I’m trying to restart my running practice. It’s going medium.
Ten years have passed since I was last healthy enough to work out consistently. Ten or 12 pounds have accumulated. A decade of chronic illness and forced inactivity have turned my muscles into mush—except for the muscles that are overworked and locked into spasms that keep me awake at night.
I’ve been running three times a week for a couple of months now. By running, I mean a slow jog, in one-minute intervals that alternate with walking: a total of just eight minutes of running.
That’s the Week 1 workout. Ten weeks in, it’s where I still am.
The progress, I guess, is that I’m still doing it. That my body is tolerating the stress, sort of, and that I remain committed to making it work.
Making it work is more work than the running itself.
What used to be a beautiful exercise in simplicity—put on my shoes and head out the door—has become a whole big project. The extra work doesn’t make me a better runner. It just makes it possible to continue that same old Week 1 workout without hurting myself.
In the old days, I could warm up by walking for five minutes. Now I need to do a bunch of warm-up exercises that are tedious for me but probably entertaining for passersby: Frankenstein walks, leg swings, knee raises, heel and toe walking. All of that comes after adorning my shins and knees with compressive kinesiology tape—again, to prevent injury.
In the old days, I could cool down by walking and stretching. Now I’m told that I should also use a foam roller on sore leg muscles and put ice on my shins.
And yes, the extra work is necessary. Pain taught me that lesson.
When I first started running again, in July, I didn’t do any of the extra stuff. I put on my shoes and headed out the door. I started with the Week 1 workout and was ready to repeat it indefinitely, until it became easy.
The first five sessions felt great. The sixth time out, my knees felt stiff and a little sore. The next day, it hurt to walk. I did no more running that week, but the pain kept getting worse.
It was a month until I could try again.
In August, I started off even slower. Call it Week Minus-3: just five intervals of running, instead of eight. I increased by one minute per week until, on September 9, I got back to where I had started on July 6.
Now it’s late October, and I’m still in the same place. Soreness keeps popping up around my knees and upper shins. It’s as if my muscles (tendons?) are clearing their throats to get my attention and remind me that they can and will make trouble if I put more demands on them.
Every time I open my running app and select Week 1, it asks me: “Are you sure? You already did this workout.”
Yes, I say. I’m sure. And stop judging me, you stupid app! I’m doing my best.
Other voices have been more supportive. It was my massage therapist who suggested the kinesiology tape, my physical therapist who recommended restarting at Week Minus-3 (although she didn’t call it that).
And did I mention that I’ve started working with a personal trainer? He’s knowledgeable, kind, and wonderfully supportive. He’s also the source of some of the annoying warm-up exercises.
The massage therapist and PT helped me determine that some of the pain comes from strength imbalances. We keep identifying more problem areas: muscles that are slacking and those that are overworked.
The trainer is helping me strengthen and activate the slackers. It’s going medium. I definitely feel the workouts, but I can’t really tell if I’m getting stronger or correcting the imbalances.
So … what made me decide that my road to fitness requires running shoes (for which I shelled out $160, since the old ones were shot)? Why not a gentler form of exercise?
Honestly, it was an impulse born of necessity. And it has much less to do with physical fitness than with mental wellness and my ability to make healthy choices.
Through trial and error, excellent advice from various practitioners, and a lot of hard work, my health has generally improved in the past four years. But over the summer, my motivation just tanked. I didn’t even feel like doing things I enjoy, let alone the “have-to” tasks. And my anxiety about getting things done was through the roof.
I recalled that, throughout my life, whenever I established a habit of working out, the exercise generated its own motivation. Energy begot energy.
After finishing a cardio workout, my body would say: “Okay, let’s do some crunches.” When I got hungry, my body would say: “Nah, I don’t want that plate of cheesy, gooey nachos. Let’s have some fruit or vegetables.”
Healthy choices became easy, the default. I didn’t have to spend so much energy wrestling with my desire for, say, a second serving of chips and beer—meaning I had more energy for other things.
In late June, struggling with low motivation and low mood, I started to wonder: Now that I am healthier, could I get that back?
Running was the clearest and easiest way to find out. In fact, it was the only thing I was motivated to try.
So I downloaded a running app. I downloaded a music player (Google phones don’t come with one—they want you to use YouTube) and put together a workout playlist. It’s not the same as the one I used ten years ago, but it’s close enough.
And on a day when anxiety was overwhelming me, I put on my shoes and headed out the door.
It felt great. Not so much the running itself, which was pretty challenging, but the aftermath. Anxiety disappeared. Motivation surged. My mood brightened.
That first day, I took a goofy, sweaty selfie—flushed face, messy hair—and posted it on Facebook with a note describing what I had done and why. I received an outpouring of love and encouragement.
A few months later, I’m ready for another round of “awesome!” and “you go!” Bring it on.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.