Monday, August 31, 2009

Meeting update

I got to the meeting early to weigh in and get my account all straightened out. I hadn't been to that particular center (not sure if I visited another one) since January of 2008. My weight then was 168-point-something. I wasn't in the computer system at the meeting, so it took a little extra time to get me entered. Thanks to the little sticker they printed out for my book, I can see that I'm 21.8 pounds from my goal now. Clearly, quitting meetings did not work out in my favor.

I like the new little pocket guide they give you to track your weight and keep things organized. I don't really like that the points finder is on it, though, since I don't like to carry my weight information around with me. I have about 10 points finders scattered around in my house, so I will probably bring one of those to work and leave the little booklet in my car. The new materials are huge. I am not sure why they decided to go to such a large format, although maybe they are cheaper to produce since they're saddle-stapled and not bound. There is a lot of information in the Week 1 book that I want to review.

Our meeting was not that exciting. I liked the leader, but the topic of the week was the "Lose for Good" campaign, which is a nice thing but did not inspire a lot of conversation. The group was mostly retirees, and there was one who talked a lot. She shared her experience with the 2-point Pumpkin Muffins, but it sounded like she had modified the recipe so much (added nuts, frosting made with lowfat margarine, etc.) that they were not 2 points anymore. She didn't seem to get that, even when people tried to explain. There were a couple of women about my age there, but none of us said much. Since next Monday is Labor Day, I'm going to try the Tuesday lunchtime meeting next week and see if things are more lively in that group.

I haven't decided whether I'm going to like tracking on eTools or on paper better, so right now I'm trying both out. I'm doing my best to act like a brand-new Weight Watcher and do everything by the book. I have already had breakfast and lunch, and I have 7 points left for dinner. Because I'll be away from home teaching, I have dinner all packed: whole-wheat couscous (4) with tomatoes and basil (0), my two teaspoons of olive oil (2), salt, pepper, and 1/2 tsp. of grated romano cheese (0). I also have carrots (0), celery (0), and an apple (1). If I need a snack after class, I will dip into my 35 weekly points.

Even if my meeting didn't rock my world, I'm glad I went back. It is time to get serious about the things I really want. Yesterday I also spent some time planning out my exercise for the next month, signing up for some new classes (Spinning and a strength training class). I have had enough of my dithering around: If I take my goals seriously, there is no reason I shouldn't succeed.

Here goes nothing

After having lunch with a friend the other day and thinking a lot about how much our choices shape our lives and our health, I had been doing a lot of long, hard thinking about how that was working in my own life.

I have not lost weight this summer, even with all the exercise I've been doing. I have maintained or even gained a few pounds. There was one short time this summer when I started to lose a little -- when I was doing Weight Watchers Online. My momentum was short-lived, though, and when my subscription came up for renewal, I didn't renew it. I did a lot better with meetings -- when my heart was really in it. I've been thinking about what I really want, and losing that weight means a lot to me. Enough to take the chance of failing again.

Weight Watchers has a special deal on its monthly pass -- if you sign up for one month, you get a second month free. I decided it was time to try meetings again. Armed with a freshly-printed temporary pass, I am going to my first meeting this morning. If I don't like this meeting, I will try every meeting in my area until I find one that works for me.

My first weigh-in number will not be pretty. But I'm trying to remind myself that that's kind of the point.

I debated about telling my husband. I thought about going without saying anything. Sometimes I am afraid to tell him I'm trying to lose weight for fear of being monitored. He means well, but that kind of attention just makes me feel embarassed and self-conscious and sad. I want to do this my way without a lot of input from the peanut gallery. I figured, though, that it would be hard to make changes without him noticing. I told him, but also told him I'd rather not have any comments about what I was eating, how much I was exercising, etc. He promised to be supportive and not judgmental.

Let's hope we can both stick to it this time around.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Health and choice

I had lunch with a friend today and she told me about some pretty serious health problems that her husband's family have been dealing with. They are all having some kind of kidney problem that is aggravated by high blood pressure. It seems that there is a genetic component, but this is also a heavy-drinking family of really big guys who smoke. I think there's a little of both going on. One of the brothers has already apparently had a port installed on his arm for the dialysis he is going to need before he's in his late forties.

