O Bendy Gymster: The Training Montage and the “New You” (or me?)

I look back at the last six months, and all I see is myself in a training montage (if you feel a sudden urge to listen to “Eye of the Tiger” now, that’s a feature, not a bug). I’m not new to gym, or fitness, by any stretch of the imagination – in fact, I think this year will mark about a decade of that sort of practice.

I am, however, new to doing it at this level of intensity, with this level of focus and research. I’m the sort of nerd who doesn’t do anything by halves. Every major decision or change in daily practice is constantly researched, discussed and considered. With the uncertainty in my scientific career setting me back mentally, I needed another way to progress and achieve goals.

I’d also become intensely aware of the fact that, if I want to stay mobile and functional into old age as a person with hypermobility syndrome (HMS), I needed to take charge of my core strength and balance. If I wanted to be fit as well, fit enough to run and lift weights (and go on cold-water shore dives without being wiped out afterwards), I needed to be informed and careful about how I managed my exercise for best effect: muscle gains, cardio fitness gains, and most importantly, offsetting the disadvantages (increased injury risk and prolonged recovery time) of hypermobility.

This meant that I ramped up my gym attendance and started clinical Pilates.

In July, I got an actual training program. I started really participating in the Fitocracy community – asking questions and reading articles – rather than just logging workouts. Since my brain works really well on dopamine rewards, I started to really “game” fitness, involving not just Fitocracy (a cartoon robot gives you points for exercising!), but also Zombies, Run! (story missions to motivate running), The Walk (the more you walk, the more episodes you unlock to listen to), and Fitbit (setting daily step and activity goals).

Points, story motivation, meeting daily goals: these things work for me. I started to see muscle definition in my shoulders.

Around September, I’d now read enough to realise I should probably be monitoring my protein intake to support all this exercise and muscle development, so I started using MyFitnessPal (MFP) to log food keep an eye on my macronutrient ratios and, well, to see how much I actually eat. Almost casually, this meant I started losing weight. I also found it very difficult to stay on top of protein targets and began to understand why protein powder was a thing (a horrible thing that tastes like slimy boiled arse, but I am told that it varies from brand to brand, and there are better ways to consume it than just adding it to water).

In November, I finished Couch-to-5K – wearing regular weight running shoes.

Around the same time, frustrated by my nauseous sugar response, I started eating a very low carbohydrate diet with the goal of getting into ketosis (the ketogenic diet). This was excellent for my general health and well-being, and didn’t noticeably affect my resistance training (although I plateaued for a while), but it set my running back enormously. By Xmas, it was starting to recover as I adapted to using ketone bodies and fat for energy. Meanwhile, I found it very easy to stay on top of protein targets while eating keto; in fact, the greater challenge was to avoid eating too much protein (excess protein gets converted into glucose. You do want a bit of this to help fuel your brain, but too much and it will lead to a rise in insulin, which switches off ketosis).

There were some struggles around Xmas and New Year’s. I fell off the keto wagon and set my adaptation way back. I was intensely frustrated, because it was also too hot to run and I started to feel as though I was never going to get on top of it all.

In the background, my balance had improved, as well as my core strength. I was able to stay upright with less difficulty, able to sit still without fidgeting for longer, and had less random back pain. My joints were more stable, able to work within a reasonable range of motion without subluxing (partial dislocation) or aching. I quit clinical Pilates for reasons of time and money, and picked up a bunch of extra physiotherapy exercises to compensate.

Meanwhile, my body composition continued to change. The scales were telling me some very surprising things.

On the tenth of January, I injured my calf muscle. The doctor suspected a tear, but an ultrasound happily revealed no such thing – merely a bad strain. I dropped leg work and running and wore a compression bandage everywhere I went, but a few days ago I started gently working it again.

On the seventeenth of January, I bowed to the inevitable, and reluctantly made my way down off the mountain to the shopping centre in search of a new sports bra, new t-shirt bras, and a pair of shorts that didn’t fall down. I stumbled onto some sales (and some things that were just always cheap – thank you, Target!), and was astonished to discover the current size bra I should actually be wearing (no wonder I was getting very, very uncomfortable… bordering on pain, honestly. Two cup sizes out will do that to a lass).

