More Life Lessons from Exercise

I have said many times that I’m someone who often thinks in analogies. So of course I am learning lots about life from exercise. Here are a couple of examples:

In April I restarted running literally running for 1 minute than walking for 2-3 and alternating for 30 min. By June I was running 5 km non-stop. Improving little by little makes a huge difference. After reaching that milestone I’ve just been slowly increasing my distance, choosing a new turn-back point every now and again. Two Fridays ago I was here:

This intersection was, in and of itself a previous goal but I took this photo to remember that highrise off at the end of the road. I resolved that in a week I would get there – even as making this goal seemed very difficult. What I’ve learned, though, is that as much as it is important to have the physical ability – to be able to make my legs move and my heart and lungs work together to get here, commitment is equally important.

And so I set off last Friday. By the time I got to the intersection above I was already wondering if I should turn back sooner. At times like this whether on my bike or running it’s important to really check in with myself. Why am I thinking about slowing down or turning back? Are my joints or muscles actually hurting? Am I having trouble breathing or any pain? Almost always the answer to those questions is no. The answer more often than not is “Well, we’ve been doing this thing for a while now and I’m kind of bored. It’d be great to move on to something else.”

This is where commitment comes in. In that case “I’m bored” isn’t good enough. Fine, be bored. Find something to entertain yourself if it’s so excruciating. And so I did this here again. There was no good reason to do anything but keep on running. And so a few minutes later I found myself here:

And then, just to spite that internal voice that is so ready to bail out on things, I kept going another half a kilometre or so until I got to a bridge where I could see our apartment from and truly appreciate how far I came.

And then, satisfied that I’d put that internal voice in its place sufficiently, I turned back toward home. Little did that internal slacker know that I had another surprise in store for them.

I have a watch designed for tracking athletic activities. With a built-in GPS it’s able to tell me how far I’ve gone, how fast I’m going, how steep a hill I’m climbing and so on. And it has one other feature – it ties to Strava – the app I use to track my performance over time. Today I enabled a feature that lets me know when I get to various stretches of a route and then, as I run them it tells me if I’m running faster or slower than my fastest pace. Today, not only would I run farther, on one 450 metre uphill stretch (about 1/4 mile) I would run faster than I ever did before. The catch is that my record was from 2017 – not long after I was trained and ready for a half marathon. The closest I’d come this year was still a fill 15 seconds longer than that.

Before the timed stretch, there’s a long bridge with no shade. I’d already gone 7 km, longer than I’d run since 2017 and was a bit tired. The watch counts down: 10 metres left, 5 metres, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO! I pick up the pace but my legs feel like they’re made of gristle. How can I possibly move these things any faster. Meanwhile I started with my heart rate already at 170 beats per minute. My inner slacker has turned in to Scotty from Star Trek.

But it’s not just the Inner Slacker and Scotty here. Someone has to run this vessel, and the captain takes over. “Keep giving what you can but whatever you do, don’t stop.”

And onward I go. My pace stays steady and my heart rate goes up: 175, 180, 182. Scotty’s down in the engine room cursing and I look down at my watch. I’m half way through the 450 metres and I’m shocked to see that I’m actually one second ahead of my 2017 self. That’s enough to keep my legs going on autopilot, keeping the pace.

And then, as I reach an intersection my watch vibrates and notifies me: I’ve topped my personal record, and not by the two seconds I saw last time I looked at the watch. I beat my time by a full eight seconds.

When I get home I see that compared to the previous week’s run where I took the first photo, I not only went farther, my overall pace even on the long run was faster.

I’ve averaged 10 seconds per kilometre faster overall. I attribute that to staying on top of the Inner Slacker. Instead of listening and slowing when he complained, I questioned him: Why do I need to? Is it important or is it just laziness or boredom.

When I got home I looked at the more analysis for the run and saw something interesting when I compared to the run where I had my previous record. My fastest pace was not much different. However with my new record one thing was different. I didn’t reduce my pace as I got further along. I remained mindful, making sure I didn’t reduce my pace.

On Saturday I enabled the same sort of tracking for some stretches along my cycling route to the store and then tried again, and again I beat four more personal records (and in many cases, gonig faster than all of my friends’ record times on the same stretch) focusing on the same thing: give your best and sustain it. Don’t cut back when it gets difficult.

After I noticed that I told Sage about the experience. She laughed and said “You need that same function in your own life.

Imagine what that would be like: You start the morning at work like a whirlwind, getting things done but then after lunch your inner slacker thinks “I’m tired, and this next task looks hard. Let’s slow down a little.” Since realizing this I’ve put up simple reminder notes at my desk to focus on my work – to keep going no matter what.