Yikes. I was listening to an old Jillian podcast and she was saying that in order to make a change, you have to both believe it is possible and believe it is worth it. I'm not sure what's going through this guy's head, but my guess is that he just has given up on the idea that change is possible.

I was having a discussion with one of my co-workers yesterday who thinks that health insurance should be more expensive for people who make various bad lifestyle choices like smoking, heavy drinking, being overweight and the like. I am definitely not in that camp -- I don't think punishing people (or offering discounts on insurance for those who are "good") is really going to make a difference. We all know how hard it can be to make changes. Sometimes it seems impossible. Serious penalties like that could just demoralize people further.

I'm 100% in favor of voluntary programs that help people take practical steps to improve their health. I know a local employer gave employees free gym memberships but only if they used them a certain amount -- say 3 times a week. The same employer also had a completely-subsidized Weight Watchers at Work program. I think the employer saved on health-care premiums as a result of offering these programs. I saw several people at the gym who were seriously motivated by those incentives to lose weight and get fit.

There's all kinds of lunacy going around about what's in the healthcare bills going through Congress, but I hope that help with prevention and wellness are encouraged. And, by the way, speaking of prevention, how about doing something about the fact that more than 50% of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned? Helping people pay for birth control is a lot cheaper than paying to deliver babies. I'm not sure why more insurance companies haven't figured out that particular math problem.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Farewell to summer

I know that Labor Day weekend is the traditional close of summer, but to me, the day school starts is the real end. I'm married to a high school teacher, and I teach college, so for both of us, our lives are very tied to the school year. I feel a little guilty saying this, but it's always nice when my husband goes back to school and I have more control over my own time and a little time alone. I loved having all that time with him this summer, but I felt more of a need to make decisions with him and plan my schedule around the time we could spend together. Now I'm on my own more during the day.

I took advantage of some of my alone time to reorganize my closet. I'm sure it won't stay that way because I'm me, but I put all the dresses in one section, all the jackets in another, etc. I pulled out a few things that are a long way from fitting me and put them in an upstairs closet. I still hold out hope that they will fit again, but in the meantime, there's no reason to navigate around them every time I get dressed.

I took my last summer morning swim outdoors today. It was a super-short one, because for the first time on these cool mornings, I got into the pool and it felt colder than the outside air. I made myself stick it out for 20 laps of crawl and 4 laps of breaststroke, which took about 12 minutes, and then I got dried off and got into my car and put the heater on -- first time for that too. Brrr! I will miss the outdoor pool, which looks like something out of a 1950s summer camp with trees all around, but I got reassured that the early laps would be continued next summer when I checked out.

I never did get around to repainting my living room to get rid of the ugly wallpaper border. That might be something I do in the next few weeks. I'll need my husband's help to move the furniture out of the way, and I'm still not sure how we're going to make it work. We have couches and things that won't really fit anywhere else easily, and the drying time will be a pain.

I did pull out those ugly privet bushes I've been hating and put in hydrangeas in their place. I have also been buying perennials on sale here and there on special to start building my flowerbeds. I have one section that looks pretty much the way I want it to, but the rest is still looking a little thin. I think a nice garden is something that you have to build over several years. I enjoy the time outside so that's another thing I'll have more time to do now that school has started.

I'm still going back and forth in my head about returning to Weight Watchers meetings vs. going it alone. If I could be guaranteed a meeting with realistic, fun members, I'd go in a second. I tend to go during the day, though, and I seem to get in with the cranky old guys who monopolize the time or the True Believers who swear that they're never hungry and they never touch their Weekly Points Allowance. My evenings are pretty busy and I think that's when the people with jobs and real lives tend to go to the meetings. I wish I could get all of you in a room and we could sip Cosmos and talk about how we're really making this work.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fear of running

I had a really long day yesterday -- got to campus at 8 a.m. and didn't leave until 9:30 p.m. I had to eat all three meals there, and the third meal was more a few appetizers and dessert. I was "on" for a lot of the evening, so I sort of wore my socializing muscles out. I woke up this morning with a headache wanting to do nothing but sit and read magazines all day. I could barely make breakfast conversation with my husband, who was reading something aloud to me that sounded like a long string of facts and numbers. I couldn't even figure out what it was about so I finally told him what was up. He seemed to understand and stopped listing things. Plus I was dreading my run planned for today.