Then I did another running workout, which is what inspired me to write this post.

On the twentieth of January, I decided my calf was recovered enough to try a gentle training run. I was absolutely determined that I would stop at the first sign of any pain in the muscle – the last thing I wanted to do was take a stressed muscle that wasn’t torn and then tear it – so I decided on a Week Four workout from the Couch to 5K program (five minute warm-up walk; three minute run; ninety second walk; five minute run; two-and-a-half minute walk; repeat that last sequence again; five minute cooldown walk) on the treadmill (a much more forgiving surface than the trail I usually run on).

While keto-adapting, I’ve found I have a certain response. I get on the treadmill, and get through my warm-up walk, thinking “Whew, this is harder than I expected. It’s taking my body ages to warm up. Gah.” I thought this was just part of being on keto, and perhaps permanent. Everything eventually would kick in – but maybe it just took longer.

Then I start my running interval, and immediately my body starts crying, “ah crap! Oh god oh god – gah – three minutes of this? Okay, we can do this, we can do this…”

That’s… not what happened yesterday.

The warm-up walk was fine, but I was itching to run. I hit my running interval and-

-everything just worked-

-it felt like I could run forever

-I had to really nag myself to stop after three minutes.

I got runner’s high in about thirty seconds. I just didn’t get tired.

Now, keto is great, but it’s quite obviously not everything. It’s been a long time since I was able to run continuously, so I’ve lost some of my cardio gains – I did start to fatigue towards the end of the workout. The last five minutes required concentration, but what’s important is that they weren’t hell. I wasn’t gasping and forcing myself to continue. In fact, I was so psyched by the whole business that I increased the treadmill speed for the last ninety seconds, because I had so much energy I wanted to dance on the treadmill, and as much as I am perfectly happy to look psyched and silly in the gym, that’s a good way to sprain an ankle.

I’ve still got a way to go to catch up with my pre-keto level of cardio, and Melbourne summer isn’t helping (my blood pressure tanks more than most people’s in the heat; I just bought a pair of compression socks, which seem to help with that). I still need to do an extraordinary amount of pre-run physio preparation to avoid injuring myself.

But as far as fitness goes, it feels like everything’s coming up Kate.

Having said all that, and told my tale of glory (with one or two setbacks), you’d think I’d be more sympathetic to all this advertising that references New Year’s resolutions for fitness and the promise of a “New You!” And, honestly, I have no problem at all with people deciding that 2015 will be their year for fitness. Everyone starts somewhere and a new year’s resolution is no worse a starting point than “I’d like to run for the train without getting out of breath.”

What I do have a problem with is this “New You” issue. I see a lot of people on my fitness forums proudly proclaiming “Bring on the new me!” and while they have every right to say that and use that to motivate them, it honestly makes me twitch – even flinch – because I am honestly not sure that this is the most helpful and healthy narrative with which to approach fitness.

I’ve got a photo of myself from about a year ago that staggered me when I saw it. Whatever you think about intentional weight loss (mine was – mostly – a side effect, but as much as it confuses me, I’m not unhappy about it. Just conflicted), you could use that as my “Before!” picture, take a picture of me now, eleven kgs lighter with Bonus! Muscle Definition, call that my “After!” picture and declare that I have found my “New Me.”

But that’s a load of bollocks. Horse puckey. Balls. Bullshit, to really descend into the vernacular and make it clear what I really think.

I’m not a “New Me”. I’m the same me I was before, except that now I’m two cup sizes down on bras and I had to put a new hole in my belt with my dissection kit (which I’ve done three times over the years, and I now think I have it down to a fine art and possibly my dissection kit is not in super fine maintained condition). I’m the same me, except now I can run further – and I can run for the train without getting out of breath, and I can stay balanced for longer, and sit still more comfortably. I’m the same me, except that now I can lift heavier things and walk further in full dive kit without getting fatigued. I’m the same me, but I have a bit more energy and a bit more pep. I’m the same me, but I trust my body a bit more, and that is probably the biggest difference.

