What is the purpose of your practice?

I’ve been posting more on this blog lately. It’s not really because I like to talk about working out, though yeah, I do like to do that some. What’s really happening is that I am using 750Words.com to get in a certain amount of free-writing a day, and they’re starting to evolve into halfway reasonable blog posts rather than just personal rants.

While I will use the format for personal rants from time to time, I don’t think my writing practice is being improved by the stream of consciousness so much any more and I’m trying to write about specific subjects to write actual essays.

It’s actually a lot harder than you might think to write to a specific word count on a specific subject. Sure, sure, you can pound out a target word count of ranting in fifteen minutes or so if you’re a fast typist. But if you’re actually trying to write a coherent piece? That takes more time.

In my case, that’s okay. I’m a writer. Spending time writing is kind of like a pianist doing scales or an athlete doing drills on the basics of her sport. You do that to keep your skills up.

In fact, I’d recommend to anyone who wants to improve their writing to start just by committing to a certain word count of writing every day and then just plain doing the free-write. You really do get better at writing by writing, and you will get better just by that alone.

So, when do you jump from free-write to trying to write to a specific topic or drilling on technique? You do it when the free-write gets too easy. If you’re hitting your word count in fewer than twenty minutes on a regular basis chances are good you need something else to motivate you and keep you challenged.

There are lots of writing drills you can use to hone your skills. Blogging and essay writing is kind of my thing because I enjoy a good topic-specific piece, but it’s hardly the only thing available to you.

Do you like fiction? Challenging yourself to write fanfiction really is an amazing way to hone your skills. When my son was starting to think about his SATs and was worried about the writing portion of them, I told him that since one of his major forms of entertainment was to come up with cross-fiction stories about characters he liked and act them out in his room, what he could do is write them down. He has a running series now that he works on, though I think it’s jumped from fanfic to original fiction. His English grades definitely improved — not only the composition portion, but the literary analysis areas. So yeah, I’m in favor of fanfic as a writing exercise, even if I don’t read it.

I have a friend who challenged himself to write a short story a week for a year. He’s since turned it into a book, and it’s quite good. This is also a great exercise to hone your writing if you like to write fiction.

I think a lot of it does depend on what you want to do with your writing. I mean, professionally, I’m a tech writer. Over my lifetime of writing fiction I’ve made enough money to buy a couple of pizzas, and that’s it, so clearly I really need to work on my fiction skills over my tech writing skills. I love writing fiction. I just… well, I don’t think I’m all that good at it. Doesn’t stop me from writing it, mind. Sometimes, it’s a good and valid thing to write just for the fun of it after all.

But as I am writing this, something occurs to me. I don’t practice writing fiction nearly as much as I practice writing essays. I put out all these blog entries, and I write manuals and I write instructional pieces. That fills my writing time. Certainly anyone who knows my writing is more likely to follow blogs I write rather than any fiction I do.

Since I do have a personal Life Dream in terms of fiction, me sitting here and writing this essay as my daily writing practice is kind of silly when you think about it, isn’t it? I’m practicing essays, not fiction.

You get good at what you drill on a regular basis, after all, so the intelligent thing for me to do would be to start some sort of regular practice drilling on specific fictional techniques.

Fitness, Exercise and Intersection

I didn’t actually ponder a great deal in the pool today. At least, nothing that is worth writing down. I thought about work and the way I’d like to teach some classes, and how happy I am that there seems to be a serious excitement about them. That was cool.

I even tried to come up with some subject to chew on so that I could write about it this morning, and totally didn’t. I’m okay with that. My goal isn’t to come up with neat ideas in the pool, common as it is and nifty as it is when it happens. My goal is to swim for 30-40 minutes and then get on with my day.

Swam a 1200 today, just because it seemed to be going well and I figured if I went over on time, I didn’t have to spend all that much time in the locker room. I am off today, so I can go home with a wet head.

It took 35 minutes, so that was all good. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to swim a mile in a half an hour or not, but it doesn’t really matter. The 35 minutes mattered.

