Why are you hitting yourself?

Remember when you were a kid and your brother/sister/cousin/neighbor/imaginary friend would pin you down and force you to repeatedly slap yourself with your own hand? All you could do was close your fist, which resulted in punching yourself in the face, arguably worse than a limp slap? And all the while, they’d be like, “Why’re you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself!

That’s kind of how working out feels to me. Working out is hard. It’s hard to start; it’s hard to keep going. It hurts. Often, you’re the only one who cares about accomplishing your fitness goals, so how do you remain accountable to yourself?

I’ve always exercised alone. This is good, because I can set my own pace and stop if I need to without feeling guilty for holding anyone else up. This is bad, because I can get complacent and take advantage of stopping anytime I want without anyone giving me shit for it.

Having never been a runner, for some reason I got it into my head that becoming one would be the most rewarding form of exercise. However, I downplayed the significance of one small factor: I hate running. I hate almost every single minute. I hate it a little less every time, but the fact remains that before all of my body parts start working together the way they’re meant to (usually sometime after the first excruciating half-mile), I can’t help but think about all of the other things I’d rather be doing with my time. Boredom and pain have joined forces to become my worst enemy in trying to become a runner. What gets me through it is knowing that on a geological time scale, I’ll be done relatively soon. It also helps to remember why I’m doing this to myself.

So let’s talk about goals! Why am I putting myself through the agony of exercise? What is the end result I’m going for? What types of goals should I be thinking about setting? These are my fitness notes-to-self:

Baby’s first 10k bib.

Long-term goals: Set goals that will be reached in a few months or even a year. Remember that results do not happen overnight, so having a long-term goal in mind can help keep you always looking forward. It helps to have goals toward which you can measure your progress, whether that be on a scale, in a picture, or with a stopwatch.

  • Compete: When I first started running, I knew I’d have a hard time sticking with it unless I was working toward something concrete, so I registered for a 10k race about four months out from my first running attempt. I also joined a few other (short) running events that have come up since.  But competitions don’t have to be formal. You can race your past running personal records or compare different aspects of your runs from week to week, like pace and/or duration.
  • Quantitative and Qualitative: I would like to adopt a large breed dog within the next year or so but I worry that in some situations I won’t be strong enough to manage him. For example, if we are hiking in the wilderness and the dog gets injured, I want to be able to carry him back to civilization. That’s my somewhat far-fetched quantitative long-term goal: to lift 100+ pounds without injury. It sounds silly, but then so is going into a building to lift heavy things for hours every day. You’d better have a reason to spend your time on fitness, even if it’s a silly one. A qualitative goal would be to improve my overall endurance so that just the thought of climbing stairs doesn’t exhaust me.
  • Bikini Body: I swear to God every fitness regimen marketed to women is about getting your body bikini-ready for summer or losing holiday weight, which are, apparently, the only fitness-related things women care about. I’ll admit that although having the confidence in yourself and your body to rock a bikini is priceless, I have found that trying to mold my body in a specific way is not something that I find personally motivating. But I know that it works for a lot of people, and I’m sort of envious of that. I’ve had friends tape inspirational magazine clippings up on their bathroom mirrors or make a Pinterest board to have a daily reminder of what they’re trying to achieve. It’s certainly a simple everyday practice that can yield desired long-term results.

Short-term goals: These are the day-to-day goals that help you reach your long-term goals. Like the long-term goals, you can track both measurable, quantitative goals and qualitative goals like “I want to be able to zip up my pants.” Often, the biggest daily hurdle for me is finding the motivation to finish strong. Here are a few things I’ve tried or told myself to help with that:

