. Sometimes I push the stroller to the garden. I get in what I can.
  • Parking at the far end of the parking lot has become second nature.
  • Hanging from bars at the playground – I am getting this in once or twice per week, depending on time and weather. Again, not sweating it; just playing.
  • I’ve been keeping the plants in my garden alive so far, so that’s cool. I was the top harvester in the community garden for June in terms of pounds harvested. I probably won’t be for July, just looking at what I have planted and when it should be ripe, and looking at what others have planted and when it should be ripe.  Perhaps I will catch up in August. Fun fact: I’ve harvested around $105 worth of produce so far. I hope I at least break even 😀 .
  • When I do walk, I’ve been picking up the pace on the hill I have to climb to get home.
  • I’m rocking the green vegetables and eating a vegetable with at least 2 meals per day.
  • I’m also rocking eating a protein source with at least 2 meals per day.
  • I had been doing really well with taking my Vitamin D and then I ran out. I bought some more and am getting back into the groove.
  • Sleep habits have been improving in consistency. I am more likely to go to sleep by 10pm (and some nights I am able to get to bed by 9:30).  I very rarely start watching a TV show after 9pm.
  • Looking at my gratitude habits, I am not really sure how I am doing in that area. I’m feeling more positive in general, but I’ve also had a lot of negativity and anxiety creep in around my injury and the routine changes it has brought, so I’m not super focused on these right now and I am okay with that.
  • I am leaning a bit more on my husband for things than I would like, yet I am grateful that he is able and willing to help.
  • My motivation for intentional cleaning has gotten very low again. I figure that is probably normal as I have a lot going on right now. Again, feeling thankful that my husband goes with the flow and steps up hen he can, and tolerates the mess.

So, those are some of the habits I had on that spreadsheet, and I’m quite happy that a bunch of them are sticking well and helping me feel as well as I can.

I’m working on a new habit, and experimenting with tracking just the one habit at a time with an app on my phone (I have an Android and am using Habitbull). The new habit is Intuitive Eating related: asking myself “why do I want that?” when I want to eat something, then naming the feeling (hunger, boredom, no-particular-reason-just-habit, etc). Since “all day long” is probably too tall an order, I am specifically focusing on dinner, up to and including bedtime.  Though I’m actually finding the rest of the day reasonably easy as well.  So far this new habit feels good.  Some of the habits I had on my spreadsheet can still use some more consistency, but I’m feeling like prioritizing this one now.

And, speaking of habits: this blog is one year old! I stuck with it for a year! Yay! Thank you for being here and encouraging me and reading my stuff :).

And, only tangentially related, for those who have been asking about my injury: I haven’t had any back aches since I discovered that the hot tub worked magic on my back muscles! I’ve been using the hot tub 3 times per week after swimming and it has worked wonders for the aches. I still have occasional tingling in my right leg when standing or walking for longer periods. I have a follow up appointment at the spine doctor next week.

So, there you have it. An update for those who were following for the habit stuff :).

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I Needed to “Be Awesome.” Now I Need to Learn to Just Be.

Swimming laps over the past few weeks has given me a lot of time to think, away from the constant distraction of preschoolers, work, and technology.

One thing I started thinking about was, “if I know that I still have movement options available to me, and I know that intense heavy lifting is not necessary for good heath, why am I so up in arms about having to take a break from heavy lifting?” I mean, aside from the abrupt changes in routine and hormones, there was another feeling there. What was it?

It was fear. Logically, I knew that I was going to be okay. What was so scary? This was about more than fear for my health. I knew my health would be fine.

One day I realized that the fear was about the need to “do something special.” Or to be seen as special by others. When I lift heavy weights, people tell me they are impressed with me. In an age of fitness on social media, people lifting heavy things are “badass” and “inspirational.”

I realized that I very strongly felt the need to be seen as doing something inspirational and special. That felt really profound. I decided to sit with that, and have some curiosity about it.  What was behind that?

It took me a week or so of sitting with that self-awareness, and then I realized what was behind it.

I never felt like I met the cultural standard of beauty, in a culture that very much values physical beauty in women. From a young age I felt like an outsider. I didn’t fit in. My parents stressed about my weight and even though I know that they were concerned about my health (not my appearance), at the time, it added to all the noise and messages I received on a daily basis that I was not beautiful, and therefore, I was less valuable than other girls.