I’m trying to decide on what to do for strength training. Sure, sure, I’m getting some upper body strength back in the pool — no doubt!     It’s awesome and it makes me happy. But in terms of preventing osteoporosis, swimming ain’t it. The things that make it wonderful for me in terms of getting in a workout without hurting joints in my legs are the very things I need to keep up bone density.

Well, sort of.

Studies are showing that it’s not only the impact that helps build and keep bone density. Weight training provides about the same benefit. Surprise, surprise, chickadees! Weight training is actually low impact. I’m sure that’s a lot of why I like it so much.

And that’s also a reason I’m trying to decide how to get back into it. I plain like it. Running can be good for you, too, and notice I’ve no plans in the world to start that up!

I wish that people that promoted exercise more did place more emphasis on finding something you like. And “like” can be really intersectional. I mean, I can think of someone who really likes to run, has plantar fasciitis, and just ain’t gonna be running because that’s a big nope now. Like does need to include “can” as well.

That’s where it gets hard. Just to run around saying, “Get your heart rate up for 30 minutes a day!” is fine for a lot of the population. I’m in that category now, myself, and believe you me, I’m glad I can.

But sometimes, it’s, “Sure, I can work out. But I’m going to have to get an extra three hours of sleep a night to do it. Gonna take over my job for me while I do that?” I went through a period of that about 18 months ago. It was terrifying. No doctor had anything for me on that. For a while, all I did was work and sleep. Then I started to get better, and I didn’t know why or how. I spent a fortune on tests that told me nothing. That’s some scary crap, let me tell you what. You want willpower? I was getting by on willpower.

I didn’t start feeling better because I started working out. I started working out when I started feeling better enough to do it, and it sure as hell wasn’t about losing weight, because I started to feel better after I’d gained some, and I’m not exactly slender. (No, I don’t think that’s what caused it. Correlation ain’t causation!)

So while I really do, no kidding, believe in being active and all that smack, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a universal prescription. Yeah, I’ll push swimming for people with mobility issues, because I know how beautifully it works for me, but nope, it wouldn’t work for everyone.

I wish health professionals would think about this instead of assuming people with baffling conditions are lazy liars. I find it incredibly frustrating to deal with, and I think it’s causing some serious issues with health care in general. Then again, the state of health care is another rant that’s going to take more than a blog post, so it would probably be better to leave that off for another day.

So, I leave with this question: What place does exercise have in your life, and why?

Pondering in the Pool

Swimming is where I do a lot of thinking. Now, at first, when you start to swim, what you’re going to be thinking about is swimming. It’s very technique based and focusing on stroke, the feel of the water, your body position in the water, the relationship of kick to stroke and your breathing rhythm are all so overwhelming that when you’re in the pool, this is what you’re thinking about.

This is exactly as it should be. You do need to take time to work on these things, because swimming is very skill-based.

But after a period of time, all of this will become ingrained in muscle memory and you’ll be able to put your body more or less on automatic — except for maybe keeping count of laps and the stroke you’re doing, if that’s your thing.

Then you’re just in the water. It’s not silent, for all that we portray underwater as silent in films. No, there’s bubbles, splashing, and noise. Maybe there will be whistles if you’re in on a swim team practice. I generally am not, so it’s the bubbles and the splashing. But that’s a background noise that tends to fade away.

Then it’s really just you and the water. Unless you’ve invested in some expensive electronics, you’re probably not listening to music or audiobooks. There’s no television like the elliptical users often have in gyms. There’s just you and your thoughts.

It’s a great time to write. No, seriously. This is where I get a lot of my writing done. I can fantasize about characters, or I can think about turns of phrase or subjects I want to discuss. It’s not like meditation, because the point of meditation is to clear the mind. I make no attempt to do that, but find things that are interesting and ponder them.

