Health and Wellness

You don’t need an app for that and 11 other things I learned from running over the last 11 months

It hasn’t been quite a year yet—May will mark the official one year anniversary—but roughly eleven months ago, I made an important choice to better my health. I decided to run. Because of my job, I live a very sedentary lifestyle. From 8:00 am – 5:00 pm, Monday – Friday, my behind is glued to a seat in front of a computer screen. That’s only for work and doesn’t include the extra hours I put in after I get the kids down for bed. As someone who enjoys to write and code (I am writing the never-ending novel and I am currently redesigning my church’s entire website, for example), I log additional hours of screen time as well. I would hate to track how much time I actually spend sitting over the course of a month. It would be a depressing Excel spreadsheet to say the least. An Excel spreadsheet in need of an SSRI.

There were a number of motivating factors for me to get off my butt and hit the ground running. As I stated in a previous blog on this very topic, I run for the health of my body, for mental clarity. I run every morning so I can keep up with my kids every evening. I run for my family as much as I run for me, if not more.

I want to be around for the long haul.

I’m 32 years old and I don’t have a dad on this earth anymore.

It’s not because he wasn’t a runner or didn’t exercise frequently. My dad didn’t get cancer twice, leukemia being the one that did him in, because he didn’t lace up a pair of running shoes every morning. It had more to do with where he worked and the fact that many of those at the company during a certain timeframe weren’t protected from certain exposures to radiation like they should have been. See U.S. Department of Labor: Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program delivers benefits to eligible employees and former employees of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), its contractors and subcontractors, or to certain survivors of such individuals, as provided in the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA). This program also includes benefits for certain beneficiaries of Section Five of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

Congress passed a major amendment to the EEOICPA that became effective on October 28, 2004. The amendment replaces Part D of the Act, which provided for assistance from the DOE in obtaining state workers’ compensation benefits. The new program, called Part E, is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation (DEEOIC), within the Employment and Standards Administration’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP).

Overview: http://www.dol.gov/compliance/laws/comp-energy.htm

But I digress. My point is simply this: my family’s health history is not something to put in a trophy case with gold medals and lace ribbons. Even if you exclude my dad’s health, my family has cancer abound every which way you turn. So, I need to be proactive. I need to give myself a puncher’s chance should something ever happen. It may or may not help. Likely the latter, although the science says otherwise.

But I need not aid the outcome with bad eating habits and terrible physical health in the meantime, and that is something I had been doing for the last few years. I am a firm believer in you are how you feel and you are what you eat. And when I got up to 221 lbs., I didn’t feel that great and I felt about as healthy as the food I was stuffing into my face.

Do I miss the oversized chocolate chip muffins from Harris Teeter deli I once ate for breakfast every morning? You damn right I miss those succulent, soft, full of saturated fat baked domes of goodness. While surpassing 200 lbs. had always been a goal of mine (I have always had a bit of a complex about being skinny), continuing to climb higher on the scale wasn’t, particularly if the weight was fat and not muscle. To the naked eye, I wasn’t overweight. At 6’3″ (and a half), I have enough length on me where my weight has a great distance to spread. I have weighed 185 lbs. since I was 20 years old, never moving the line on the scale more than a pound or two.

Then, within a single year when my wife became pregnant with our first child (guilty as charged for knocking her up), I gained what is known as daddy weight or sympathy weight — and boy was I sympathetic.

The humor in my weight gain is that people (who noticed) would say, “Looking good. Finally filling out.” But I wasn’t “looking good.” I was eating like crap, drinking six huge cups of coffee a day—a habit I began shortly after Annabelle was born in an effort to stay alert during the day due to lack of sleep at night—and I was getting zero exercise, save for a short walk with my wife on occasion. Possibly just as insulting was that I had to donate all of my size 34 pants and buy size 36s. Then the day came when I started having to suck in to fit into size 36 pants. The last thing I wanted to be was the skinny guy with the belly. You know that guy. That’s not a good look. To top it off, I had chronic lower back pain and ended up doing 10 weeks of physical therapy twice a week because I could not, for the life of me, stop throwing out my back while doing even the littlest of tasks.

My back pain was the final straw.

It was debilitating, and it was ruining my quality of life. So I changed my diet. My wife starting making green smoothies, which look absolutely disgusting but taste really good. My only caution would be this and I say it as advice to avoid overkill in green smoothie consumption. Something that happened to us. Do a green smoothie once or twice per week. Do a banana smoothie once per week. Do a chocolate banana smoothie once per week. Don’t do a smoothie at all for three or four days of the week.