And so, in order to feel valuable, I had to be something else. I had to be smart. I had to be talented. I had to be the best at something. I had to do things that other girls weren’t doing. I had to be seen doing these things, so everyone could see those things as well as my fat. I couldn’t just BE, as a fat kid, a fat girl, a fat adult. I had to be fat and AWESOME at something, or I would disappear and be forgotten.

Looking back, I can see that this need to be seen as special and valuable drove a lot of things in my life. I was an accomplished musician with a conservatory music education, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore, and I felt lost. Why else would I, as a non-runner, decide to train for a marathon, instead of setting a goal to consistently run a mile 3 times per week, or to run 5ks consistently? I thought that by doing things other people didn’t do, I would be special…and therefore okay.

And so it didn’t seem like enough to just exercise like a normal human being. I had to do marathons 10 years ago, and in the past year and a half, I had to learn to lift as heavy as possible. To have a goal of a 300lb deadlift, and then be devastated when I learned it won’t be a good idea for me to pursue that particular goal this year.

Deep down in my subconscious, I believed it would be okay to be fat if I could also deadlift 300 pounds. I looked to Olympic athletes like Holley and Sarah as models.  And I pursued those goals, rather than work on the belief that it is unconditionally okay for me to be fat. It is okay for me to be fat even if I don’t accomplish anything  extraordinary or special or  inspirational or badass while fat.

The reality is I have no idea what I want to do with myself and my time if I don’t spend time on something that makes me appear special or different or inspirational. I had this deep seated need for so long, because I felt like I wasn’t okay. But knowing and acknowledging that I have that fear driven need is helping me to move past it. I feel seen and understood, if only by myself. I feel better able to ask myself “what do I need to care for myself today” and have it be okay and enough to say “laps in the pool. However many I feel like.” I am able to differentiate between  “things that will make me feel healthy” and “things that will make others see me as special /inspirational /valuable.”

So here I am, doing my thing, parenting my kid, working my job, rehabbing my injury, swimming my laps like the older people at the gym. Physically it feels quite satisfying. Mentally it is an adjustment. Having the awareness of why it is an adjustment is helping me settle in and enjoy it for what it is. It is taking some practice. Facing it head on, however, is helping me feel more peace about not being able to lift for a little while.

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What I Can Do Today

Content note: This post contains mentions of previous and present weight gains and losses (intentional and unintentional). It also contains considerations of how my symptoms may be affected by my current weight, and how I plan to handle that. If that’s not your thing, you might want to skip this post. I am saying these things in the most matter of fact way. I don’t mean to convey shame, as I would have in the past when speaking about weight; just transparency.

Here’s how things are moving along in injury-ville:

My mood is getting better as I am getting more used to my new routine and the new season at work is getting into a groove.

Movement-wise, I have a full plate of activity between swimming 3 times per week and physical therapy twice per week, plus physical therapy exercises to do at home. Swimming is getting easier and I am able to enjoy it now. So much, in fact, that I would consider continuing even after I am cleared to lift again!  I have physical therapy exercises to do at home, and sometimes I do bodyweight exercises like assisted pull ups or incline push ups at the park. I am anxious to get back to lifting but nervous too because I don’t want to make my spine worse.  I still sometimes feel some tingling in my feet or in my right quadricep. I have a follow up appointment with the doctor in a couple weeks.

I still have back aches when standing or walking for too long. That definitely makes me miss lifting.

I’m starting to feel more open to the idea of losing some weight. Well, I guess I was always open to the idea, because of the whole thin privilege thing, but it didn’t factor into my decisions on what habits to choose to work on. If only diets worked for more than a minority of people in the long term (ha!)…..

A bit of history:  When I was 8, 9 and 10 months pregnant I had back aches when standing or even sitting for long periods of time. Back aches are common in pregnancy so I treated them by going for massage twice a week in the later weeks and resting my back a lot.

After my son’s birth, my body went down below my pre-pregnancy weight very quickly and without any effort on my part. It hovered about 10 to 15 pounds below pre- pregnancy weight for about a year. (Before you say “aren’t you lucky,” ask me how I felt physically during that year, with undiagnosed sleep apnea and a high needs baby who didn’t like to sleep and liked to nurse 20 times per day until he was over a year old.)