The half-marathon training plan I'm borrowing from has a range of miles, and today was a 12-14 mile run. I find it too hard to plan fixed-distance runs, so I just add a zero to the end of the mileage and do that number of minutes. I probably don't quite make the mileage range on these longer runs. My planned run for today was between 2 hours and 2 hours and 20 minutes.

That's a heck of a long run.

My fears ranged from the weird ("what if I break a leg?") to the not-so-weird ("what if I get halfway done, and can't make it back?"). I also had the headache to deal with. I did spend a little time in bed reading magazines after my husband left for cross-country practice, and then I decided to give it a try. The headache was better and I just wanted to get the run over with.

About 10 minutes in, I thought I might just do half an hour and call it a day. But I was listening to a "Speaking of Faith" podcast and there was something that made me think about whether I really needed to quit or whether I was just throwing in the towel because I was giving up because I was still afraid of how hard it was going to be. I decided it was the latter and kept going. I wanted to do at least 2 hours.

Toward the end of this run, every step was starting to hurt. I decided to call it quits at 2 hours, 10 minutes and walk the last 10 minutes. I have a few sore muscles now but other than that, I feel OK. It only took sitting and eating lunch for me to feel most of the way better. I plan to go for a short walk tonight to help loosen up the kinks a little.

I'm thinking that after this half marathon in October, I'm going to go back to training for shorter races for a while. I need some time to let running feel fun again.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Swimming in someone's dust

Today there was a big group of more elite-seeming swimmers at my normally quiet morning swim. There were no open lanes but one of the fast swimmers let me share with her. That was nice of her, but it was very hard sharing a lane with someone so much faster -- I am already crummy at flip turns, and it seemed like every time I went to turn, she was right there. It would have been easier for the fast swimmers to share lanes with each other. It is so much easier to share with people who are at about the same level.

I did find it inspired me to push myself a little, which was good. The other swimmer finished before me so I had some time to relax in my own lane, too. I did a total of 50 laps of crawl and 20 laps of breaststroke. I did a few of those laps faster. I am giving some serious thought to joining a master's swim group for the fall and winter, because I miss having people to train with and I know that I tend to be a little pokier on my own than I would be with the group.

I want to start training with other people again but I feel too fat and slow. I expected these extra 20 pounds to melt away with no trouble once I didn't have my crazy job but obviously there was more than that going on.

I'm weighing a lot of options in my head but haven't settled on any one yet. I need to add strength training back into my routine, for one, but haven't done it yet. I know I need to get more serious about the calorie counting or rejoin Weight Watchers (either online only or meetings). I'm feeling sort of stuck and unmotivated. I keep waiting for something to push me out of this rut.

I am looking forward to back-to-school time even though it means more work and less free time. There's just something about that time of the year that promises a new beginning. In case you haven't noticed, I love new beginnings and I hate middles.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why exercise still matters

One of Carol's posts pointed me to this TIME magazine article: "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin" and an accompanying interview on Oprah Radio. The author says that for many reasons, exercise can have no effect, or even a negative effect on weight loss. The reasons he cited were:
  • Exercise makes you hungry
  • Exercise makes you tired so you might not be as active in the hours you're not exercising
  • People "reward themselves for exercising with food
  • Self control can get worn out
  • Muscle doesn't speed up your metabolism as much as people think (only 4 calories per pound)
Over and over again, experiments show that people who exercise don't lose any more weight than people who didn't, for a combination of the reasons above. If you've been following my blog for a while, you probably see me as a good example of the "Exercise Won't Make You Thin" concept. Still, I don't feel happy and validated after hearing this, the way that Carol said she did (though Carol has lots of other reasons for exercising than to lose weight and has no plans to stop). I have a lot of thoughts about it.

First, one thing the author stressed in the interview that is important to remember: Exercise is crucial to good physical and mental health, no matter what its effect on weight loss might be.

Besides, the body isn't a machine. No matter how much people want to focus on "Calories In, Calories Out," there are a lot of complex things going on with the body that we don't fully understand. Our bodies are made to avoid drastic changes -- they can waste calories if we overeat in the short term, or conserve calories if we seem to be living through a very difficult time. Most of these experiments were short, lasting six months or less. Who knows what changes might happen over a longer term?