Recently, I took a survey on how to make gyms welcoming to people who are overweight. You’d think a gym would be a welcoming place for someone who wanted to improve physical fitness, but there is a kind of weird aura around it. If you’re visibly trying to lose weight, yeah, you can get a kind of patronizing cheering section. I say patronizing, because there is this presumption that only if you knew HOW to lose weight, you poor ignorant thing, you’d do it.*

But what if that isn’t a major goal?

That can be stickier.

Me? I don’t need a gym to be welcoming. It’s five thirty in the damn morning. I need a lane to swim in, or a place at the squat rack, and a place to shower and dry my hair afterwards to get to work. Leave me alone to work out and I’m dandy.

Oh yeah, the locker room.

It is a sort of unspoken thing that you have to earn your place to speak up and participate in casual conversation there if you’re not visibly an athlete. For those who don’t care about that kind of thing, it’s awesome, ’cause you get left the devil alone.

For more social creatures, and for people who really do like to belong, that can really hurt.

Thing is, there are times when one DOESN’T belong to the specific group. A lot of the people I see in the locker room in the morning? They’re often triathletes. You know, endurance athletes who log hundreds of miles a years running, biking and swimming? Friends, I ain’t. I’m in there to keep from developing a blood pressure problem, and that’s about the extent of it. You’ll never see me in a spinning class, and I hate running to the depths of my being.

Now, that isn’t to say I don’t belong in the gym. I do. I paid to be there, and if someone had a problem with me working out during “athlete time” they can make a fool of themselves by making a stink if they want to. I genuinely don’t think anyone does have a problem with me being there, and even if they did, I doubt anyone really wants to risk me getting acerbic, anyway.

But let me let you in on something. If you spend all your time telling someone they’re unworthy because they’re fat, that they don’t deserve nice things because they’re fat, and then make them feel like they don’t belong in a workout space because they’re fat, they’re probably NOT going to respond with my sigma-6 level of scrappiness.

So, if you see the fat person in the gym, try something really outrageous.

Treat ‘em like a regular person. Works wonders.



* It’s a subject I’ve studied in some depth, and it’s unlikely as hell that the patronizing person has done anything but read a few badly-reported studies in fitness mags whose main goal is to sell protein powder, for pity’s sake!

Fitness Benchmarks

Do you have fitness benchmarks?  You know, things you want to be able to do physically (that are achievable.  Disabilities exist and are real) that do require a bit of work to maintain.

I thought about this today as I was getting some hot water for my coffee.  The water cooler/heater’s bottle was pretty much empty and needed to be switched out for a full one.

We get our water bottles in five gallon containers, so you’re looking at about forty pounds that needs to be picked up off the floor and manipulated with some reasonable level of delicacy to get the opening on the nozzle correctly and not spill or break anything.

Heavy?  Not particularly.  I can recall when I weighed about that, and my mother and father picked me up at that age with some regularity.

But over the past year, I haven’t been doing much physical, so while I could do it, and did (I think walking by an empty cooler if you are physically capable of switching it out without injuring yourself is kind of inconsiderate) it was definitely getting harder.

You wanna know if swimming puts on muscle? One month into getting back into swimming and it was enough easier to startle me.

Which brings me to the point.

What are your fitness benchmarks?  What are your indications that you might need to be a bit more focused on getting enough exercise?  I’m not talking about the scale here, or how your pants fit.  Those are fine goals if that’s what you’re into, but they’re a bit on the cosmetic side.  I’m talking the functional and physical benchmarks.   These are pretty individual.

For me, being able to manipulate forty pounds up through four feet of space with ease is definitely one.  Another is perceived exertion going up the hill to my house.  Can I lift a full suitcase easily from the floor of a train to the luggage rack without Red Cap assistance?  Is two miles a pleasant walk or something that makes me want a nap?  If I fall below any of those pretty modest abilities, I feel like I need to do something about it.

What are yours?

Training, Athletes and Working Out

Because we all know that the body needs to move some period of time to be healthy (30 minutes a day seems to be the sweet spot for a range of health issues), many of us will find some physical thing to do.

