With 2020 in the rearview mirror, the entire world is breathing a sigh of relief as we get this most difficult year behind us. So much has changed in just 365 days, with a global health crisis dominating so much of our lives for what has seemed like an eternity. Entire countries have been locked down and huge events such as the Olympics, the Boston marathon, and the Ironman World Championships (along with almost every other athletic event) have been cancelled or postponed. On a smaller and more personal scale, families have been separated for weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthdays, and holidays. In short, it's been a really hard year.
I’ve been thinking about gratitude over the past several weeks. After all, it is the time of year when we give thanks for the many blessings, privileges, and opportunities we’ve been given. I certainly have had my fair share. I’ve got my health, my faith, my wonderful family, and my business- no small thing in this time of pandemic.
At a time when so many people are struggling and hurting, when political strife and unrest abound, when illness and death literally ravage the world, it can be a tall order to be grateful. As a society, and as individuals, we can be anxious, stressed, and hurting in ways that we have not felt before. I have had many conversations with clients over the past several months about the depression, anxiety, and frayed nerves they’ve experienced from pandemic, the shut down, and the political unrest prevalent today.
Yet, even amidst the turmoil, stress, and hardship, I would submit that there are silver linings to this cloud. Families are spending more time together. As a society, we are learning about how to better care for ourselves. We are reaching out to family members, friends, and neighbors in ways that we wouldn’t have just a year ago. In fact, there are many blessings that we can identify if we have the right perspective. In doing so, we can feel better, have a deepening perspective that allows us to grow, and help bless the lives of those around us.
Recently, fellow members of my faith and I were challenged by the President of our Church- a prominent former heart surgeon- to express gratitude daily for the next week on social media (#GiveThanks) in an effort to spread positivity and help bring peace and calm to our troubled world. (you can find it here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlcILxGmVrI ) I took him up on that challenge. And while my sample size of one isn’t scientific or really measurable in any way, I have simply felt better as I've expressed gratitude for all I have in my life these past few days over social media.
Expressing gratitude isn’t just an exercise in social psychology or spirituality, it actually has physiological and neurological effects that have been identified in several scientific studies. In fact, the expression of gratitude positively affects our brain in numerous ways- here are 5 cited by Positive Psychology:
1- The expression of gratitude releases toxic emotions. In a 2005 study, individuals seeking mental health guidance that expressed gratitude via letter writing showed significant improvement over those who did not. (Moll et. al 2005)
2- Expressing gratitude reduces pain. A 2003 study showed that 16% of participants had a reduction in physical pain after keeping a gratitude journal. The expression of gratitude was found to release dopamine, promoting feelings of vitality and reducing feelings of discomfort.
3- Expressing gratitude improves sleep quality. A 2009 study showed that expressions of gratitude activate the hypothalamus region of the brain, which is critical in regulating sleep. Someone practicing ‘gratitude and kindness’ is more likely to sleep better and wake up feeling refreshed. (Zhan, et. al 2009)
4- Expressing gratitude aids in stress regulation. A 1998 study showed that those who felt grateful saw lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body. Multiple studies have later showed those expressing gratitude are more able to handle stress than others.
5- Expressing gratitude reduces anxiety and depression. Because of the reduction of stress hormones, those who regularly practice gratitude are generally more positive. In addition, expressing gratitude is associated with an increase in prefrontal cortex modulation (helping control negative emotion like shame, guilt, etc.)
So as we all try to navigate the craziness of 2020 with all of its stress, disappointment, and mayhem, remember to be grateful. This Thanksgiving, let’s spend a few extra moments before we dive into turkey and football to write down a few things we’re grateful for. Maybe just scrawl a few things out on a napkin, or maybe even start a gratitude journal, or simply type out a quick email or text to a loved one and let them know you’re grateful they’re in your life. As we do so, we’ll not only reap the spiritual and emotional benefits of gratitude, but the physiological ones as well.