I also just don't see the author's point that being inactive is good for weight loss being born out in the real world. We can see evidence that people who are inactive tend to be heavier than people who are very active just by looking around us. Look at the contestants on "The Biggest Loser" before and after they got on the show. We can also see that people who are inactive and thin tend to look "softer," and people who are active and heavy have a more rugged look. I used to attend Weight Watchers meetings, and the few women who made Lifetime who said they didn't exercise looked like an empty plastic grocery bag. They had been able to get thin by restricting calories, but they didn't look the way I wanted to look. The few people who are thin and don't work out and look good probably are city dwellers who end up doing a lot of exercise just living their lives -- shopping for groceries and carrying them home on the subway -- this is the "French Women Don't Get Fat" idea.

I think there is a lot we can learn from this article, though. Obviously, rewarding or compensating for exercise by eating more is a terrible idea. Using a calorie-counting application can really show you how much easier it is to take in a lot of calories than it is to burn a lot. I did a one-hour Pilates class, which was "worth" only 163 calories. If I rewarded myself with a post-exercise muffin, I'd end up eating more than double what I had just burned. I very rarely think of food and exercise this way anyway. There was the time I bribed myself with the promise of a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha Twist to get in the pool, but that was a rare treat to overcome inertia and get back into the habit of swimming, not a regular practice. I generally do have a post-workout snack but that's because I have a small breakfast before working out so that I don't have food sloshing around in my belly. What happens more often for me is that I am careless about counting calories and tell myself it's OK because I work out. That's obviously something I need to change.

I don't find that I am less active when I'm working out: It's actually the opposite. If I sit around all day, all I want to do is sit around. If I get up and do something, I usually want to do more, unless I've overdone it. After Pilates yesterday, I had lunch and then spent an hour and a half pulling out two ugly privets from my flowerbeds and planting three hydrangea bushes. I find that after a few months of working out regularly, physical activity feels easier than if I am inactive. But the article is a good reminder to keep active and not spend too much time in front of the computer or the TV. For one thing, it's a lot harder to eat tortilla chips when I'm weeding the garden than when I'm watching Rachel Maddow.

Finally, I think that exercise does make a difference in my self-image. I weigh about the same now as I did at the beginning of this year, but I feel a lot better about the way I look. My body looks more toned. Even though I haven't dropped a clothing size, the size I'm wearing fits better. Plus, there is a huge benefit to setting goals for yourself and persisting in them through the difficult times. I watched Julie & Julia last night, and both of them started cooking because they wanted a project and a purpose, not because they thought they'd get famous. Training for a race can be the same kind of project -- it gives you a reason to get up and get moving every day.

Last but not least, I have lost weight through exercising and diet in the past, and I know I can do it again. I just have to remember that "and" and do it, no matter how much Oprah or TIME magazine might suggest otherwise.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Are you play-deprived?

Yesterday as I was running, I listened to a Speaking of Faith podcast on "Play, Spirit, and Character." According to Dr. Stuart Brown, something as seemingly purposeless as play actually develops children's sense of empathy and teaches them how to adapt to a changing world. He said that all animals play but that humans were designed to play throughout our lifecycle, not just as kids. When people don't play as children, the effects can be severe: Dr. Brown started studying play after studying serial killers and finding out that they had not been allowed to play as children. But even as adults, if we don't take time to play, he said, we become inflexible, irritable, and, interestingly enough, "lacking in irony."

The podcast made me think about the ideas I was trying to get at in my last post: That running and other forms of exercise could be more fun if we approached them playfully. It's a balancing act, because if we really think of them as play, we might tend to be "adult" about it and not get around to doing them. I find that most of the time, even if I'm getting out to run because I have it planned, that I end up enjoying myself anyway. The times when it becomes a grind are when I get wrapped up in measuring and comparing myself: Am I getting faster? Am I doing enough? Am I getting thinner yet? That's why I have settled on the idea of focusing on either distance or time in a given workout and not both: Because I have a tendency to decide that whatever pace I'm doing isn't good enough. Not knowing helps me relax and enjoy the run itself. People do love numbers and measurements, and there isn't anything necessarily wrong with that, until you turn it into a way to beat yourself up.

