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Triathlete Blog

Finding Fitness

By January 23, 2013July 21st, 2015No Comments

To all of you who tweeted about losing years of fitness after one week off earlier this winter:

Thank you for the laughs.

Let’s make one thing clear: you do not lose fitness, feel for water, gain tons of weight nor undo YEARS of consistent training by taking one week off.  Nor two weeks off.  Nope.  If you think this (or feel this), that’s just fear, vanity or obsession.  Not physiology.  You need at least 4 – 6 weeks of uninterrupted sloth to lose it.  Let me be your living science experiment.  After nearly 8 weeks off – and by off I mean a few walks where my HR maybe pushed 100 bpm, some 30 minute spins at 60-80 watts and some swims where – hey, at this point, I knew better than to even look at the pace clock – my fitness tanked.

And so I’ve spent the past 6 weeks trying to find fitness again.  I’ve been searching for it – hard.  Where do you even begin?  After the first few workouts back I wondered: is it between the couch cushions?  Hiding under the bed?  Posted on Craig’s List?

Has anyone – ANYONE – seen my fitness?


Building fitness is a very slow thing, especially after extended time off.   The process is slow and your pace is slow.  The first few weeks back, this was tough.  In my head, I was still a fast, fit athletic individual but my body was saying: YOU ARE NOT THAT ATHLETE.  What?  WHO SAID THAT?!  LIES!  But I had to listen.  This requires patience.  Patience for the process of rebuilding fitness (or working for any worthwhile) is something we all know we need but day to day it’s really, really hard.  It’s also very, very boring.  Not only that but measuring yourself against the day to day ruler is useless.  You just don’t see progress that fast.  You might feel better but that doesn’t always translate to faster.  It takes time.

The first time I went running while trying to keep my HR low, I averaged a pace 2 minutes per mile SLOWER than my usual easy pace.  But every few times I got out there I got a little faster.  I wish I could tell you a shortcut or quick fix for getting faster, well….faster.  But even if there was one, I wouldn’t take it.  Know why?  Because a few months from now, I’ll be running through Herrick Lake on one of those magical days where the pace is fast, the effort is low and everything feels perfect.  That’s what I run for.  THAT feeling.  It doesn’t happen often but when it does it reminds you of why it’s all worth it.

And then there’s biking.  Last week, I did a bike test to set a baseline. I pumped myself full of 16 ounces of dark roast, put Gangnam Style on repeat and rode as hard as I could for 20 minutes.  I FELT GREAT.  For the first 5 minutes.  I knew the test wouldn’t be pretty, I just wasn’t sure HOW ugly it would be.  Turns out I’m missing 24 watts from last year.   24 watts!!!  I look to my 2 ½ year old, who can typically be to blame for assorted missing things around our home – Garmin chargers, iPod cords, small appliances.

Came up empty.

This past Saturday, it was time to set a run pace baseline.  Believe it or not, I found a 5K in January in Chicago.  It was actually in Burbank, which I didn’t even know existed in Illinois until I found this 5K.  Somewhere south of the city and what felt far too close to Indiana, I went to race.  Paid 25 dollars for it which meant I had to finish under 25 minutes to get my money’s worth (and with the way my runs have been going – 25 minutes felt like a stretch!).

After a long warm up around beautiful Burbank (hey, how often do you get to run down Harlem Avenue!?), I peeled down to shorts and a tank for the start of the race.  Everyone else was bundled up in lobster gloves and balaclavas.  Folks, it’s 40 degrees in January in Chicago.  Get naked!  Seriously though it was me and one other guy baring our arms today – except that he was shirtless.

6 months of nursing plus 22 years of running and I knew better than that.

I started up front (fake it ‘til you make it) and immediately was surprised at how many women passed me from the gun.  OUCH!  Not that I expect to go to any 5K and be at the front but I think sometimes we THINK miracles can happen with our fitness (they don’t) so when we are put in our place by other fit people, we learn to better respect and appreciate what it takes to reach a place of great fitness (most do not respect or understand the amount of patience, consistency and focus it takes!).