A few weeks ago, an “Elite only” version of the London Marathon was held. On a typical British day, some of the best runners in the world battled the cold, the wind, the rain, and each other to see who would be crowned champion. Kenyan superstar Eluid Kipchoge was the heavy favorite. The Olympic champion, world record holder, and the only human to ever run 26.2 miles in under 2 hours, had not been beaten at the marathon in 7 years.
He placed 8th.
On that fateful Sunday, the greatest marathoner in history had a bad day. He’d struggled with cramping and an ear infection, and it cost him. Even the best can’t be at their best every day.
We ALL have bad days. And for most of us, that doesn’t look the same. Instead of a 7 year winning streak coming to an end, your bad day may look like a 7 day ‘eating clean’ streak coming to an end. Instead of failing to break a marathon world record, it could mean failing to break your personal record in the mile in a virtual race or training run. In lieu of not crossing the finish line in first place, your bad day might be not crossing off ‘workout’ on the daily ‘to do’ list.
So, what do we do when the best laid plans go awry? Well, there’s an infinite number of answers to that question, but let’s break it down into 3 simple tips on ‘what we should do’ and what we ‘should not do’:
First, the “Should’s”:
Now, the “Should not’s ”:
The other story from the London Marathon was American Sara Hall. She had gone into the US Marathon Olympic Trials held in February 2020 hoping for a top three finish and a ticket to Tokyo. And she was ready! Many had predicted her not only to be on the podium, but to win the Atlanta race. However, with 3 miles to go, Sara stepped off the race course, her Olympic dreams shattered. She had a bad day. And dropped out.
Seven months later, however, she redeemed herself in stellar fashion. After Atlanta, Sara took some time to assess what went wrong, reset her goals, shift her focus, and resumed training- and it paid off bigtime. During the London event, she began to run down the leaders one by one, steadily gaining on the best marathoners in the world. In heroic fashion, Sara ran down the reigning world champion Ruth Chepngetich with 150 meters left and took second! Talk about redemption. Sara ended up running a personal best and ran the 6th fastest time by an American woman ever.
Now, none of us are world-class marathoners, but we can sure learn from them when we have a bad day. By assessing what went wrong, taking steps to move forward and set new goals, all the while NOT shifting blame, setting overzealous goals, or giving up all together, we can all move forward and find success in our individual health and fitness journey.
I recently read a scripture that said, “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass”. Essentially the verse states that big changes are made by doing the little things consistently over time. A profound example of this principle is the Grand Canyon- carved ever so slowly over millions of years by a simple trickle of water. That water, miniscule in comparison to the vast rock and sand of the Arizona desert, was consistent over time and carved one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. As I contemplated this principle in relation to life in general, naturally my thoughts turned to training, competition, health, and physical fitness, and how small and simple changes can yield big results.
Like many of you, there is a lot I’ve learned over the last 2.5 months hunkered down with my wife, our dog Bella, and our little guy Evan in a 1,000 sq ft apartment. Certainly I’ve learned a lot about myself, and my family, but I’ve also learned from you. All of us have gone through unique experiences during this time of quarantine - and many of us have gone through very similar ones. Hopefully we can come out on the other side of this with some lessons learned that will serve us in times of peace as well as times of crisis. While the pandemic casts a dark cloud over our lives currently, hopefully we see the silver lining of perspective - of lessons learned from this pandemic and lockdown. Here are 6:
I’m grateful for these and other lessons I’ve learned during the Pandemic and subsequent lockdown. These 6 and many others can help give us perspective as we move forward. As life slowly begins to return to ‘normal’, hopefully we remember what we’ve learned and apply it in daily life.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, many aspects of daily life have taken a backseat. And rightfully so. The fitness world has seen its share of turmoil as the Olympic games, the Boston Marathon, all NCAA championships, and all professional sports leagues have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Many personal fitness goals have been compromised as races and events world-wide have been cancelled, gyms and pools have been shut down, and most places are enacting ‘shelter in place’ protocols.