I'm taking it easy today, by the way. My run that I did when listening to the "play" podcast was in 90-something-degree heat, and I spent a lot of time afterward playing in the pool with my nephew and some other kids in the family. I got overheated and yesterday had a headache so bad that it made me vomit. Awful stuff. I still feel sort of icky. I played a little too hard, I guess.

By the way, you have to watch this slideshow of images showing a polar bear playing with two huskies. It brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Back to nature: Review of Born to Run

As if you probably couldn't tell from previous posts like this one and my bare-bones triathlete posts, I'm not a gearhead. I mean, I like shiny new stuff as much as the next person and I really want a new bike, but I think some of the scientific fitness gear and 450-page books on the "right" way to train can be a distraction from the sheer joy and fun that we could have if we let go of being perfect, just a little bit at least, and were really present for the experience of fitness.

My husband read a style="font-style: italic;">Born to Run and for him it was a manifesto on toughness and the joys of the strenuous life. I, however, saw it from my own nature-girl point of view and saw it as a call for us to get back to basics and to recapture the joy of our own bodies in motion.

Author Christopher McDougall, a sportswriter and would-be runner who is plagued by ever-increasing injuries. Frustrated, he seeks out the best doctors in the business, who tell him, essentially, that he was not made for running. "Running is tough on the legs," one doctor tells him. "She was so gentle and apologetic, I could tell what else she was thinking: 'Especially your legs, big fella.'" In his quest to find a way to run without pain, without cortisone shots, and without orthotics, he goes off in search of a legendary tribe of "natural runners," the Tarahumara, who have retreated to the some of the toughest terrain in the world and who run 80-100 mile races for fun (the women's run "shorter" races of around 40 miles so that they can get back to their kids sooner). And they do them in sandals made from recycled car tires.

As a writer, McDougall turns his personal quest to rediscover natural running into an exploration of our origins as natural runners, citing evolutionary biologists who say that the way we are built proves that we are made to not only run, but to run long distances. Our bodies are full of evidence of our running past: Our tendons, the shape of our feet, the size of our butts (I should be an excellent runner, I guess), the way our skulls our built... all of these point to an animal that is adapted to cover long distances. We aren't built for short bursts of speed like a cheetah, but as a "naked, sweating animal," we are adapted to run longer in the heat than any other creature. "Then why do so many people hate it?" McDougall asks, like we all are probably asking.

The problem is our brains. "The brain is always scheming to reduce costs, get more for less, store energy and have it ready for an emergency," was one explanation. We have an instinct to relax when we can, just in case we encounter a cougar at the convenience store. Another answer is the American consumerist view of running, "too artificial and grabby... too much about getting stuff and getting it now: medals, Nike deals, a cute butt.... No wonder so many people hated running; if you thought it was only a means to an end -- an investment in becoming faster, skinnier, richer -- then why stick with it if you weren't getting enough quo for your quid?" In the 1970s, when running seemed so widely popular, the media focus was on participation, at first, about the craze and the phenomenon. Everyone was doing it. Now I think, more people are actually running, but less people are racing, and many of the people running are wondering why they're not better at it instead of enjoying the fact that they can do it.

And then there's the modern obsession with gear, which like me, McDougall thinks gets in the way of the joy of it all. In some cases, it's even harmful, like the modern running shoes that McDougall claims are responsible for the high injury rate among runners. We spend more money on shoes when we're injured, trying to find a way to fix it. Instead, he says, "We spend double the money and get double the pain." The crazy band of runners he chronicles who show up for "the greatest race the world has never seen" don't have fancy gear or even running watches. They just run.

Today when I went to swim I tried to appreciate the fact that I was able to do my laps under an open sky at an almost deserted, beautiful clear pool. I thought counting laps was getting in the way of my enjoyment, so I didn't. Even my watch was distracting me -- I kept looking at it to know how long I had been swimming. I'm still striving to be that natural-born athlete, in short. Still, I'm trying.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The bare-bones triathlete 2: What you need for race day

In my last post, I gave a list of some equipment and resources to get you started training for a sprint triathlon. Let's pretend that you've done all that training and your race is just a few days away. What do you do?

