Saturday, April 2, 2011

5 Back to Basics: The Humbling & Enlightening Experience of Starting Over From Scratch


I'd like to dedicate this post to a number of runner friends who are, at present, trying to make a comeback from injury or other setbacks. I know how much of a challenging struggle that can be, and so, I'm writing this post for you and for anyone else who's making the transition from rest and recuperation back to regular exercise. I hope this post encourages you to hang in there and keep going, regardless of the obstacles you might be facing right now. Keep at it and stay strong!

Anyone who's ever been out of commission from running for more than just a few weeks knows that starting over from scratch is never easy. Those months of languishing away doing little to nothing -- perhaps while we were recuperating from injury or illness, or as we reawakened to the realization that we'd let other priorities &/or the stress in our lives overtake our schedules and assume the placeholder of where our running and other physical exercise used to be -- can take a toll on our physical and mental well-being; and that, in and of itself, can make it doubly difficult to get started again. And, if we're not doing any kind of physical activity for fitness maintenance -- i.e., strength training, cross training, walking, etc. -- it can sometimes take often two cranes and a wrecking ball to get us moving again. ;)

Of course, the opposite is also true. Once we get going, and then set our course, we're typically good to go. It's the whole "bodies-in-rest-stay-at-rest, bodies-in-motion-stay-in-motion, unless-an-external-force-is-applied" thing. ;) Thank you, Newton. Your First Law of Motion is aptly named and applies to running (and physical fitness in general) on multiple levels. :) You'll note that this law is also sometimes referred to as the "law of inertia." Go figure. ;)

In the early stages of "exercise reentry," the idea of exercise typically has to be continually injected into one's brain and being, and continually reinforced with conscious application. As most of us surely know, it's crucial to gain (and sustain!) momentum in the early stages. In the beginning, there's typically more resistance when we change our state, from one of inertia to one of movement, so more force needs to be applied. Again, it's back to Newton's First Law of Motion and all of that. ;)

It might be difficult to get going again but of course, it's not impossible. Here's a motivational thought: Think of the alternative. :) Every day spent moving, even if it's not running, is a day in the right direction. Hey, even walking up stairs or mowing the lawn counts. Instead of thinking self-defeatist thoughts, think of what you can do to change the situation. Just because it's something small doesn't mean it's not worth doing. Even if you're not able to run at the moment, maybe you can do some of other form of exercise (strength training, swimming, cycling/spinning, physical therapy, etc.) to keep your body and your spirits in good shape. :)

So how does a person get started again, after being away from exercise for so long?! First, it starts with setting intention. A lot of the time the process is spurred on by something or someone inspirational. Or, it could just be that we've had enough of the way things are currently going, and have finally made up our minds that today is the day that we start anew. It's easy enough to intellectualize the process, but until we've set the intention and followed it up with the corresponding action, no matter how small, we can't begin the journey of getting back to the selves we know that we can be. And, we know that it's possible to become these better versions of ourselves, because we were once there.

The image of our former fit selves, even if they're tucked away in the recesses of our minds, can be a powerful motivational image, if we harness it in the proper way. A useful technique is to access the image of this former fit self and visualize yourself in your mind's eye as being that self now. Look in the mirror and superimpose this image onto the one you are currently seeing. ;) Try to remember how you looked and how you felt. Chances are that once you've implanted this image in your brain once again, you'll then be able to see this image as an imminent possibility instead of a hazy memory. ;) And, in turn, you'll then be more likely to take the steps to make it a reality once more. :) After all, your reality is what you make it.

One of the good things about returning to running is that we have memories of what we've already accomplished. Instead of comparing ourselves to who and what we were back then and then thinking, "Oh, it's such a long road back," or "Look at what I was doing then then but am not doing now," which is unconstructive and borders on self-immolation, we need to look at it in a different way. How about viewing the situation in the following way: "Gee, look at everything I learned and accomplished, and all the wonderful memories I have of running in various places, or the friendships I made with other runners while running and racing. Plus, I've gained a certain wisdom from these experiences, and no one can take that, nor any of my achievements, away from me. They are mine to keep, forever."