Some of us walk, others choose running, or getting into a sport, or dance or many other things. When we haven’t been active enough, we go to the gym.

It’s the gyms I want to focus on.

This was brought to mind one morning last week. As we were checking in to the gym to do our thing, the person behind the check in desk commented to me, “I know you’re a swimmer. I wanted to give you a heads up that the hot tub is only 70 degrees this morning.”

The phrasing hit me. Not, “I know you swim” but “you are a swimmer.”

There’s a difference, though it might be subtle. I got to thinking about it, and questioning whether or not I could consider myself an athlete. Do I follow a training model when I work out? Yes, when I swim laps, I really use swim workouts mixing up strokes, drilling on technique and all of that. I’m not on a Master’s team or anything, so I don’t have a coach, which means my progress is probably laughable. But since my goal is to be active for 30-40 minutes on weekday mornings rather than competing in anything, I really don’t care but so much. I eventually decided that since I don’t compete or anything I’m not really what you could call an athlete.

Since I don’t care but so much about the competition side of things, why would I bother with the training model? My body doesn’t care. All my body needs is 30 minutes of movement that gets my heart rate up and doesn’t injure me. I’m not unusual in this. Plenty of people who aren’t athletes use a training model in their workouts. So why?

Mostly, I think, it is because in terms of getting in enough movement, it’s all we know. Our gym classes are taught by athletes. Athletes follow training programs. Many of us were involved in sports as children. When we try to get motivation to become active, we might read articles online or hire someone to help guide us. The people that write these articles and are by profession personal trainers? They’re usually athletes.

The problem inherent in this is a cross-purpose of goals. There is an enormous difference in what is required to move half an hour a day to get the heart rate up a bit for a while and what is required or athletic progress

It’s fine to use the athletic model if it keeps you motivated and interested. It’s fine to use it if it works.

But what if that model is discouraging? What if you’re not making enough progress to keep yourself interested? At a certain point, you do hit a physical limit, or a limit to how hard you want to work out and how much time you want to put into this. Elite competitive athletes spend enormous amounts of time and energy, making some lifestyle decisions that have a high emotional cost to go along with it. If that’s what you want to do with your life, it’s a fine choice. But to say it is the better or more moral choice is absurd. You can make a project out of your body, but it’s not the only project you can choose in this life, and it is up to you what you choose.

So, if your choice is just everyday maintenance to keep the body as healthy as you can manage (and isn’t THAT a range in itself!), the athlete model might actually interfere. Why? Unless you’re an athlete, there’s a good chance training like one isn’t going to be worth it to you on any real level.

But, in spite of the message we get from fitness writers, this is not a binary choice between being an athlete and never moving your body. It isn’t necessarily even a choice between using the training model or not when working out.

The choice is making sure your real goal is firmly in mind? Is your real goal to be able to run a 5K under a certain time, or is it to be consistent in getting up every day and moving? Is your real goal being able to lift a certain amount of weight, or is it to make sure you lift heavy things regularly to get or stay strong?

Sure, sure, have goals to motivate you, but don’t let those goals get so out of hand they prevent you from showing up out of discouragement.

Turquoise Horse

“Miss one day of practice, I notice; miss two, the critics notice; miss three, the audience notices”

This has been credited to a lot of different musicians over the years –Liszt among them. I first heard of the expression from my husband, who trained for many years as a classical pianist. While I studied piano for about four years, I never really did practice well, or with sufficient dedication to make more than minimal progress.

Thing is, it doesn’t just apply to musicians. Consistent practice is important to almost any skill or endeavor – be it an athletic skill or an art. One of the arts that really does require pretty consistent practice or it becomes swiftly noticeable you’re not doing it is writing.

I spent about a year from the summer of 2013 to the summer of 2014 not writing much. This was so unusual for me as to be out of character. I write all the time. I was a regular Harriet the Spy as a youngster, I learned a lot of the computer skills I now have as a way to get essays out there before CMS tools and blogging software became a thing, and I’ve always processed my thoughts and feelings in text in some format.