First of all, consider what you're going to wear for the race. Hopefully you've tried it out in training already. I like wearing a one-piece trisuit because it's easy. Though spandex is not the most flattering choice for me, it does simplify things. I don't change clothes during the race that way. Some people race in just a swimsuit, but I wouldn't be comfortable doing that, physically or emotionally! One of the things I have promised myself is a new one for next year, because I think some of the new designs are more flattering than the one I have. I wear it with a sports bra underneath for support.

The week before a race, you should take it easy and not try to do any last-minute hardcore workouts. It should all be in the bank by now: Save it for the race. You can do a short jog, or a quick tune-up bike ride, or a short swim for the first half of the week. The second half of that week, I switch over to total rest. I might go for a walk or do some yoga, but I don't do anything that might make me too tired or sore for the race.

If you're the kind of person who gets keyed up the day before a big event, make sure you go to bed early for two or three nights. You want to bank some rest so that if you can't sleep, you won't be freaking out and staring at the clock every hour. The night of the race, set two alarms so that you know you'll wake up on time ("What if my alarm doesn't go off?" is one of those things that might keep you from really sleeping.) If you have a crummy night's sleep, relax in the fact that you have rested enough to get you through, and know that you'll catch up after the race. You'll have enough adrenalin pumping through your veins to keep you going, I promise.

Start organizing your gear a few days ahead of time so that if you realize that you're missing something, you can go to the store and replace it. These are some things you'll need, as a bare-bones triathlete. I recommend recruiting someone to be your support team, and giving them a bag with the following:
  • Camera for documenting your triathlon debut
  • Maps to the race location (if they're not going with you)
  • Water bottle and snacks for after the race (I have been to a few races with terrible post-race food and limited water, so I always bring something in case)
  • Soft towel for wiping off after the race
  • Soft clothes for after the race (you may be chafed)
  • Old sheet to spread on the ground and hang out on while you wait for race results
Make sure you show lots of appreciation to your support person, because it really would be a drag to be there without someone to cheer you on.

You will need your own bag of stuff for transition (the place you change from swimming to biking to running). You will want to wear your trisuit to the race, along with some slip-on shoes, a pair of soft pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt (it's usually chilly in the early morning before the race). You'll need to take off your shoes and other outer layers and give them to your support crew to hold for you. You'll need to make sure to bring the swim cap from your race packet and a pair of goggles for the swim, too. I usually bring two pairs, just in case one breaks. It could happen! Your transition bag should include:
  • A colorful hand towel to mark your transition space
  • A small towel to wipe your face with (sweat always drips into my eyes)
  • Your bike (Check the air in the tires before you leave home. I don't like to bring a bike pump with me to transition because then people will want to borrow it, which is distracting)
  • Helmet (You only have one head, plus you will not be allowed to race without one)
  • Sunglasses (if you don't wear glasses, eyewear is required by USA Triathlon rules)
  • Bike shoes and socks (or your running shoes, if you wear the same shoes to bike and run)
  • Sports drink (or whatever you've been using in training to drink on the bike -- nothing with artificial sweeteners, though, which can cause GI troubles)
  • Running shoes
  • Race belt or light tank top with your race number pinned to it
  • Extra water or sports drink to chug before you go out to the run
There are lots of articles out there about how to set up a transition area. Some people use funny balloons to mark their area but I've never done that. I just count the bike racks between me and the entrance and between me and the exit, plus I make sure my towel is colorful. I also have a bright yellow bike, so that helps.

Eat a solid dinner the night before the race, but don't try anything new. Tonight is not the night to try sushi for the first time. I generally stick to the classic pre-race stuff: Pasta with tomato sauce, a little chicken, a salad. Don't overdo it in any way: No greasy food, no huge dessert, no 40 grams of fiber, no giant cups of coffee. You don't want anything in your stomach that might cause upset, bloating, heartburn, GI distress, etc., because you want to be able to get a good night's rest. I also don't drink for a few days before the race.

Go to the race site at least once before the race to make sure you know where it is. If possible, get maps of the course from the race website to get a sense of where you'll be going. You will probably be following the crowd, like I always do, but it's still nice to have previewed it ahead of time.