For green smoothies, we went the spinach route and this very simple recipe:

Fresh spinach (two handfuls)
One banana
Chopped walnuts (two handfuls)
Apple juice (one cup)

Blend until smooth

For snacks, I ate almonds, cashews, and brazil nuts. I ditched the six cups of coffee I was drinking and downsized to only one cup in the morning; the rest of the evening I drink water (with or without lemon) or tea (black, green, white, or herbal). Not that I was a big consumer of soft drinks—one per every two weeks likely—but I totally removed that from my diet, replacing it with seltzer water to get my carbonation fix.

In less than two months, I dropped 15 lbs.

The next step was daily exercise.

At first, I tried to go back to old faithful: basketball. I found myself quickly frustrated because, in a nutshell, my once freakish athletic ability was gone and I simply could not do what I used to be able to do with ease. Layups aren’t any fun when you once dunked everything within six feet of the basket. Finding a pickup game where I live was also very difficult. I think I managed one in a two month span. Although we have really beautiful basketball courts with fiberglass backboards, they are barely used. The only people that ever came by the basketball court were runners. I always wanted to shout: will you play with me?

But I never did. And if I had, they probably would have run faster.

But it got me thinking.

Running—hmmm?

I have always wanted to be a runner. I have always wanted to enjoy running, and I have always envied those that do when I see them. I have tried to do the running thing in the past and it never lasted very long. I needed to be inspired, and I am voracious reader, and when voracious readers need to be inspired, they pick up a book; and I picked up a book very popular in the running world known as Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I searched for a few running blogs and came across one that I still read today: No Meat Athlete, written by Matt Frazier. There is one article, in particular, that inspired me that I still go back to on occasion even now when I am feeling a bit negative: Lessons Learned from a 50 Day Run Streak. If I had to credit one single thing for the strategy I developed when it came to running which is simple—run every day until you make it a habit—it would be that particular blog entry from Matt Frazier. In it, he starts:

Running was one in a string of changes I decided to make in my life . . . Starting a running streak wasn’t my intention. But from what I had learned about how the brain forms the grooves that become our habits, it seemed that running every day was a surer way to success than taking even one day off each week.

Here I mention books and blogs but not actual running. Another one of my problems: thinking about doing something but not actually doing it. You might be guilty of it, too. Aren’t we all to some degree? I wasn’t going to do that. Not this time. It was then I made a promise to myself: I am going to run whether I like it or not. I’m not going to think about it. I am just going to do it. And so I laced up my shoes and took off out the front door. After about three minutes of running, I felt like I was going to pass out. So I slowed my pace. In twenty minutes I was back home. I only ran about half of the twenty minutes. The other ten were me walking while holding my side and panting like a thirsty dog on a summer day. But I had just exercised twenty minutes more than I had in the past week, or year for that matter. Tomorrow, I thought, I will do the same and I did. That was eleven months ago. So without further ado, I will share a handful of takeaways I have gathered since I began this transformation from sitter to runner—and how, at age 32, I am in the best shape of my life.