Our pre-existing history isn't a curse. It's a blessing. Even adversity can be a friend in disguise, if you know how to put it to work for you.

For so many of us, exercise is very often the lynch pin that holds our life balance in check. And if that should disappears for a time, it sometimes feels like it can set the rest of our world slightly off-kilter. This can be particularly difficult for many of us during periods of injury and illness, because regular running and fitness are the devices we've come to rely upon. The fact of the matter is that, via our gradual development of this behavioral pattern over time, we'd become used to running, and then suddenly we found ourselves used to not running. How did we get here? Well, it didn't happen overnight. We stopped at some point, for one reason or another, and now we just have to rebuild our mileage and fitness levels. Of course, that doesn't happen overnight either. ;) So, this means that we have to consciously table our expectations in keeping with our current state of fitness and once again remember what it was like when we first began to train from scratch.

Then, for those of us in the midst of our exercise hiatus, there's also the painful knowledge that we were burning a ton of extra calories and now we're not. ;) So, then we have to make some adjustments like curbing our eating, etc., whereas before, exercise wasn't just a calorie-burner keeping the whole process (and our waistlines!) in check, but also frequently helped to curb our appetites. (OK, well, personally speaking, that might only be true to a point, i.e., typically for distances under 14 miles. Over that, and I get so hungry, it's a little scary. At that point, perhaps I should issue a safety advisory to keep all limbs out of reach. ;) That is, when I haven't fallen into deep sleep during a post-half-marathon distance nap. ;) Fellow half-marathoners and marathoners, you know exactly what I'm talking about here.) There's no doubt about it, exercise just makes everything better.

Of course, the trick is making the mental and physical transition back to this state of being. You need to get to the place where both your mind and body are in forward motion. As for which one will get you out the door faster, most us have found that it's kind of a "chicken and egg" deal. :) One starts the engine of the other, and then each reinforces the other after that engine (you!) gets going. How you choose to start that engine is up to you, but if you really need a hand, here are some suggestions to help you get back into the swing of things:

(1) Visualize yourself running and achieving your exercise goals: Do the visualization steps described above. Imagine yourself running, and remember how good it felt when you were out there just doing your thing. Let your mind run through a catalogue of your best running and racing moments. If that doesn't inspire you to run, or if it's too painful to think of the past because you're comparing it to the present (!), then think of the future possibilities. Imagine yourself running &/or racing again. Literally, put yourself in the moment and visualize all of the details.

(2)  Write down your plan for success: Make a list of finite but achievable short-term exercise-related goals, and put them in a place where you'll see them and thus, be continually reminded of what you need to do. Better yet, keep track of them in an organizational system like Toodledo, in which you can not only track your goals, but also list tasks that are directly tied into these goals. Even something as simple as scheduling your exercise on a calendar can help.

(3) Start small but dream big: Write down your dreams, but also make immediate plans for right now. When it's time to go for a run, lace up your shoes without any expectations, and just see what happens. I often do this when I'm tired &/or not feeling very inspired to go out for a run for one reason or another. Read my motivational article, "Fooling Ourselves into Running" for more tips on how to motivate yourself out the door and beyond. Usually, once I get dressed for a run and grab my keys, (provided I don't lay on the couch or the bed or get wrapped into the computer ;) ), the rest of the process tends to unfold quite naturally. The key is to prepare to exercise first, then worry about the actual exercise once you've gotten past this step. :) If you break down any task into its most basic components, then it won't seem so impossibly daunting. Or, put another way, instead of overwhelming yourself with the massiveness of the entire progression of your path back to fitness and the prospects that this entails, underwhelm yourself by focusing on doing just one simple, easy thing. You'll be surprised at how well this works. You're not being lazy or a slacker by doing this. You're just focusing on the step that's immediately in front of your face. Literally. ;) The act of underwhelming yourself, at least at first, is a serious strategy for success. When you underwhelm yourself, you underpromise and then shock the hell out of yourself when you see what you can actually do once you've gotten past the mental road blocks. In fact, as you go through the process, you'll end up achieving a lot more this way. Quite ironic, isn't it?! :)