Those things are all great, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud to add “total gymster” to be long list of identifying labels, but they’re not who I am. They’re not all completely superficial – having more energy means it’s easier to keep depression at bay, and that honestly makes me a much nicer person to be around – but I don’t have to reintroduce myself to my husband and friends.

The best change is that I have a better relationship with my body. I know that we can get things done when we work together, and even that’s an artificial plural; in many ways, I am my body. I’m my legs, my arms, my ribcage, and that funny looking mole in the middle of my back. And it’s still the same body.

When it really comes right down to it, we are constantly rebuilding ourselves: physically, mentally, emotionally. Every day can bring a New You, if that’s how you want to look at it. As I get older, my body will continue to change – I’m in my mid/early thirties now, but there middle age to be greeted, there’s menopause, there’s other changes in body shape, there’s a certain amount of frailty to be expected. My interests will change. Hobbies will come and go. Other identities will be added to those I already claim.

None of that will change who I am, or what I am, and I don’t think there was anything wrong with the so-called Old Me. I was a bit less fit, definitely fatter, and at a very similar state of emotional equilibrium. I had the same friends, the same opinions, the same interests. I mostly liked who I was then, and I mostly like who I am now.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the notion of trying to re-invent yourself, but what I am saying is that sometimes this “New You!” narrative can be unkind in the short term and self-defeating in the long term. I’m saying that, at least in my case, I found my pursuit of fitness and health a lot easier from the perspective of working with my body and self-image rather than against those things. It’s not that I haven’t tried the latter – I certainly have – but it wasn’t effective, and ultimately, it was psychologically harmful.

So yes, I still see the last six months or so as a training montage, because that entertains me. I am vain as the proverbial peacock, and sometimes shallow as the equally proverbial puddle, and I’ve internalised the same body image bullshit as everyone else, and yes, I’m happier with how I look now.

But I am not fooling myself. This is not a New Me. This is the same Me, who does different things and is currently having a good time doing it.

I hope, if you’re pursuing a similar idea, that you have a good time doing it, and that you embrace the so-called Old You and take it along for the journey.

Post. “O Bendy Gymster” is the name I give to posts on fitness and gym and exercise as a hypermobile person. I’m a gymster, and I’m very bendy, and there really isn’t a story behind that title; but knowing that I have a particular biomechanial issue means that it’s easier for me to work out effectively, and I find that really empowering, so here we are.


Dog Quest: The Calming Hug

We may have accidentally come one step closer to resolving Abby’s dog-reactivity issue. I’m not sure why exactly it works (theories abound), and I’ll be asking our trainers at the earliest opportunity, but here’s how I stumbled on it.

About a month or so ago, I took Abby for a walk, and the usual disasters happened: she’d see another dog, she’d growl and jump and bark and get herself into a state, and she’d do this even as I tried to take her off the path, get her to focus on me, give her treats and desensitise her. I’d had mixed results with this approach before, and figured that – like anyone with social anxiety – she was just having a bad day.

By the end of the walk, she was exhausted and obviously unhappy (in fact, she launched herself into the car as soon as we got the carpark; she just couldn’t get home and back to her Amos soon enough).

There’s a large pile of rocks on one side, opposite the lake and near a bridge on the way out of the park. About five or six people were sauntering along the bridge. I recognised them because I’d seen them on their way in. There was a professional photographer, and his assistant was carrying a very large reflector strapped to his back.

“Uh oh,” I thought, and sure enough, Abby began to take exception to this bizarre silhouette. I took her over to the big pile of rocks and, since it was a comfy space to sit, I sat down and prepared a handful of treats to distract her with.