  • “Just Keep Swimming”: Most of the time, you’re running, swimming, or working out in less than ideal conditions. The sun’s hot, the water is cold, your shorts are falling down, the wind is in your face, your side/calves/knees/ankles/earlobe hurts, and the person running on the machine next to you just let one rip.  If you’re really lucky, all of this will happen at the same time. Just don’t stop, unless, you know, you’re bleeding out of yours ears or seeing a plaid aura or something. If all you accomplished that day is that you kept going and you finished, then you have something.
  • Break it Up: I just started lifting weights earlier this month. Especially for the upper body, it’s tough work to get through all the reps. I’ve found that counting in weird ways to get to the number of reps I’m aiming for helps distract me from becoming overwhelmed. If 10 reps seems insurmountable, try counting 1-2-3-4-5 then 5-4-3-2-1. Sometimes I’ll count to 5 two or three times for 10 or 15 reps. Really it’s just about fooling my mind into letting my body do what it already knows how to do. For running, my friend Laila, a veteran of 3 half marathons and a life-long running enthusiast, recommends telling yourself “‘All you have to do is run for 2 hours’ or, once [you’re] at 7 miles, ‘It’s all downhill from here.’ Anything to make the miles go by faster.”
  • There’s an App for That: There are a ton of apps out there to help you track your progress. I use the basic version of RunKeeper, which tracks your running routes, distance, duration, pace (for every mile), elevation, and Calories burned. You can make notes about your runs, set running goals, start a running training plan, add pictures, or tag or “like” friends’ running posts.

    Bling sling.
    Bling sling. Injuries made fun.

Set realistic goals. When I first started working out, I kept it really light, trying to figure out what my body is comfortable with. Then I set goals that challenged my body just enough, like a game. I started lifting about 2 months after an injury that rendered my left arm pretty much useless (but I got a bedazzled sling out it, which makes it sort of almost kind of worth it), so I was terrified of injuring myself again and being out of commission for even longer.

Injury is what happens when your fitness expectations do not align with reality. For example, about two weeks into running, I decided to see if I could run the 10k I’d just registered for, the logic being that if I knew I could already do it, then I wouldn’t have any excuses to stop and I could just focus on getting faster. I set a steady pace of about 11:00/mile and went for it. About four miles in, my left (problem) knee began to throb, and not long after, as I started over-correcting for that knee pain, my right hip started to hurt. I stubbornly continued to run the full 10k/6 miles, telling myself that I was already so close. The next day, I could barely walk, and I couldn’t run again for another two weeks. Moral of the story: know your body!  There’s no shame in keeping it light or slow to start, but realistic challenges are what you get you results.

Bear in mind that some goals come with strings attached. For example, maybe I want six pack abs. I can do crunches and sit-ups and all of this crazy ab work until the cows come home (and cows apparently take forever to do that), but none of it will make much of a difference unless I also get rid of the belly fat that’s laying over those muscles like the insulating security blanket you don’t want to admit you brought to college. In order to “melt that stubborn belly fat” without taking Lipozene or whatever–which I do not condone–you have to make other sacrifices, like cutting out cupcakes refined sugar.

Set a lot of simple goals. You know how sometimes you write a to do list and you purposely include totally mundane daily tasks like brushing your teeth just so that you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off? Do the same thing with working out. My list looks a little like this:

  • Wake Up (For those of us with long hours and longer commutes, this is already a feat!)
  • Eat Breakfast (Whether your goal is to lose weight, get lean, or build muscle, do not skip breakfast! It should be your biggest and carbiest meal of the day!)
  • Pack snacks (Ever since I started working out, I am hungry pretty much all the time. I try to snack every 2-3 hours. Since my commute is 1+ hours (one way), I eat an energy bar when I begin my drive home. That way, I have enough energy to work out when I get home but I am not too full.)
  • Hydrate throughout the day (This sounds stupid, but I can never remember to drink enough water, so I keep a bottle on my desk and set reminders on my phone to down it and refill.)
  • Set your daily goals (For running, I set various pace/distance goals. For cardio machines like ellipticals or the stairclimber, I have a  time goal (45 min for the elliptical, 30 min for the stairclimber), and I mess with the difficulty if I feel like it’s getting too easy. For lifting, I have certain weights in mind for each exercise, and I do 3 sets of 10 reps. When that gets too easy, I up it to 3 sets of 15 reps. When that gets too easy (usually a few weeks later), I up the weight.
  • Go for a run/to the gym (I don’t like running on treadmills, so I use the RunKeeper app to design routes around my town that are the distances/elevations I want to do.)
  • STRETCH (Please for the love of all that is holy, stretch after you work out. Studies show that stretching beforehand doesn’t really do much toward preventing injury–although you should still get in a good warm-up–but stretching afterward can prevent soreness.)

As an over thinker, I love love love the feeling of accomplishment of crossing stuff of a list. As with most physical things, it’s all mental. I hope I’ve given you plenty to think about!



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