(4) When it comes to taking action, silence is golden: Don't talk about what you're going to do before you do it. The number one killer of exercise is talking about it beforehand. I'm completely serious. Personally, nothing makes me want to revolt against exercise more than talking about it before I do it. Talking about it sets up weighty, pressure-inducing expectations before the exercise actually happens, and if you got the gist of what I was talking about in tip #3, then you know where that leads. ;) Again, set the intention in your mind, keep quiet about it during the action phase, and then you can blab about the glory of your achievement after you've worked out. ;) To quote the visionary, wise words of the Nike campaign, "Just do it." Less flapping of the lips leads to more flapping of the arms and legs. :) Trust me on this.....

(5) Log/track your miles and goals: Join an exercise logging/social media site like DailyMile, and bookmark it or place a link on your desktop so that you see it every day. :) Plus, DailyMile has an added benefit, because its got the social component, which is highly motivational. There are ton of people who are actively logging their workouts there. So, that means there'll be lots of cheerleaders to help you get going and sustain your momentum. :) And of course, it also feels good to do the same for others. There's definitely been a certain mass convergence of people there, and, as an early member of the site, it's great to see that so many people have joined the site since its modest beginnings. If you join up there, I'll make you a deal: If you need a little push, just let me know, and I'll gladly give you some motivation to get you started in the right direction. :) I love seeing people return to exercise. Nothing makes me happier seeing other runners succeed!

The bottom line is this: When you log your workouts, you are making yourself accountable. And when that behavior is coupled with online and IRL interactions with other runners, you are further building upon the base of your intentions to get and stay fit. When it comes to staying motivated to exercise, there's definitely strength in numbers. So use these numbers to your advantage, by keeping yourself connected to the exercise world. Lots of people are already there, you just have to re-engage with that world. :) Doing so will reinforce your will to exercise. When you gravitate towards individuals who lead healthy lifestyles, you'll find yourself making a conscious choice to follow in a similar vein. Just by being around other like-minded individuals who are heading in a similar direction, you'll get inspiration to keep going. Watching their progress will spur on yours. By staying connected to the exercise world, you are also elevating exercise to a more prominent place in your life. You are keeping it in the forefront of your mind and thus, making it a higher priority.

(6) Celebrate your successes: Set incentives for yourself to achieve your goals, either in the form of rewards (i.e., a massage, new running gear or clothes, an island getaway, etc.) or celebrations, reveling in your achievements however you like after reaching each milestone. I find that making a gradated milestones checklist is particularly effective. (Mine encompass both racing distances and goal PRs, as well as other types of quantitative markers. I tend to reserve the majority of the qualitative markers for the goal-setting process.)

(7) Recognize what motivates you and go with what works for you: Some people are more internally motivated (Ding, ding, ding!) while others work best when someone else gives them a push. Ultimately, just as with running itself, there's got to be some self-propulsion involved in the motivational process. :) In order for you to make true, lasting progress, you have to want your goals and dreams more than others want them for you. ;) Most times, people just need a push to get started or to get over some of the humps and bumps of the process. I find that a combination of both internal and external motivators works best for me, but of course, do whatever works for you.