The first mile felt awesome.  For the first 2 minutes.  Which is when I looked at my watch and thought: IT’S ONLY BEEN 2 MINUTES!?!  I told myself not to look again and immediately focused on the race in front of me.  There I was in my zone which is really code for being somewhere between WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE and I HAVE TO HOLD THIS PACE FOR 2 ½ MORE MILES!?  At that moment, someone ran by me.


I thought he was yelling a profanity at me (hey, I was in the ZONE people) as he buzzed by me but then he hovered there and looked at me.  Turns out it was a Facebook friend, who I didn’t recognize because I was focusing on the woman who was falling behind right in front of me.  I might not have fitness but I have PACING!  I passed her and set my sights on the next one.  PASSED.  Ok now, second place was right in front of me.

And let me digress: this is why people should race.  There is an art to racing that cannot be practiced in training.  You’ve got to get out there and test yourself, push yourself and learn to respond in a race situation.  As our sport gets into this nasty habit of only doing long course races, we race less often and we forget how to RACE.  Most athletes are too worried about “finishing” because HOW can you race something so long!  Well, you can’t.  So get out there and race.  Race hard, race short, race often!  Remind yourself what it takes to push, hurt, win and fight for place.

We turned into the wind – gusting at 30 mph.  Chris told me this morning:  DRAFT!  I found the tallest guy around me and tucked right behind him.  Then he blew up a bit and fell back.  A block later, he surged again, blew up, fell back.  Meanwhile, 2nd place was right there, dangling in front of me.  GET HER!  I was chasing but apparently not hard enough; came up 12 seconds short and finished in 3rd place.

In the end, I achieved the 3 goals I set out for the race:  don’t hurt yourself (it came close, I never run with music but figured I could use EVERY advantage possible so I put on my  iPod for this race and ¼ mile into it, I accidentally ripped the headphones out of my ears then juggled the wires for the next 2 ¾ miles so I’m just glad I didn’t strangle myself out there), don’t embarrass yourself (also close: was changing out of race shorts in my car when guy in next car came back, becoming the 1674th person who’s seen my hoo-ha since October, but who’s counting), and lastly, break a specific time which is 2 minutes slower than my usual 5K time but an honest start in the right direction (nailed this, came in about 20 seconds under goal time).

At times, I feel like I have the patience of a 2 ½ year old when it comes to finding my fitness again.  I want it and I want it now. In fact, sometimes Max wants things so badly and so immediately that he walks around shouting:

I WANT NOW!  As if NOW was this magical thing that can deliver anything you want right into your lap instantaneously.

So the next time I go running at really slow pace, I’m just going to shout I WANT NOW to make myself feel better.

And then a few blocks later, get over myself.

I just finished reading Succeed by Heidi Halvorson.  It’s a book that any athlete or coach should read to understand the psychology of setting goals.  The author talks about two different types of goals:  goals to be good and goals to get better.

When you set goals to be good, you basically are trying to prove yourself how good you are.  The problem with these goals is that they are all or nothing:  you either succeed or fail, you’re good or bad.  Setting “be good” goals can propel you towards a high level of achievement because they are scary.  But this fear can also generate more mistakes.  Furthermore, it can set you up to for disappointment and low self confidence should you fail.  If you fail, you might think of yourself as “not good” and future tasks become a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Not surprisingly, when we choose goals to be good, we might also play it safe.  If you think you might fail at something (or not ‘be good’), you’re less likely to take on a new challenge.  Not only that but these goals get you to settle – if you’re good, then what?

And then there are goals you set to get better.  These goals allow you to enjoy the process rather than set your sights on an all or nothing outcome.  Getting better is about taking on challenging tasks, learning new skills and growing.  You open yourself up to opportunities with the confidence that you can adapt and change without pressure of being perfect (or good).  It’s all about the journey.  Rather than proving your ability, you focus on developing abilities and mastering skills.  These goals push you out of your comfort zone, they push you to do things that maybe you’re not good at without any risk or judging yourself as good or bad.  You’re a work in progress.

Right now, as I find (or rebuild) my fitness, I’m a work in progress.  For the next few months, I’m not going to be racing to be good.  Or be the best.  Or be better than my old self.  I’m working to get better from where I’m at now.  These are important lessons for anyone coming back from a setback, injury, pregnancy, time off.   Make an effort to get better without worrying about being good. Reflect on your progress, no matter how small, and use it as momentum towards the next goal.