“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”
-Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass.
This is not a post that is actually about weight training, but that’s a good example to start with. Then I’ll get to the running metaphor. Then I’m going to vent like a motherfucker.
When I talk about weight training, sometimes someone will ask out of curiosity how much I bench. I always pause before answering, because in spite of the fact that I’m not competitive about this and that I do believe the only thing I should be competing against is my own record, I feel embarrassed that I’ve been training in various ways for this long and not cleared 40kg.
Some of this is because my training is interrupted frequently; and some of this is because my joint issues mean it is actually more dangerous for me to test my max weight/reps than for most people (connective tissue injuries ahoy!), so I don’t do it often.
Most of this is because my muscles have to work twice as hard as those of most other people (not mathematically literal, by the way, but they do have to work harder) to do the same thing, because a good deal of muscle strength and tension in every movement is dedicated to holding all my bits in place. Most people have useful ligaments that do that for them.
For example, when I undertake a bench press movement, I spend a lot of time setting up. After experimenting with various positions, these days I use heel drive and a carefully curated upper back arch for my press. Force is passed through the lower body and up through my core to brace. My medial glutes (I think, sometimes hard to tell) are involved in making sure my hips – which are under mild tension, because the bench parts my legs a bit – don’t “flop out”, which would result in the wrong muscles taking the strain. Therefore they’re already sort of pre-fatigued (physio people will have better language for this) before I try to pass force up the chain.
Then there’s the shoulders. Shoulders are a fucking complex joint. They’re not even really a joint. It’s a joint system. Their complexity is a source of enormous frustration to me, because when they feel loose (usually the right one, for some reason), it’s not a matter of just tightening a muscle to pull them back into position. I have to roll the shoulder – a huge roll – to try and reset; then try to pull inward (how do I describe this) and back down using muscles across my chest and upper back, and simultaneously tighten my lats to bring it down and under. And I’m a person with poor proprioception and limited feedback – I spend ages finding these muscles. I will sit there, with my eyes closed and my right arm out to one side, feeling around inside my nerves to work out how to control the bits of me that get my shoulders into position. I must look very odd.
Then I can press. While maintaining exactly the right amount of tension across every single one of these muscles.
And if I don’t do it right, I get impingement problems. I get bicep tendinitis. I yank things.
That means that these muscles are already pre-fatigued, at least from a nervous system viewpoint, which is an enormous (and sometimes under-discussed) part of strength training.
Most people (a) don’t have collagen problems, and thus can trust their joints mostly to stay put and (b) use their stabilizing muscles instinctively, as part of a well-coordinated nervous system.
After every break from gym, I have to re-teach myself all this. At my last workout, I nearly cried in frustration. I managed two reps at 35kg, and I should not have done the second one, because I could feel the weakness in my right shoulder, which just refused to set properly.
I’ve been away on fieldwork. It was an amazing experience. I had to break keto – intensely. I worked long days. I was in pain. The steroids are helping. I have many wonderful stories to tell, because I had adventures and they were fantastic and important and I would do it all again three times over, but it did break me. Four weeks of insufficient sleep, really hot weather on one trip followed by icy rain on another trip, bad diet (for me), sleeping in a tent for that last week, and long days of hard work meant that I came home so exhausted I could barely string sentences together, and with my joints and gut so inflamed that I could barely stagger from one end of the house to the other, and I absolutely could not do it without groaning. I took serious painkillers for joint pain, which I never do, because I save those for my abused small intestine. When I did that, suddenly I could think, and walk straight.
I broke myself. As I said, I would do it again, and while I was on fieldwork it wasn’t so bad because I was busy and excited and could ignore it and just soldier on, but as soon as I got home and relaxed, everything broke.
I went for a run the other day. I’m not silly – I decided to ease back into it, so I wound my training program back three weeks.
I still couldn’t do it. I got through two running intervals and, while my cardio was perfectly fine, my muscles were like noodles. Burning noodles on fire.
A bit of experimentation has shown me that the strength of individual muscles is just fine; but the stamina, the endurance, the ability to sustain stress over time and repeated movements, is destroyed. This is expanded and compounded by the fact that, as stated above, they also have to keep my joints in, and they have to work very hard to do that while running.
To put it another way: I can do one bench press at 35kg just fine. I can do one of everything (that I usually do – pull-ups still escape me), no problem.
And if gym and running and fitness were just idle pursuits for me, just things I did to stave off the inevitable heat death of the universe – I mean, myself – that would be a bit frustrating, but okay.
Except they’re not. These are things that I do, not only to stay sane, but to stave off pain and fatigue. I need to have a good base level of muscle strength and sustained tone, or my joints will hurt – sometimes a lot – and I won’t be able to move much without at least a background level of ache. I need to have decent cardio in part to counteract my background levels of fatigue. I need to make walking around easier for myself because every extra physical stress I put on myself magnifies exhaustion.
Because, cry me a river, I know, but I work so hard at all this just to stay functional. When my schedule and health allow, I work out 5-6 days a week. Running, weights, pilates, hiking, diving, occasional swimming… They’re all a part of my general regime.
One glimmer of excitement and fun is the rate of progress and improvement. I will get more fit, I will increase my strength. I will be able to run longer and easier; I will be able to lift more heavy things; I will be able to do more in my life because of this.
Not this year.
This year… this year I’ve been running on the spot.
2016 has sucked for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. For me – ignoring world events just now – it’s been health bullshit. I’ve bounced from scan to operation to scan. I’ve been sick and inflamed. I’ve been fasted and exhausted. I’ve spent cumulative months recovering from anaesthetics (I’ve had three general anaesthetics and two twilight sedations this year), which always destroy me. I’ve had multiple scans that require a certain amount of prep, and it can take up to a week for me to recover from them. I’ve spent an increasingly ludicrous amount of time in moderate to severe to actually screaming pain.
I’ve had to break keto far more than I’m comfortable with – remembering that I’m on that diet for good reasons, like reducing the stress on my inflamed small intestine and keeping insulin low and generally reducing inflammation. Travel for work (and on a couple of occasions, for fun holiday! Not complaining!) has meant that I’m constantly swapping in and out of keto, and while it’s good to be metabolically flexible, generally speaking to get benefit from keto you want to be in that zone for at least a month.
So: pain. Inflammation. Interruption.
Back in May, I could run 6-7kms. That was my limit and it was hard and it was more of a stagger at the end, but the future looked bright, because I was training hard and extending my distance.
Now I can run for one minute intervals.
This year, I have worked my arse off to stay healthy, to get healthier, and not only has that not worked, I am just working twice as hard to stay where I am. I have sweat pouring off my body, shaky limbs, wobbly joints, and I’m pushing myself to the point of exhaustion just to not get worse. It takes a sacrifice of time and energy, and that’s time and energy that could go towards writing papers or other professional obligations, social obligations, keeping the household ticking over smoothly, even creative work. I prioritise hours and hours and hours every week to do this so that I can get better, so that things can get easier – but this? This just feels like bullshit.
I’m not giving up, but I am being honest about how horrible it feels to try and claw my way back to where I was a couple of years ago.
I work out and I want to cry because of how hard it is, something that used to be so easy, something that brought me so much joy, something that made me better able to face the world from inside my slightly idiosyncratic body.