I was very tired after the adrenaline of our “relaxing walk” together past every other dog in the five nearest suburbs (might as well have been), so instead of trying to just keep a loose hand on the harness and leash and showing her the treats, I pulled her into a bear hug. I generally try not to do this – I was always taught (a) that hugs aren’t necessarily comforting for dogs, (b) that “overcomforting” will lead to anxiety and (c) that it was better to let her decide not to react, and to reward that impulse control.

It turns out that all those things are true, but how true they are might vary relative to the level of anxiety and the age of the dog. Abby has always had a tendency to be very snuggly, so I tend to write off the “dogs don’t like hugs” when it comes to her. Amos will tolerate hugs, but prefers simply to lean or be leant on as an expression of affection, and I think he’s probably a more typical dog in this respect.

She calmed down a bit. Not all the way, mind you, but she stopped quivering so much. Her muscles were still quite hard, and I fed her a few treats, which helped relax her further. You can tell when Abby is trying not to react – she gives these strange huff sounds, rapid breathing, from her nose, as though she is hyperventilating or huffing paint.

Then the photographer’s assistant took the reflector off his back and put it down on the grass, and then as far as Abby was concerned he looked like a normal person again, and the danger had passed.

I didn’t make the connection at the time. I figured it was mostly the treats.

Today, we took her down to the same park – I had Husband and Amos with us as well this time. When the whole pack is together, she seems to feel a lot calmer, and I feel it can only be a positive experience to know that Amos has her back.

This time, she started to react to another dog as soon as I opened the back of the car. Instead of telling her off (firmly, not with a shout. Shouting never helps), I grabbed her muzzle. You have to be careful doing this, as the nose is pretty sensitive and you don’t actually want to cause pain – I just wanted to get her to look at me – but as soon as I exerted a bit of (very very gentle!) pressure on her muzzle, she started to just look at me. She was still stiff as a board, and making her little paint-huffing sound, but she was looking at me. Her eyes occasionally flicked over to the other dog she had seen walking past, but then flicked back.

“Good girl,” I crooned. “Good, gentle girl,” and other nonsense about how safe she was, and how gentle and calm she was, and as soon as the dog was out of sight, I pretty much just poured a handful of treats down her throat.

Happy dog. Wagging tail. Now we can start the walk.

I was thinking about this as we were walking, and as soon as we had to pass another dog, I took her way off the path as I normally would, but instead of just standing there trying to lure her attention onto me, I crouched down next to her and wrapped my left arm around her chest and shoulders, using my right hand to get at the treats.

I can’t properly put into words the difference in her behaviour – she didn’t even go stiff. She didn’t huff. She glanced at the other dog, but fixed on me, and that was before she even noticed I was reaching for the treat pouch (believe me, you can tell when she notices. She is a very food oriented dog).

Throughout the walk, I think I went through this sequence of behaviours about eight times. Husband and I swapped dogs a couple of times (he was walking Amos at the start), and he got to give it a go as well.

By the end of the walk, she was completely calm in a hug. The only exception was if I didn’t notice the approaching dog quickly enough and she started to react before I could get her into a bearhug and get the treats out. We still managed to avoid a full-blown tantrum, even though she was huffing and stiff.

It seemed as though, as long as I could prevent the physical reaction, she couldn’t get herself into a state. If I stopped the spiral before it started, she was able to focus on me instead of the other dogs going past. Maybe it wasn’t about “overcomforting”, but about trust; we were always there to take care of her when other dogs went past. The reason that overcomforting is a problem is that it teaches the dog that there really is something to be scared of. It’s best to avoid it in puppies and very young dogs; in those situations, ignoring irrational fears can be better, and they can take their cue from you. If you’re not reacting, obviously it’s not a big deal.

I can see that this rationale might not work if the dog is already absolutely convinced that the stimulus is completely terrifying. In that case, my ignoring the stimulus and the reaction to it might seem like I’m not paying attention, and if I’m not paying attention, I can’t protect her. Also, maybe I’m not very good at ignoring the stimulus – maybe, in spite of my best efforts, I tense up when other dogs approach, and that teaches her that it really is scary.