In case you haven't figured it out already, my race-day M.O. is to test everything out ahead of time and be prepared for the problems that might happen. It's a great thing to bring an under-seat bike repair kit with a CO2 inflator with you, in case, God forbid, you have a flat tire. I've been lucky so far on that count -- I barely know how to change a bike tire, but I bring it along so that I'd have some chance of salvaging my race if it happened.

The biggest thing to remember is to have a good time. A sprint is a short race, so you'll be done in less than two hours. That sounds like a long time, but it will go by quickly. Don't get too hung up on your time, what people pass you, how you look, or any of the other dumb stuff that can become distracting from the main point: You're doing this thing you never thought you could do.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The bare-bones triathlete

Since I have given advice to a few newbie triathletes, I thought it might be worth compiling some of those ideas here. I'm not sure how many of you have ever considered (or would ever consider) doing a race like this, but it is a lot of fun and a great challenge if you're ready for it. Remember that my advice is the advice of a non-expert amateur, so your mileage may vary.

Can I do a triathlon?

Well, first, a more important question: Do you want to do one? Don't do it because you think all the cool kids are doing it, do it because you are really excited at the prospect of doing a multisport race.

Also remember that there are triathlons and there are triathlons. I have done multiple sprint triathlons and two international distance (Olympic) tris. Wikipedia has a nice table listing standard race distances. A sprint takes me around an hour and a half to complete and I feel tired and happy afterward. An international/Oly takes me about three and a half hours, and both times I tried it, I got so hot and tired that I finished feeling like I might not make it at all. At the second one, in Chicago, I sat down on a curb and cried when I finished. I can't even contemplate doing an Ironman, not even just to finish it. "Just finishing" something that takes 14-17 hours to do is not something I think I would enjoy.

I would recommend that all beginners start with a sprint or even a super-sprint race. I think that most people of moderate-to average fitness could do a triathlon of these distances as long as they took the time to prepare properly. I had 9 months to train for my first sprint, but I don't think most of the other first-timers had trained that long, but I hadn't even swum serious laps in the pool before I decided to do a triathlon, so I had lots of work to do. I'm assuming you're reading this in the fall and thinking about a race next summer, so you'd have a nice long time to get ready for your first race.

How do I get started?

For a sprint triathlon, you'll need to be able to swim half a mile, bike 10-12 miles, and run 3.1 miles. If you can already do that, great! You can sign up for a race tomorrow. Otherwise, start working your way up to those distances. I generally work out at least five days a week, and do at least one swim, one bike, and two run workouts each week. The extra workouts depend on my particular focus at the time. You might also consider adding strength training, yoga, and/or Pilates to your workouts to keep you strong and limber. There is a lot of more specific advice online, but for brand-new beginners, the important thing is to get started as soon as possible. I liked sites like trinewbies for answering all the "dumb" questions I had, like what to wear (I wore something like this, with a sports bra underneath, but you want to wait until closer to your race date to buy any fancy trisuit, because you're might be thinner by then). I also think that books like and Slow Fat Triathlete can be really helpful and motivating.

What do I need to get started?

A lot of people seem to get all excited about the gear. You could spend endless amounts of money on triathlon swag, but I don't recommend going out and buying thousands of dollars worth of stuff before you start training. This is a list of the bare minimum stuff you need to start training for each event:

Swim: Swimsuit, latex swim cap, and goggles. Membership to a pool where you can swim laps. You don't need a wetsuit to get started or to do a sprint race (or maybe ever: I bought one and hated it and sold it on ebay). Once summer comes along, try to hook up with a group that does open water swimming. You don't want the first time you swim in a lake to be the day of the tri.

Bike: Basic gym clothes (including a good sports bra if you're a woman) and membership to a gym with Spinning classes. I don't recommend going out and buying a new bike right away, because you'll probably get talked into buying a hybrid bike, which you really don't want. You want a road bike. If you go into a store without some confidence about what you need, chances are, that guy at Play It Again Sports! who doesn't know a triathlon from his elbow will convince you that a hybrid or a mountain bike is great for triathlons. It's not. It really isn't. It's fine for training for a triathlon, but on race day, you want a road bike if you don't want to get passed by every other person on the course. Trust me. Because road bikes are expensive, I recommend taking Spinning classes or training on whatever bike you have lying around until a few months before the race, and then buying a reasonable road bike or borrowing one from someone who will let you use it for a few months to get used to it.