  1. You don’t need an app for that. Now don’t get me wrong. If it motivates you, by all means. Just know it isn’t necessary. If I want to keep track of my time, I look at the microwave clock before I step out the door and when I return. That’s it. You don’t need an app that counts how many calories you have burned, how far you have run, or how fast your pace is. None of that is necessary. If anything, it may be counterproductive. You may inadvertently put unneeded pressure on yourself. Perhaps you will feel like what you did wasn’t good enough because it was only x number of calories. Don’t listen to it. If you run, you’ll burn calories and get into better shape. If you run, you’ll rack up miles. How fast, how far. It doesn’t matter. Just keep running.
  2. Be inspired. The people that inspire me are not the already healthy ones. The fit. The lean. It is the elderly man who runs half as fast as most thirty years old walk. My first thought when I saw this eighty five year old gentleman, who came running by the basketball court when I first decided to get back into shape, was that I would one day stumble upon him on my way home passed out on the side of the trail after having a heart attack. I actually thought that because he ran so slow and looked so out of it running. Yet he runs — every single day. Another person that inspires me is a young black man, likely 35 years old, who was easily 300 lbs. plus the first time I saw him. The same guy who now jogs, slowly but surely, that no stranger would ever consider “a runner” that has lost 75 lbs. or more over the past 365 days.
  3. Make it a habit. I am 32 years old, going on 33. (I can’t believe I was 16 half my life ago) I have a pretty good idea at this point in my life how I operate. So many times in my life I have failed because I did not prepare properly and because I did not make a point to make what I was doing a habit. I have tried running before and have given up. This time I told myself simply this: you are going to run every single day whether you like it or not. Whether your legs ache. Whether you have the energy or not. Then after 30 straight days of running, you can take a single day off. Not two days. One day. Rinse and repeat. Maybe you are like me and can stick with a lot of things for two weeks, then you slack. Then all of a sudden you have taken off a week, then two weeks, then you throw in the towel. Once you have fallen off the horse, you use it as an excuse not to get back in the saddle. Change that. Make it a habit. Habits are hard to break.
  4. The most peaceful time to run is in the morning. When the birds are singing and the insects are chirping. When the ducks are quacking to one another and the sun is rising and pouring its warmth onto your face. I wish I could say I did it more often. It is a goal of mine this year. I just know that when I do run in the morning, I gain a sense of peace unlike any other. Plus, it’s a great way to start your day and it will give you energy to push through the rest of the rat race that is every day life.
  5. I love ducks, but I hate geese. Whenever I see a Canadian goose, fear enters my gut and I want to punch a goose in its long throat. Long story.
  6. Make it a family affair. Running is typically a solitary activity. Just you and the ground at your feet. But it can also be a wonderful opportunity to spend time with your children if you have a running stroller. I recommend the Schwinn Arrow Fixed Wheel Jogger for a number of reasons: smooth ride, adjusts better than other running strollers for tall people (such as myself), and is from a trusted company at a very good price. Compare it to the more high dollar strollers and you’ll see it blows the competition out of the water — at half the price.
  7. You can run every day. Your body will let you. Even if all you can give is ten minutes. And you don’t need to be training for anything either. The only goal in sight should be your mental and physical health. Since I started running, I have participated in exactly zero 5ks, half marathons, or marathons. I typically run 30-45 minutes a day but can push it to two hours if my body feels up to the challenge (and if my kids are taking a nap and my wife is cool staying at the house during that time). Training for a marathon would put performance pressure on me. I don’t want that. With that said, I will be participating in a 5K at the end of April. Whether I finish in 22 minutes or 30 minutes means zilch. Maybe you need an additional goal to keep you going every day. If so, that’s fine. But if it creates stress, shed it.
  8. Let your food digest. I remember when I was a kid, I would eat a huge dinner, sometimes going as far as to bring a huge plate of food to the basketball court and shovel chunks of chicken into my mouth in between games, and then immediately run and jump afterward. I never cramped or felt nauseous. Unfortunately, I’m not a kid anymore and a lot of things that applied when I was a kid don’t apply anymore now that I am an adult. I need roughly one-and-a-half to two hours for my food to digest properly. Otherwise my run will suffer. Running is my time of peace. I don’t want to be full of cramps and not enjoy it.
  9. Sometimes it is okay to be “selfish.” Have the conversation with your spouse about this running thing you’re thinking of doing. I would be lying if I told you my wife was completely understanding when I told her I was going to run every day. We just had our second child. She was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed. We were overwhelmed. Which is part of the reason I needed to do this. Help him or her understand this is important for your mental and physical health. Tell your spouse you need to make it a habit. Otherwise, you may fail. Determine, for both of you, what is the ideal time to run. Be flexible. Find a way to make running a family affair on some days (see #6) that will give your spouse a bit of a mental break too. Having small children and creating a window of time to exercise is difficult. But don’t use that as an excuse to give up or take the day off. It is okay to take time for yourself. It isn’t selfish. It is necessary. Eleven months later, my wife has taken up my habit: running. She saw the change in me, mentally and physically, from taking up this habit. I see the change in her already.
  10. You can’t be angry when you run. Try it. Take off running when you are in a terrible mood. Running melts that all away. You may have some negative emotions flowing when you begin, but they will be erased within a half mile. I have an extremely demanding job that could leave me with a lot of stress and anxiety by the end of the day. On many days, it has. Running is a great outlet to combat these negative emotions. It is also a great time to meditate and to be appreciative of my family. Try it. As you’re wrapping up your run, set aside the last five minutes to count your blessings in life. They are many. We don’t think about them often enough.
  11. See plain Jane run. You don’t need fancy shoes or moisture wick shirts or any other overpriced gear with catchy marketing tag lines either. I wear a cheap pair of mesh shorts I bought over ten years ago, some ankle cut cotton socks, a plain white Hanes undershirt most days, and a pair of minimalist Nike Free 3.0 shoes that I have had far too long. Do not go to a running shop and have someone tell you what your gait is and what kind of shoe you need. Buy something light without a chunky heel. Without shocks or springs or bubbles in the sole.
  12. Don’t take a day off. If you really need a day off, the weather will deliver it for you in the form of a thunderstorm or snowstorm. On that note: run in the rain. Downpour, not so much. But a calm rain, yes. Perhaps the most calm I have ever felt in my existence was being seven miles from home with a gentle rain hitting my face.

Thinking of running or have already started — what’s your motivation?

Filed under: Health and Wellness

by

Jeffrey Pillow is a wannabe novelist of social satire and literary fiction. While changing poopy diapers and trying to convince his two year old daughter to brush her back teeth, he often ponders the three act structure and the construction of the perfect inciting incident. His nonfiction has appeared on the cover of URGE magazine, 16 Blocks, SI.com, The Nervous Breakdown, USA Today, Yahoo! Sports, and TheBody.com et al. Read the full bio...