(8) Use adversity and failure to achieve greater things: No matter how talented or hard-working we runners are, there's always room for improvement. Analyze what's not working as a means of improving your running, but avoid unnecessary dwelling on your shortcomings, setbacks, or failures, as well as falling into the "pity-fest" trap. ;) It's a good idea to constantly think to yourself, "Is what I'm currently doing or thinking helping me? Is there a way I can do those things better or more effectively?" Also, look around you and engage with others: Watch what others are doing, &/or consult people in the know for a second opinion. Learn from others failures and setbacks, and ask them what they did to get to the next level of their training. Visit online forums or ask people in your running club. Read/subscribe other runners' and running coaches' blogs, and consult reliable, informationally-sound publications like "Runner's World." Or, hire a running coach. :)

(9) Follow your instincts: Yeah, that's an obvious one, but that doesn't mean it's not important. This one's a cardinal rule of exercise. Don't let others pressure you into racing before you feel you're ready. You can run faster and farther, but don't be in a rush to do either. Training itself is not a race; it's a gradual process. Each building block is there for a reason. Skip one and you'll typically find yourself in a world of hurt, literally. ;) When it comes to working out, there are no shortcuts. We all have to put in the work. Work at your own pace and listen to your body.

(10) Get an exercise buddy (or buddies): Some people need a little kick in the pants every now and then to get (or keep) them going, and that's perfectly OK. And there are times when we all just need a little push to keep us growing and improving. So, if you're seeking support, growth, or motivation, run with others. Make friends with other runners at your local running club; it's a great place to find running partners. Also, you can find running partners at sites like DailyMile, PacePal, and such. Also, keep in mind that motivational running buddies can also be found online. Whether IRL or virtual, what's important is that you stay action-focused and keep each other accountable.

(11) Join Twitter and make friends with other runners there: Twitter's a great place to meet and connect with other runners. It's also a great source of information about running and other related topics. This sort of online engagement with people and resources has become a huge motivator for so many people, and if you use Twitter and other social media in a sane and targeted way, you too can get a whole lot out of it as well. I've made a ton of friends there, and have solidified friendships via race tweet-ups and other Twitter-initiated events. :)

(12) Be strategic about your use of fitness-centric social media sites: if you sign up for online health-and-fitness-centric communities, only pick ones that you think you'll truly use and that will provide the most benefit to you in the long-term. And, after you make these choices, make your activities there action-oriented. Otherwise, they won't be as effective as motivational tools. (Then, it'll just be another exercise in information overload; and it's very important to not get overwhelmed, particularly in the early stages of restarting your training.) I personally concentrate most of my social media microblogging activities in three central places: Twitter, Facebook, and DailyMile. And when I'm racing, I also tend to frequent Athlinks, Cool Running,, and as well. (Blogging in the traditional sense is, of course, considered to be completely separate from these activities.) I do participate in other social media sites and forums on occasion, but these days, I'm so busy that the time I do spend in social media has to be meted out in very focused, planned ways. Those of us who use social media on a regular basis know that we've got to be vigilant about keeping our activities in those spaces in check. It's all too easy to get sucked into the social media vortex, and then end up feeling like we don't know what hit us. ;) As long as we remember that we are in control our own social media usage, and not the other way around, we can utilize these tools to our advantage. What I now try to do is this: When I do have time for social media, I'll allocate certain times for prime usage, typically for a finite time in the mornings and then, if there's time, I'll check it once again in the evenings. I try to do "maintenance" activities when I can, but social media has to fit into my existing life and schedule versus overwhelming it. ;) Also, I tend to segment my usage: A certain portion of that social media time is used for online business activities and another portion is allocated specifically for social purposes. Sometimes the two overlap, but primarily, I've now got to the point where I try to go into these activities with a clear purpose in mind, and if need be, I set (either a mental or actual) timer for these activities. ;) That way, there's time to do what I need and want to do, but that time doesn't get away from me.


Whatever stage of the "exercise relaunching" process you're currently going through, and whatever state of mind and physical being you're in right now, know this: No matter how hard it might seem at the outset, if you just put one foot in front of the other, your situation is bound to improve. The first challenge is overcoming the inertia of your mind and body. Kick those unproductive thoughts in the tush, and tell them where to stick it. Use your past triumphs and fond memories of running as an incentive to get back to running, versus letting them be a mental road block. If you take the first step and keep looking to the next milestone or mini-goal immediately before you, you will get there. Now go out there and take no prisoners. :)

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