These unprecedented measures generate lots of uncertainty and decrease motivation for thousands if not millions of people. However, as with any health crisis, safeguarding your personal health and fitness goes a long way in helping bolster both the immune system AND improve mental health. As such, the CDC recommends exercising, eating healthily, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep as important measures to take even during the ‘shelter in place’ orders that many cities have enacted over recent days.
So, for those of us used to hitting the gym, the treadmill, the spin class, or the pool on a regular basis, how do we keep up our fitness routine when we’re asked to ‘shelter in place’?
Here are 6 suggestions (and 2 workouts) to help you keep fit while staying home:
So, take advantage of your time at home to get fit in your own space. These 6 tips should give you a few ideas to go on. To help you get started, here are two HIIT workouts, one more basic along with modifications to make exercise easier, and one more advanced with a harder and easier 55 time variation (40/20 seconds is harder, 30/30 seconds is easier).
Good luck everyone; keep up the at-home fitness and stay safe!
Workout 1: Beginner HIIT (with modifications)
1-4 rounds with 1 minute rest in between rounds. Each round is all exercises: 20 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest in between each exercise. Total duration is approximately 4-16 minutes
Workout 2 : Advanced HIIT
3-5 rounds with 1 minute rest in between rounds. Each round is all exercises: 30 or 40 seconds of work, 30 or 20 seconds of rest in between each exercise. Total duration is approximately 26-43 minutes
This weekend is the highly anticipated USA Olympic Trials for the Marathon in Atlanta, GA. I’ve been counting down this date for several months, so excited to see which three women and three men get to wear the red, white, and blue for Team USA in Tokyo later this year. It will be an incredible display of talent, grit, and determination for everyone to see. Some of these athletes are full-time professional runners, but most wear many hats in addition to being elite runners. With over 700 in the field, their backgrounds and stories vary wildly. However, each of those runners have a few things in common- and those are things as amature atheltes we can all take note of. In fact, the best athletes across ALL disciplines share several keys we can utilize to help us become better or faster or stronger:
1- Elite athletes build a strong foundation.
I once had the privilege of hearing 3x Ironman World Champion Miranda Carfrae speak at a forum. It was a great opportunity to hear about the work it took for her to compete at the level where she was so dominant, hearing about her beginnings and success in short-course racing and once having won her first half-iron distance event (earning a slot in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii), she deferred her entry and chose not to race. She waited for 2 years before she felt strong enough (mentally and physically) to compete. Great athletes pay the price for excellence in their sports. They build a strong foundation first by doing the hard work required to excel. For us non-elites, this means putting in the time in the gym, running the slow miles, and focusing on health, daily nutrition to help build a foundation from which to grow.
2- Elite athletes pay attention to the small things.
As the elite marathoners take the course on Saturday, each one of them will have a custom hydration/fueling bottle on course for them every 5k throughout the race. This gives each athlete the opportunity to customize their fueling and nutrition strategy to give them the perfect balance of electrolytes, carbohydrates, and calories necessary to perform at their absolute best on race day. These athletes focus on the small things that are critical to their success. As weekend warriors, we can do the same. And while most likely we won’t have customized fueling/hydration options at every aid station during the races we run, we can be just as meticulous in our preparation for workouts, races, everyday life. We can plan our meals so we don’t have to resort to the vending machine snacks at work, and fuel smartly during workouts and races to help maximize our efforts. We can lay out clothing and gear choices in advance of our workouts, keeping our gym or swim bag in the car so we can hit the gym or pool on the way to or from work.
3- Elite athletes are consistent over time.
Elites practice over and over and over again. They have a training plan and they execute it in preparation for an event or season, being consistent over time. Think of the thousands of free throws Kobe Bryant shot in practice before each season even began. Kobe was one of the greatest players of all time, punctuated by his play in clutch situations- such as free point shooting. For me, a more relatable example comes from 7x Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who in 2003 was asked by my Dad’s company to give a keynote address at an annual conference (for a fee of $250,000). The request was submitted approximately 9 months in advance of the event, yet his immediate reply was no, because that was the date of a long training ride. Not a race, not a camp, not an event. He was practicing that day and was not willing to give up one day of hard practice for a quarter million dollars. For all his faults, Lance Armstrong was a meticulously hard worker who was on the bike day in and day out. Every. Single. Day.