There’s a lot that might be going on here. Maybe it’s a mixture of things. Maybe all I can do is teach her that, yes, I will give her bear hugs when other dogs go past. Maybe over time she’ll learn that, if nothing terrible happened then, it won’t happen later. Maybe she’ll begin to disconnect the association she has made: she associates other dogs with her own panic, so if I can prevent the panic, all she will be left with is the initial stimulus, and it may not be that bad.

It’s not perfect. It’s obviously not a workable solution for dog training, and it’s not possible to really implement it when there’s a dog a certain distance ahead of you on the path and she can see them (she just keeps watching them. She can’t seem to stop).

It does, however, remind me of something. It reminds me of how babies are calmed by being swaddled, and how some autistic people find weighted blankets very comforting, and oh wait, it reminds me of this particular product, which I had always viewed with some skepticism.

So I will talk to our trainers, and see what they think. I am very tempted to try a Thundershirt to see if it can stand in for a bearhug.

If you have any ideas, thoughts, or experiences with these dog issues, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.


ADDENDUM: One thing I forgot to mention is that, on this walk, every single person we encountered, whether they had a dog or a small child, was very supportive of us trying to train our dogs. There was no snubbing, no muttered comments about aggressive dogs, just encouragement and praise and interest. In fact, one mother was very happy to have us go past with our dogs in a heel so she could show her toddler how well the “big doggies” were behaving. This meant that we were a lot more relaxed, because we didn’t have to worry about what other people were doing; we could just focus on our dogs. We thanked everyone for their encouragement. I think it really made a difference in the body language that Amos and Abby were reading from us.

This Keto Life: The P-word

I am extremely conflicted about the paleo diet (not leastwise for the reason that I want to spell it “palaeo” because I am Australian, damn it).

In a practical sense, the paleo diet is essentially a grain-free, dairy-free diet with a big focus on whole foods, avoiding additives and processing as much as possible. It tends to be a low carb sort of diet, which I (naturally) think accounts for much of its positive effect. Continue Reading

End of Year Wankery: Health, Fitness and Shameless Vanity

I’ve been struggling through some half-written blog posts lately, and given that my state of mind is not spectacular, they have all gotten a bit grim. In some cases, that’s unavoidable due to the subject matter, but in others you would think the world was ending as I deliver the gut-churning, tear-wrenching, heartbreaking narrative of my (possibly) torn calf muscle.

And yes, I’m not impressed by the situation with my calf, but I think I could make it at least an interesting story, and to be honest I could make the story of what I had for dinner into a grim and stark reflection of the human condition.

So instead, let me embark upon something a tad more frivolous, and perhaps more positive.

I’m not going to say that 2014 was a fantastic year, partly because I’m not even sure what that means. I don’t have a list of “things that have to go well before I can declare it a fantastic year.” I don’t need a list of “things that have to suck donkey balls before I can declare it a dreadful year”, because to be honest, mostly people know when they’ve had a dreadful year: enough shitty things happen in an arbitrary twelve month span, you start to feel a bit sour about it.

Having said that, a number of people I know have had a pretty horrid 2014, in the “Good bye, 2014, good riddance, don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out,” sort of vein. I haven’t. It has not been a bad year. There have been severe negatives, but I’m trying not to focus on that.

It’s been an interesting year.

This was the year I spent mostly unemployed after finishing my PhD (but had a lot of odd jobs in the lab, which was appreciated).

This was the year I applied for my first grant application.

This was the year we got Abby.

This was the year my first PhD papers got published.

This was the year I went scuba diving in Thailand.

These are all great things, and there is certainly more I could list that made a mark: there were a lot of firsts.

This was, for one, the first year that I broke a bone. Admittedly, it was my middle finger, but that was enough to ruin my perfect record of non-broken bones.

These are not the reasons that I’ll remember 2014.

Instead, I’ll remember 2014 as the first year I dared to bench press on the actual rack without feeling too anxious about being the lass in the weights room; the first year I managed to maintain a consistent intense gym schedule for six months or more; the first year I was brave enough to have an online presence on Fitocracy and actually ask for advice; and thus the first year I actually got some muscle definition.