That year I’ve spent not writing on a consistent basis has dulled my skills beyond belief. While I’m physically weak from not exercising my body, my writing is weak from not doing regular workouts in that field as well.

Because the only way to get better is to practice, I turned back to 750Words. The premise behind 750 Words is very much like the whole idea of Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The way to make writing flow easily is simply to write. You must have quota and do it consistently every day. For me, typing 750 words every morning is better than doing it longhand. I don’t like to write longhand and since so much of my work requires typing anyway, I prefer to use that medium to do my morning pages.

Why the Turquoise Horse? The 750Words has several sorts of incentives and badges one can earn to encourage one not only to write, but to write consistently. If you sign up for a challenge and write every day for a calendar month, you earn your Turquoise Horse. I did it for August and was just notified this morning that I got mine

The badges are all whimsical and add a bit of fun to encouraging people to practice their writing. Just do it. Just write it. Don’t care about quality or form. Don’t worry about eloquence or humor. Rant where you must, talk about how tedious it is if you have to, but get those750 words out.

That’s an important step. Never underestimate flow when practicing one’s art.

What about improving? That’s also an important step. Any author will tell you that until you have that first draft, you have no business in the world thinking about editing. Editing comes next. Yes, you should edit. Yes, getting critiques is incredibly important.

But until you have that first draft, you’ve got nothing to work on.

If you’re a writer or want to improve your writing, I do recommend a practice like 750 words. It helps

Swimming v. Running

I was looking up some stuff about relative swimming v. running equivalents. Basically, however much distance you swim in a given time is multiplied by four to give a running/walking time.

I don’t entirely believe it. You see, while my swimming rate isn’t particularly impressive, I do swim about 1000 yards in half an hour. That’s okay for a fitness swimmer who doesn’t give a rip about competition and is just two weeks back in the water after a three year hiatus. Okay, fine.

That would translate into me walking 2.28 miles in half an hour. My best pace, when walking regularly, would be more like 1.53 miles in that amount of time. No, I’m neither fast nor in great shape.

Now, I do have pain issues when I walk that I just don’t have when I swim. Now, I don’t get out of breath when walking, but my hip starts feeling like sandpaper, or my feet cramp up or any of a number of things. Walking just hurts. That stuff doesn’t go away even after months of working out, and no matter what shape I am in. I also walk on a mildly hilly terrain, and I swim in a pool, not open water. That might be enough to account for the difference, but I doubt it. We’re talking a difference of .75 miles in half an hour. That’s a pretty big pace difference from where I am looking.

So, am I really working out that much harder in the water? It doesn’t really feel like it, though I do wind up getting an endorphin high from swimming that I just don’t from anything dryland At least, nothing that’s going to be requiring a specific pace for 30 minutes. ;)

I am trying to account for the difference and the only things I can figure are:

1. Your swimming heart rate is lower, so perceived exertion might be lower. It’s possible I simply DO work harder in the water because it’s just not uncomfortable.

2. I have a very high body fat percentage. That means I float extremely well. I exert NO effort at all to float. All exertion is propulsion, only. I’m not working harder. The workout is actually easier.

3. At a certain point, all swimming success is down to technique, and mine is just there.

4. The 4x dryland distance for equivalent pace is hooey. Forget about it and just work out every day because that’s the part that matters and not the minutiae.

I should probably take four and run (or swim) with it. I like swimming, it feels good and it makes me happy to do it, so who cares about the numbers, because hey, I work out for an hour, get red in the face and get my heart rate up for a half hour every day, so who cares about anything else.

Which does circle around to the fact I find applying high end athletic training techniques to everyday fitness is generally a load of hooey. If you’re competing in races, you’ve gone from everyday fitness to athlete, even if you’re the slowest of amateurs. That’s different from someone whose hobby is not being an athlete, but still lives in a body and needs to keep fit.