4- Elite athletes have help.
All Elite athletes get help. The grand majority use a coach, and many have a team of professionals who help them prepare themselves to perform the best during competition. Consider the Super Bowl winning Kansas City Chiefs, or any NFL team for that matter. The average NFL team has 15 coaches in addition to a large staff who supports them. Professional runners, tennis players, track and field athletes, swimmers, and triathletes all have coaches. A coach provides critical feedback, guidance, and perspective that are vital for optimum performance. Trusting a coach to focus on things like training periodization, daily workouts, and season planning, frees up the athlete to simply focus on executing each workout as best as possible.
5- Elite athletes give back.
From charitable financial contributions, to coaching others, to raising awareness for humanitarian efforts, to helping underserved communities, Elite athletes (especially professional athletes) give back. International soccer star David Becham is famous for supporting UNICEF, the Red Cross, and AIDS research. LeBron James has raised millions of dollars for the Girls and Boys Clubs. And marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge recently broke the 2:00 barrier to inspire others with the idea that 'the impossible is possible’. While we may never have the financial means or grand stage these superstars do, we can give back in our own way. One way I along with a few other TFE athletes have been able to contribute, is by running with blind athletes, allowing them to train and race for running and triathlon events. Many of you may coach your child’s soccer or basketball team. Others may contribute a few dollars to the local high school swim team fundraiser. We can all be “professionals” in how we pay it forward to help others.
While our athletic talents, achievements, and bandwidth fall far short of Elite and Professional athletes, we can learn the lessons that make them great. So this weekend, as you tune in to watch the best mathoners (or basketball players) our country has to offer, look for what makes them great. Find something that resonates with you, and incorporate it into your daily life For me, building a foundation, focusing on the small things, being consistent, utilizing help, and giving back, can go a long way in making me (and others) become just a little bit more ‘Elite’.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope 2019 was as good to you as it was to me. And I also hope you’re looking forward to an even better 2020. It’s not just the start of a new year, but an entire new DECADE! What a great time to evaluate our lives and examine the challenges, opportunities and blessings we’ve been granted over the past 10 years, and think about where we want to be in the next 10.
In all our zeal to push hard with lofty goals into the next year(s), we can get tempted to bite off more than we can chew. It almost seems like human nature to ‘go big’. We’ve all seen those who post audacious goals all over social media that seem to be a stretch even for the most disciplined of people. And this phenomenon certainly isn’t limited to New Year’s resolutions.
I see this ALL THE TIME in coaching amateur athletes and training goal-driven weekend warriors. The mentality of ‘more is better’ and ‘all or nothing’ can be an alluring prospect to reach goals sooner. For example, many think “if I run faster on all of my runs, I’ll become faster.” or “Instead of working out in the gym 3 days a week, I’m going to workout 7.” or “Instead of simply limiting my carbohydrate intake, I’m cutting out carbs altogether.” And while these goals take enormous discipline to accomplish (and you may even have that in spades), the most important type of discipline I see lacking in most people is the discipline of restraint. And THIS is the key to achieving many challenging goals we set for ourselves.
While the ‘all or nothing, more is better’ approach may be good to do in the short term, there are a few inherent challenges with this philosophy:
Again, don’t misunderstand. I’m all about setting lofty goals! Just rein them in a bit as you embark on the new goals you set for yourself this year. Avoid the pitfalls of the ‘all or nothing’ approach. More is usually NOT better. It’s just more! Remember to practice the disciple of restraint as you commit to becoming a fitter, faster version of yourself this 2020.
