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.

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