(aside: It is entirely possible I wandered out into the kitchen this afternoon and gleefully demanded that Husband admire my traps and biceps, which he dutifully did)

It’s the year that I maintained regular clinical pilates classes for more than six months, and as a consequence of increased core strength and glute/hip activation, started to be able to run properly in actual shoes – not dorky toe shoes, not the thin flexible compromise shoes my podiatrist and I agreed on, but actual normal running shoes.

It’s the year that I started on the ketogenic diet, or, as I like to call it, How To Eat Food Without Regularly Feeling Sick and Tired, and my energy levels started to skyrocket. This was, admittedly, towards the end of the year (21 November was the first day I kept under 50g carbs), but it has been a complete game-changer.

It’s the year I actually started cooking and meal-planning – because of keto – and finding that, when I have specific goals in mind and am not forcing myself to deal with certain anxiety triggers, I actually don’t mind it (yes, I have some food triggers. It is very unpleasant).

It’s also the year I lost 10 kgs in about three months while continuing to gain muscle. In the interests of full disclosure, yes, I’m very happy with the change in body composition; but I’m genuinely conflicted about feeling happy about it, because honestly, I was reasonably happy with my body before that… and that’s a blog post for another time. It’s not just vanity muscle, either; I’m actually stronger.

(aside: I am unequivocally happy about the fact that I need less weight for diving. As I’ve said elsewhere, fat floats and muscle sinks, and walking down the pier wearing a steel tank and 6kgs of lead is much nicer than a steel tank and 9.5kgs of lead)

So, as shallow as it might seem – and I’m not entirely sure that I care – 2014, for me, will always be the year of health, fitness and shameless vanity; and I think the only reason it was possible for me was because I was mostly unemployed. I had time on my hands, and in order to work from home, I needed to get my mental health under control; and in order to do that – in a gloomy atmosphere of post-PhD career stagnation – I needed to exercise.

So I did. All the damn time. When I once again have a full time job, the schedule for workouts is going to get a lot tighter.

I suppose that might be a lesson in apparent negatives leading to some pretty impressive positives, and I’ll take that lesson on the chin.

What does this mean for 2015?

I have some big plans for 2015. I have more papers to publish (ain’t that always the case). About halfway through 2015, I’ll hear about my grant, and then I’ll either have a job or I’ll be jobhunting feverishly. I have at least one excellent field trip planned, and for reasons I’ll go into in another post, Dive Victoria owes me a boat dive credit. I have novels to write and edit, and I have goals for Abby and Amos in terms of their training and behaviour (I’m currently listening to them “play” loudly on the balcony, which involves a lot of growling and barking and leaping and does faintly resemble a rottweiler-based Armageddon).

But when it comes back to the health, fitness and shameless vanity, what are my 2015 goals?

  1. Stay in ketosis for at least eight weeks without falling off the wagon (just started week three, wish me luck), and booze doesn’t count (at least, not keto friendly booze like whiskey or dry champagne).
  2. Bench press 50 kgs by the end of the year (right now I can manage 30 kgs, and I can do a set of three with good form). I would doubt whether I can do that, but then I look at how much progress can be made in a short time and I think it’s possible.
  3. Start personal training – or at least take advantage of my gym’s introductory PT offer (three half hour sessions for $60, which is very nice indeed).
  4. Do an unassisted pull-up (I’m not sure of my odds on this one, but we’ll work at it and see how we go).
  5. Run a 5K – comfortably.
  6. Allow ketosis to set my body composition to a new stable point, at which point I will be able to buy new clothes (it’s changing too fast at the moment for me to do more than “grab a pair of cheap shorts from Target because mine are falling down”).
  7. Manage at least one dive per month, most likely as one double dive day every two months. That’s not a lot, but it can be surprisingly hard to maintain (largely due to finances and weather).

That’s probably enough to be going on with; so I’ll wish you all a happy and healthy new year, mentally and physically.

And writing this had the desired effect of picking up my mood.