During this Thanksgiving season, it’s customary to reflect on the things for which we are most grateful. For many of us, this takes place around a dinner table overflowing with decadent food, surrounded by family and friends. As we reflect on our blessings, family, friends, and our economic well-being rank high on the list. Also included our professional achievements, educational accolades, and of course athletic accomplishments. However, in reflecting on the bigger picture of life, there are blessings we sometimes fail to include on our list. Here are a few lesser-included reasons to be grateful that sometimes don’t make the cut:
5 lesser-remembered reasons to be grateful:
So, there you have it. Those are 5 lesser-remembered reasons to be grateful this Holiday Season.
The Marine Corps Marathon happened this two weeks ago in Arlington and DC, and it was anything but optimum conditions. With rain, 98% humidity, and soaring temps, it felt more like racing in Florida than in Northern Virginia. Ironically, the unofficial Marine Corps motto is “Improvise, adapt, overcome”, and that is exactly what tens of thousands of runners had to do in order to complete this most challenging of races.
“Improvise, Adapt, Overcome” is a great mantra for not only the Marines, or for running the MCM, but for ALL exercise endeavors. So many times, our fitness ventures don’t go according to plan. How many times do our workout or race plans get derailed by some unforeseen challenge? Responding to adversity can make or break a workout- not to mention a race. By adhering to the Marine Corps mantra, we can ensure that while our outcomes may not exactly meet our expectations, our effort level can.
The mental fortitude that allows us to improvise in unforeseen situations, adapt to changing circumstances, and overcome obstacles that threaten success, can be the difference between finishing a workout or a race strong, or falling short. Here are three great examples of improvising, adapting, and overcoming different challenges to achieve success when fitness endeavors go awry:
A few weeks back, TFE triathlete Theresa Helsel had an incredible performance at the North Carolina Ironman 70.3 race in Wilmington, NC. She had a fast 1.2 mile swim, a solid 56 mile bike, and blistering 13.1 mile run to carry her across the line in just over 5 hours and 10 minutes. She was poised, methodical, and calm as she raced to her best finish ever.
But she didn’t start out that way. She had to IMPROVISE at the last minute to ensure she’d even be able to complete the race! As all triathletes know, a very big factor in racing long-course events is nutrition, with each athlete meticulously calculating how many calories, how much sodium, and how many carbohydrates they need to consume on the bike in order to have a strong run. After all, fueling for 5 hours can be tricky to say the least! Mess it up and athletes can be underfueled, resulting in the dreaded ‘bonk’, or overfueled resulting in the equally dismal GI distress (aka, being stomach sick). A veteran of dozens of triathlons, Theresa had her fuel down to a science, with all her vital nutrition in a highly concentrated water bottle she’d planned to carry with her on the bike. However, prior to the start, her bottle leaked out all over while setting things up in transition and was left without ANY of her fuel for the entire bike ride! After initially panicking as any triathlete would do, she was able to calm down and improvise a fuel solution. With the help of half a dozen other kind-hearted triathletes, Theresa combined a little bit of several other competitors’ nutrition into her single bottle. She had a cocktail of Gatorade Endurance, Tailwind, Scratch, Infinit, and others all mixed together to replace the customized nutrition she’d lost. Her ability to think quickly to improvise a solution allowed her not only to compete in the event, but to race faster than she’d ever had.
While the fueling wasn’t optimal, it allowed Theresa to be able to get the job done. As we confront the various obstacles that threaten our workout, an improvised solution may not be the best choice, but it gets the job done. Whether we’re competing in an Ironman triathlon without our custom fuel or show up at the gym and realize we’ve forgotten our socks for our workout; we can improvise. Keeping calm and looking for ways to complete the task instead of for reasons to throw in the towel allows us to see things a bit differently and find a way to reach our goals.
TFE personal training client Aileen Gozales leads a busy life. With one son off to college and her daughter in Jr. High, this single mom does it all- supporting her daughter's soccer team on the weekend and working in a high-stress consulting job during the week. With all she needs to do, she still prioritizes her heath and fitness by getting in two personal training sessions and several runs or bike rides during the week. However, even her best laid plans many times go awry, leaving Aileen to ADAPT her schedule to find ways to include all important exercise in her day.