Run: Weather-appropriate clothes and/or a membership to a gym with a treadmill. A sportsbra if you're a woman. I like to run outside in all weather, so I have a lot of fancy running clothes that keep me cool and dry in the summer and warm and dry in the winter. Cotton is crummy for running because as soon as you start running, you will start to sweat, and cotton just soaks up the sweat and weighs you down. Target actually sells some nice warm-weather running gear, but the cold-weather jackets and pants can get expensive. If you're trying to go bare-bones, it might be better to train indoors on the treadmill where it's temperature-controlled and you can get away with wearing an old cotton t-shirt and yoga pants. I do recommend Wright socks, though, and think even a bare-bones triathlete should have some. They keep the blisters at bay. You also need running shoes. There are all kinds of opinions and advice on shoes, but my advice is to start with a fairly basic shoe and move up if you need to. I have had more trouble with the $120 running shoes than I have with the $70 models. I like Asics or New Balance, but it really depends on your foot and your stride. You can try the various shoe guides online or go to a running store and see if they can give you some good advice.

Other stuff: If you have a good digital watch or a heart-rate monitor with a watch, you can run without a measured course and just base your workouts on elapsed time. I think it would be hard to train without one. You can get fancier with a GPS and all that junk, but we're talking bare-bones here. You also want some kind of notebook or log to record your workout, or you can use a cool site called athlinks, which has a workout journal and helps you keep track of your results.

This is all you really need to get going. There is plenty of advice out there on how you can spend more money and get more obsessive about your training plans, but for me, the best advice is to just get out there and do it. You can fuss over the details on your second triathlon. This advice will get you going on training. In a later post I'll give you everything you need to have and know on race day, if people seem to be interested.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Things that make me go "hmmm"

I saw a product at Barnes & Noble yesterday that made me laugh. The image at right is a Rachel Ray garbage bowl -- a big plastic bowl to toss scraps in while you cook so you don't have to walk over to the garbage can.

I don't think it's a bad idea to toss scraps into a bowl while you cook, but I did think it was funny that you'd need to pay $19 for a plastic bowl with Rachel Ray's name on it. Plus, the one pictured at right reminds me a little of vomit. I wondered why you wouldn't just use some bowl you had lying around already. Or better yet, you could get a countertop compost bin and take it out to your compost pile to make fertilizer for your vegetable garden (assuming you had a compost pile and a real vegetable garden, which I don't). I tend to toss my scraps in the sink and then shove them down the garbage disposal. I was going to post about how funny this whole thing seemed but apparently someone at the Indy Star already beat me to it (link to the article from Rachel Ray's site is broken). I'm not going to pick on Rachel Ray for this too much because, heck, if someone wanted to pay me lots of money to put my name on stuff, I'd do it.

I also saw the garbage bowls on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond today when I was looking for a cherry pitter. Those things are hard to find. BBB does have them, but Meijer did not, though they did have a pineapple corer and a lettuce knife. I needed the pitter because I'm buying cherries but not eating them fast enough because I tend to like to have my fruit with yogurt or cereal and the pits make that a challenge.

By the way, did you know that Jillian Michaels no longer has a podcast? I'm unhappy about it, since that was my favorite thing to listen to while I was running. The last show I heard, she made several cracks about products advertised on "The Biggest Loser" and said that she doesn't always agree with everything they do on that show. The next week, there was a whole new podcast in her place, and the guy said that she was just too busy to do the show anymore. I'm going to miss listening to her joking with her producer Janice.

I registered for next year's BlogHer in New York City -- I decided I just couldn't skip it again. I missed going this year, and I have only been to NYC once and want a chance to see a little more of the sights and maybe do some shopping. I thought I'd get in before they sold out of spots at the "blogger rate," since I'm making enough money from my blog to go out to dinner once every 2 months. Not long after I registered, though, I started to worry that blogging will be dying out by then -- most of the bloggers I read have been posting less and less, and I don't get as many comments as I used to. Hopefully people are just out enjoying the beautiful weather and will be back to entertain me through the long, dark winter.
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"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07