And where else can it be used? For me the kitchen is a place ripe for this. As much as I like cooking I often do the bare minimum: a one pot meal: a batch of vegetarian bean burritos, red beans and rice, or a Thai red curry tofu. Put it all in a pot and let it go. For a long time I have had a bad habit in my kitchen. I start something, then go check email, read an article, or look at Instagram. Then I go back to do the next thing. If a recipe says to simmer something for a while, I read that as “Sit at your computer and come back when you feel like it.” As a result, dinners take longer than they should.

Recently I’ve tried an alternative (what I’m sure many of you consider simply ‘working in the kitchen’). I gather my ingredients, put on some music, and then start in. Instead of multitasking between reading blogs and making a dish, I multitask with dinner elements. If I have enough elements going and have some free time, I start working on filling up the dishwasher and cleaning the kitchen so there’s less to do after dinner.

Last night I did just that. On my first trip to India I had food from Andhra Pradesh, surprising my colleagues from work that I could manage anything so spicy. They were so concerned that when they picked me up from the hotel the day after dinner they gave me a concerned look and asked a little uncomfortably: “Um…after last night’s dinner…was everything OK this morning?” Of course it was, and I got a taste for Andhra style food which is really difficult to find here. I have yet to find the delicious Andhra style Fish Curry I ate so much of on that trip. However, the ingredients are widely available. So with some rainbow trout I picked up that morning, I made a batch of extra spicy fish curry. Then, while I waited for the gravy to cook, I looked at the vegetables that they delivered in this week’s vegetable box. Wow, they gave us a LOT of potatoes this week. I grabbed some of them, a few frozen peas and while the gravy cooked I made a batch of aloo matar. And still I had some time so I went back in the fridge intending to make a raita with the extra time I had left. Sadly the cucumbers had somehow frozen and so I gave up that idea and instead cleaned the kitchen.

In the same time it would’ve taken me to read several blogs, write some emails and like a few photos on Instagram – oh, and make one dish, I had two delicious dishes and a clean kitchen.

Last night’s dinner

But most importantly how does it feel to challenge the inner slacker?

A friend of mine was saying that now in the pandemic they’ve been feeling a little depressed, wondering what the point was and what to do with their life. What if they’d made mistakes and wasted so much time? I also had the same thoughts around April when the pandemic was really raging here. And Sage had the best advice for me. Any time you question yourself and your direction, pay attention to the next ten minutes. Be the best human you can be in those ten minutes and see what happens. Maybe that means doing some exercise. Maybe it means turning off the television and reading a book, tidying your room, making something good to eat or volunteering your time for an hour. Switch from doing something you feel a little guilty about to doing something you feel good about and see what happens. It’s very similar, in fact, to another friend of mine’s advice for depression. She says that when she’s feeling depressed she always gets up and cleans the house. It doesn’t always fix it but in the end you have a clean house. (And often it does help)

It’s not an overnight solution. In the beginning it’s pretty difficult. You’re already feeling sad and then you’re feeling sad and having to work hard when you’re feeling lazy. But slowly, slowly things change. Over time you have small success after small success and these little victories boost your mood. This doesn’t mean you will be 100% successful all the time. You likely will have lazy times as well – but let those go. They’re behind you. Look at the next ten minutes and make that better. And over time the successes will outnumber the failures.

What is your experience? Do you have an inner slacker? How do you manage them?

5 thoughts on “More Life Lessons from Exercise

  1. Wonderful post Todd.
    I challenge the inner slacker all the time though I never compare myself with others.
    It helps little by little to improve my own skills 🙂

    1. Thanks! I find comparing myself to my past selves relatively satisfying. And sometimes it’s helpful to look to others for inspiration and to see what’s possible. But I find that can be a little tricky as it’s easy to berate one’s self for not meeting someone else’s expectations and capabilities.

      Thanks, as always, for commenting!

  2. Hi Todd, always read & enjoy your blogs but am rarely inspired (or too lazy or no time ahem) to comment. as an ex fitness instructor this one resonated strongly. bravo! love the ten minute idea (nod to Sage) which i shall practise today, & like how thoroughly you describe your thought processes & conclusions. i love reading about food & cooking, & love to cook. i’m curious, didnt your extra spicy curry overwhelm the delicate flavour of trout?

    1. Thanks so much for your lovely comments, Jan.

      Seasoning-wise, a lot of the ingredients compliment the flavour of the fish rather than mask it. Curry leaves, for example, really mix well with the fish. So instead of being overwhelmed by seasoning, the fish becomes one voice in a chorus of delightful flavours.

      The heat is likely affected by one’s tolerance for chilli. Ours is pretty high so the burn doesn’t distract from the flavours. However, were we to feed this to one of our Canadian neighbours they would likely comment that all they can taste is chilli.

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