During the days when a structured workout can’t be achieved, Aileen adapts her work environment to allow her the maximum amount of physical activity which helps her to maintain her fitness gains. When she takes the metro to work, she will purposefully park her car at the far end of the metro station, maximizing the amount of steps she takes to get to her train. She will also carry a backpack loaded with a laptop, files, and extra books for added weight while she power walks between buildings at her job. Aileen constantly adapts to her work environment by taking the stairs, whether it be at the metro or up the 4 flights to her office. Even though this isn’t a structured workout, she burns calories, improves her cardiovascular system, and builds her muscular endurance- quite literally- all in a day’s work. As I’ve said before, something is always better than nothing, and this is a great example of Aileen doing something by adapting her environment to help meet her fitness goals.
When we change our perspective to ‘HOW can I fit in my fitness’, instead of ‘there’s NO way I can fit in fitness into my busy life’, then we can find a way to adapt to any situation to help us remain healthy and active. This is a critical key for Aileen and should be for anyone who wants to prioritize their health and fitness goals.
Sometimes, there’s simply nothing we can do to change our circumstances for the better- we simply have to OVERCOME a challenging situation that throws us off our game, whether that be in a highly competitive event like Ironman or during the highly complicated routine of life. Recently I had a situation where that very thing happened:
Last month while competing in Ironman Maryland, I was caught off guard and had to work hard to overcome a challenging start to the race. As many know, there are many moving pieces to an Ironman event, and to ensure we have the best performance possible, triathletes have specific pre-race routines we follow in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to a big event. Race morning of the Ironman is no time to change that routine, however that is exactly what happened.
My pre-race routine was going well, and I’d just finished pumping up my bike tires in the transition area, dropped off my special needs bags (extra things I may need while running or riding), checked my run and bike gear, and headed over for one last bathroom break prior to the race starting. According to the race schedule, I had plenty of time- yet as I stood in line for the bathroom, to my horror I heard over the loudspeaker that the race would be starting EARLIER than the prescribed time. I was still in line for the bathroom with 15 people in front of me, and the race was starting early! So, I stepped out of line, began the process of getting on my wetsuit, and by the time I zipped it up and put on my goggles, the gun went off.
As with all ‘rolling start’ Ironman races, athletes self-seed by projected swim finish time, and I wanted to be in the 1:00-1:10 group, which was the second group to go off. By the time I cut to the front of the line, meandering my way through literally thousands of other anxious swimmers, I entered into the water with the 1:20-1:30 group. This meant I would be swimming the entire 2.4 mile course with people that were much slower than me, causing me to swim over, around, and across hundreds of others, significantly slowing me down and making for a much more physically demanding swim effort.
In this case, (and many others in both fitness AND life) there was nothing I could do to improvise, adapt, or change my situation. As the saying goes, “it is what it is”. And on that day, it ‘was what it was’. I simply had to work a little bit harder than I would otherwise have to, and get a less than optimal result. However, I didn’t panic, stayed calm, and kept perspective. This allowed me to be patient on the swim and later on the bike, being careful not to overdo it and push too hard on the bike in order to ‘make up’ for the slow swim. In times past, when unforeseen circumstances have happened in a race (such as a bike flat, stomach issues, equipment malfunction, etc.) I’ve been derailed by focusing on what’s gone wrong, NOT by staying in the moment and focusing on what’s going right or by what I can do to systematically make up the shortfall.
This time, however, I remained calm and focused on the present. I just chipped away little by little at the deficit and overcame a terrible race start to have a solid personal best finish. The mental focus to stay in the present is critical in overcoming hurdles that threaten to slow our progress toward any goal, whether it be during an Ironman race or a slightly less ambitious health and fitness goal.
So, the next time your workout plans, race plans, or life plans go awry, take a cue from the Marines. Have the mental fortitude to improvise, adapt, and overcome. It may not be the expected result- but you can ensure the expected effort will be there and the results will take care of themselves. In fact, they may be even better than you’d hoped- just ask Theresa!