Currently, I am not pregnant, and I weigh 25 to 30 pounds more than I did when I was at my heaviest in pregnancy (so, about 80 pounds heavier than I was during my son’s first year). Some of that weight gain is undoubtedly muscle from increased activity and lifting heavy weights. But knowing how these things work, I doubt that more than 15 to 20 lbs of it is muscle. So, we are talking at least 60 to 65 pounds of water, glycogen, and fat gain. My body naturally gains a lot of fat above my waist (belly and boobs), and very little below the waist. So, according to my back muscles, I doubt this weight gain feels any different from my pregnancy weight gain (though the muscles are stronger and had a higher limit this time…since I did not gain as much weight during pregnancy).

So, knowing my experience with back aches while pregnant, and knowing that my body is now holding a similar or greater amount of weight in my upper body as it did while pregnant, I am pretty sure that my back aches can be partially explained by weight gain. (And of course, partially explained by my two herniations and older compression injury).

Now, what does that mean for me in the context of knowing that diets don’t work, and most people who lose weight in the short term regain it in the long term, and often gain more weight than they lose?

Well, I am feeling slightly defeated, in all honesty. I am regretting the years I spent dieting. I am wishing I wasn’t put on my first diet as a child, which damaged my relationship with food.

But I can’t change the past. I can only ask myself  “what can I do today to care for myself and manage the aches and set myself up for less pain and better function in the future, to the degree that it is within my control?”

Knowing that diets don’t work for most people  (statistics), and knowing my own personal outcomes from dieting (both physical and mental), dieting is not an option.

Looking at my current lifestyle and habits, an area where I do have some room to play is with Intuitive Eating. Specifically honing in on “distracted eating / distraction eating.” I never thought of myself as an emotional eater because I don’t tend to eat when I feel sad or angry. But recently I realized that I do tend to eat sometimes when I am not hungry. For example, needing to take a break from what I am doing, and reaching for a snack even if not hungry (distraction eating). Or, taking seconds at a meal even if I am not hungry, because the meal tasted good,or because I am watching TV and not thinking about it (distracted eating). I wouldn’t so much call it emotional eating as eating out of habit. I am realizing that these are long standing habits. I remember staying up late in college and we would eat snacks or go to “fourth meal.” My husband and I have had the habit of snacking at night too (incidentally, my husband is thin and always has been).

So for the past week or so I have been working on establishing a new habit: if I am eating, I ask myself “why do I want this?” If I am hungry, that is an easy question to answer. If I am not hungry, the answer is usually “I need a break or a distraction” or “I need to decompress at the end of the day” or “eating this is pleasurable” or “I dunno, I am just reaching for it out of habit.”

Then, once I answer the question of “why do I want this,” I have the option of choosing what I want to do with this information. For example:

  • “I am hungry so I am going to eat this” or
  • “I need to take a break from my desk so I am going to take a walk or go run an errand or browse at the bookstore” or
  • “I need to decompress so I am going to change into my pajamas and read a book or watch a show upstairs away from the kitchen” or
  • “eating this would taste really good but I am not hungry now so I am just going to have a bite and then find something else to do.”

Notice that I said “I have the option of choosing what I want to do with this information.” I did not say “I have the obligation to do a certain thing with this information.” This is very important for me because I have a history of being forced and coerced by others into dieting. When I was growing up, “are you sure you are hungry for that?” was always a loaded question, dripping with fear and concern. Now that I am an adult I don’t want to put myself through the same sense of obligation and coercion. So I’m just experimenting with it to see how it feels.

One concern I have about trying this habit that may lead to some weight loss is that I may become attached to the outcome of weight loss. The past year and half has felt wonderful for me mentally, as I shifted my focus onto other things. I fear the possibility of going back to a place where I obsess about the way my body looks and nothing is ever good enough.  For now, in order to mitigate that concern, I remind myself the following:

  • Intuitive Eating is not a weight loss program. Some people lose weight, some people gain weight, and some people stay the same.
  • Regardless of what happens to my weight, becoming more conscious of and reducing distracting/distracted eating will likely have positive effects on my budget, my mental health, and perhaps my hemoglobin A1c.
  • If this stops feeling good to me for any reason, I can stop or do something else or explore why it doesn’t feel good.

I have some concerns about what this means for me and fat positivity. But I am tired of having back aches and so I am willing to explore this rather than holding onto an ideology. Rigid thinking hasn’t  worked out for me in the past. So I can absolutely advocate for fat acceptance and treating fat people with respect while also trying something that might help my back stop aching.

And for anyone who thinks this means that because I am experiencing a health problem means that HAES doesn’t “work”, have a read: Am I Healthy At Any Weight? by Dare to Not Diet.

