Whatever Your Heart Can Handle

Self Improvement 150As an online rabbit, I know about the importance of running and cardiovascular exercise to my overall health. And I’ve been trying to develop a good running practice for a little over seven years now — first by regular trips on the treadmill and then by carving out good routes around the burrow. As you might guess, it hasn’t gone too well. I’m sidelined by pains and injuries fairly often, and the constant push to run farther, faster makes the practice far less attractive than staying in my warm little hole and helping myself to a glass of wine.

And that’s not even to say that I dislike running — on the contrary, I really love that sweat-soaked rush of endorphins I get after I log a few miles. But there’s not denying that it takes considerable effort — to get myself out the door, to keep pushing when it feels like my lungs are going to burst or my calves are going to snap away from the backs of my knees, to keep running even if it’s cold or rainy, or I’m tired or stressed. Even though I feel great about it afterwards, running is often a deeply unpleasant activity marked by gasping for air, a pounding heart, and persistent pain around the joints and muscles.

In the interest of learning how to run better so that I can actually do it on a regular basis, I signed up for a Fitocracy Fitness Group called “Level Up Your Running”. I have to say, it’s already making a difference. We’re only three weeks into a twelve-week program, and my relationship with running is already changing. I really believe the key to this change relies on changing up my pace, and the expectation of what I should be doing whenever I lace up the running shoes.

My trainer is a big believer in pushing yourself, but not too much. She believes you should listen to your body while you’re running; if your focus starts to narrow to simply what’s in front of you and you can’t actually talk because you’re too busy panting then it’s no good. Instead, you should be able to carry a conversation when you run, and you should have your full range of vision. You should actually have time to notice your surroundings.

For an out-of-shape asthmatic rabbit like me, that means running ridiculously slow. If you were to see me out on the street, you’d see this dumpy guy taking quick steps (180 per minute, thank you very much) that are so short it looks like he’s shuffling. He glances around, occasionally taking a look at his watch to check his heart rate (which should be around 150 or so). It barely looks like exercise, but it is. And that’s the point. It’s not graceful, it’s not efficient…but it IS fun. At the end of my runs I get that nice rush of endorphins and I think “I could have done more. I can’t wait to run again.” As much as I love running, I never in my life thought I would say something like that.

The key, of course, has been pacing. I’ve had to let go of the standards I thought I should be maintaining for now. Gone is the idea that I should be running a ten-minute mile, or that I should be working up to four miles every single time I run. Right now I’m going a mile at a time, at around fifteen minutes a mile. It’s incredibly slow, and the running time is incredibly short. But for the first time in a very long time, the simple act of running is a thing I enjoy. That’s worth looking goofy and taking a huge step back from what I’ve been doing before.

Of course this philosophy works away from exercise, too. So many of us load up our plate with goals designed to push us as far as we can go because we think that’s what we need to do. But we burn out, or we start falling short, and our hobbies become these immense sources of guilt. To extend the running analogy, our hearts are beating way too fast, we can never catch our breath, and it’s only a matter of time before we blow a knee or an ankle under the stress.

The Art of Manliness has a great article on this that I think I’ve mentioned before. The 20 Mile March approach to goals prizes consistency over effort, so that you end up leaving quite a bit in your tank most days just so you don’t tire yourself out. There are going to be days where you don’t feel like doing the work to get yourself closer to your goals. There are going to be days where you can’t put in the work, for whatever reason. If you set a goal for whatever it is that’s low and easily reproducible, you can overcome most resistances to it or catch up easily whenever you’ve missed a day. That way, you can build a lasting habit that’s low stress and actually enjoyable. Setting a “maximum” limit for yourself each day is a great thing to do — it leaves you with the feeling that you could have done more, that you WANT to do more. And that leaves you actually looking forward to the next session.

So, if you’re trying to develop a habit but haven’t been able to make it stick, here’s what I would recommend: pull back. If you’re trying to write every day, make the goal so low it’s impossible not to do — a hundred words a day, or maybe even one sentence every day. Stick to that, even when you’re tempted to do more. You’ll find yourself doing more than cultivating a habit — you’ll cultivate the hunger to keep doing it, which is far more valuable.

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