Now, we all know that IF weight loss happens, it may be very slow and it will likely not be permanent. So I find it helpful to ask what else can I do TODAY to help me feel good and manage the back aches, besides tuning into my feelings when I want to eat (because IF that helps with back pain, it will be “eventually,” not “today!”).

Today I can go swimming. The water helps. This morning I had some back pain. I tried an aqua Zumba class, then swam laps for a few minutes. Then I sat in the hot tub for a few minutes, applying the jets to my lower back. That helped a lot. So, consistency with movement that feels good to my current body is something I can do today.

Pacing myself with activity that requires standing and walking for long periods is something I can do today.

Doing my physical therapy exercises at home is something I can do today.

Having patience is something I can do today.

Keeping my self talk constructive is something I can do today. When I find myself thinking “I wish I could hike like I did last summer,” I can acknowledge that feeling, and then be glad that I can go swimming instead at least, and that swimming feels great.

Those are some things I can do today.

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How’s Swimming?

The most common question I am getting asked this week is “how is swimming going?”

Swimming is coming along well. I am getting used to it again. I swim laps. Right now just freestyle and breast stroke. Sometimes I play with a toy like a kickboard or noodle, but mostly I find that boring and I prefer just swimming laps. I still need to focus a lot on my rhythm, form and breathing, so it feels very meditative.

At physical therapy they have me hanging out from these floating dumbell  things in the deep end, dangling my legs to take some pressure off the compressed portion of my spine. So, at the Y, I started leaving some dumbbells at the side of the pool, at the deep end of my lap lane. Then, if I get bored or tired and need a rest, I rest in the deep end instead of the shallow end, just hanging out dangling my legs. It’s pretty relaxing.

I have a good system down for showering at the Y now.

Oh, and I signed up for an Aqua Zumba class that starts next week. I am looking forward to trying it

The one piece of the routine where I dropped the ball last week was packing food to eat after swimming, so I could just go on to my next thing without going home. I also had a very busy week at work, and I started physical  therapy. I ended up buying a lot of meals out last week,  as a result.

So this past Sunday, I chose to to stay home instead of going to visit my inlaws with my family. I needed to decompress before the next work week.  I didn’t feel emotionally up for a two hour drive one way, and getting home late on a Sunday before  a work week.

I stayed home, cooked a bunch of food for the upcoming week, and binged on season 4 of Orange is the New Black. It was a good choice. I made a huge veggie tray, hardboiled eggs, baked teriyaki chicken, a couple meals (lentils and rice with fried onions, and noodles with sausage, bitter greens and broccoli). Plus a birthday cake for my husband.

Last night I knew I was planning to go to the pool today, so I packed a couple sandwiches for us ahead of time.  So far this week is going more smoothly, thanks to giving some conscious effort to self care this weekend. It is a new routine and has a learning curve but I am starting to get the hang of it.

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The Best Self-Care Method Isn’t Apparent

I’m having trouble knowing what the right thing to do is, right now.

I’m on a break from lifting, because of a disc herniation. I just started physical therapy for it. I know that if I allow the herniation to worsen, the consequences could be pretty serious.

But I am feeling challenged in this moment, because without being able to lift regularly, I notice that I have back pain a lot more frequently, and I feel sadness or anxiety much of the time. Lifting was my primary way of managing both back pain and depression, and without it, those symptoms are coming back. That scares me. It makes me feel anxious as I ask myself “am I doing the right thing here,” knowing that the consequences can be serious if I make the wrong decision. Which makes it a vicious cycle.

I’m considering going back on antidepressants for the first time in over a decade, because I don’t have my primary depression management tool available to me right now.

I’m also considering waiting another week or so. It happens to be the busiest month of the year for me at work, so I know I am under a lot of pressure right now and that could also be a contributing factor.

I’m also considering going rogue and doing some lifting again. Only certain lifts that won’t put pressure on my spine (no back squats!), and only at 50% of the weights I normally lift, to see if it makes a difference in my mental symptoms and/or back pain, without worsening my nerve symptoms.

I’ve written before about how keeping my body a comfortable place to live is my primary motivation right now. I feel worried that the best way to do that right now is unclear. I feel scared that I might not feel well for a while and there may be nothing I can do about that, other than do what I can so I don’t get even worse.

Today’s self care plans include my physical therapy exercises, a swim, a visit to the garden. Possibly some bodyweight strength work while I am at the park. My husband is on vacation from work this week, and my kiddo is currently all about dad, so I should get some peace and quiet too.

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