How to get fitter: Race or a Big Year?

A marathon! Maybe it’s always been on my bucket list. Set a training schedule and bingo, the fear and lure of the race will surely compel me to get out there week after week, month after month . . .

We all have friends, younger or older, doing exactly that, and it seems to work. How we admire them! But for me, the big impossible dream of a race is just that, a dream. I love to run but the time and effort and risks of a crazy quest might well derail me. So I’ll try this Big Year instead . . . modest but obsessive.

The mind: A jogger’s most implacable foe

Consider this tale. Yesterday I ran like the wind, to use a cliche I can’t resist. Today the weather is identical, nothing has affected my preparation, I’m no more tired, so I set out expecting more of the same. Three kilometers in, a thought surfaces and won’t go away: “This is crap, I can’t go on, why can’t I rest?”

That’s the mind for you. One day it’s on fire, the next it’s a pathetic piece of slime.

What to do? Clearly athletes can ignore their “negative thoughts” but can you or I? And if you use your mind to conquer your mind, won’t your mind rebel in turn?

For me, there never is a ready solution. I battle on. And of course this so-called jogging dilemma is one we face every day in every kind of situation. We are our minds and our minds are our best friends and worst enemies.

The mind: A jogger’s best friend

There comes a point in every jog. At the start, midway, or towards the end, I need to halt. What keeps me going?

Clearly it’s my mind. I talk to myself. I refuse to let the body have its way.

None of this is a surprise. We human beings are creatures with free will and willpower. (I know some philosophers dispute the existence of free will but I don’t credit them.

So celebrate your mind and feed its resolve. Test it.

Duhigg’s habit loop: Cue, routine, reward

What is a habit, beyond the dictionary kind of definition? According to Duhigg, it’s a loop of cue, routine, and reward, a loop that if repeated ossifies into “a powerful sense of anticipation and craving.” The brain automates. By understanding this loop, Duhigg insists, “you can fiddle with the gears.” Early on in the book, he specifically mentions two areas of habit close to my heart:

This explains why it’s so hard to create exercise habits, for instance, or change what we eat. Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch, rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside our heads. By the same rule, though, if we learn to create new neurological routines that overpower those behaviors—if we take control of the habit loop—we can force those bad tendencies into the background . . .

Over the decades, I’ve exercised reasonably regularly, but never, repeat, never habitually. Will my Jogging Big Year instil a genuine habit? I’m hopeful.

Why writers’ critique groups disappoint

I’ve tried quite a few critique groups. You know, a bunch of folks who present written pieces for commentary. They vary in format and style and frequency, but typically grumpy old me finds them wanting and leaves. Why?

I can think of many reasons why I or any writer might find a particular critique group unsuitable. A personality clash with a group member is one possibility. A critique group mightn’t be well managed, with individuals grandstanding or lacerating. A group might meet too often or not often enough. The.culture could be poisonous.

But the issue I’ve personally encountered most is a simple technical one. For me it’s important that all the writers in the group are roughly “of the same standard.” Yes, I know that defining writing “quality” is subjective, but the issue to me is how I feel the group stands in relation to my own perception of how well I write.

Specifically, I usually exit a writing group because I find too many members are “not good enough,” a judgement that damns those who don’t write much and whose pages are, in my opinion, even more amateurish than mine.

So that’s why I’m so enamoured with the Inner City Writers Group. All of us are equals. All of us are producing real manuscripts. All of us will one day be rich and famous. Well . . .

Might you do some walking, a Big Year even?

Suppose you’ve let yourself go a bit, or maybe a lot, so much so that a tendril of terror rests in your gut whenever a shopping trip leaves you a bit exhausted. You tell yourself to “do regular walking” but each attempt peters out. Life “is too busy.”
What would a Walking Big Year look like? So many options suggest themselves! What if you were to decide to walk thirty minutes, on a prescribed route (let’s call it the Honey Blossom Road circuit) from home, every single day of 2017, from January 1 to December 31? Too easy, eh?
Plan out your Honey Blossom Road Big Year. Is thirty minutes exactly the right challenge, or should you go longer (surely you’ll grow in strength and confidence) or shorter (let’s make squeezing this in a breeze)? How will you measure progress – crossing off calendar pages or employing Strava? What about travel intervals – take a break or (you think not) come up with an equivalent walk wherever you are? What about 40 degrees or windstorm – be clear with yourself.
Over the rest of 2016 you walk now and then, tweaking the concept. You inform some friends, not others. What about Sunday, January 1, 2017, the day after the big New Year’s Eve bash, the day the hordes descend upon you for a BBQ? You steel yourself and actually set an alarm for 8 AM on the Sunday and drag yourself around Honey Blossom Road. Tick one.
As January melds into February and into March, the novelty wears off. You’d decided to walk in the best part of the day, just before lunch, but your busy life threatens and stresses, so you’ve switched to 7 AM. It can seem boring, except sometimes it feels transcendent, not often but maybe enough. In May, a family crisis derails you until 11:38 PM and the rain is pissing down – with the greatest reluctance, you amaze yourself by walking in the dark with a head torch! Can you believe it?
July stresses you because that Intrepid Tuscany tour in August surely requires a Big Year break. Instead your husband urges you to keep it up during the tour, so, quite ludicrously, on August 24th you find yourself setting a 4 AM alarm and walking half an hour from your airport hotel. That night, you reflect how much springier you are on your feet than the other tour participants (including your husband) and you turn down the tiramisu dessert.
In September you trip on your grandson’s tractor and bang the right middle toe. You limp Honey Blossom Road. The physio offers you the choice of a week’s rest and your truculent riposte startles you. With seemingly the greatest of ease, you add half an hour’s stretching to your routine – my God, you’re regularly rising with the dawn! Your original Honey Blossom Road loop amounted to only a little over a kilometre over the half hour, and you’ve steadily added little extras and detours, so by now you’re clocking up two kilometres a day. You began marking ticks on a sheet of paper, now you’re Strava’ing like a champ, and it tells you your accumulated 2017 kms are 467. After a lunchtime Prosecco on September 30, you suddenly aim to walk 800 kms by December 31 – Honey Blossom Road now means an hour on the road, sunshine or rain.
A funny feeling fills you on December 31. There’s nothing special about the walk – it’s a mild New Year’s Eve day and the fact that you need to cover an hour and a half to clock up the final 800-km prize is no imposition – but you’re simultaneously yearning to take a break from the yoke of the daily trudge and almost weeping with anxiety about tomorrow. You drink too much at a rooftop party.
January 1, 2018. The head pounds. You’re miserable throughout the BBQ. At 4:36 you sneak out the back, lace up your Brooks walkers (you upgraded), and enjoy the New Holland Honeyeaters (you know seventeen garden birds by now) in Honey Blossom Road.
After family has gone, sitting with hubby in front of the television, you pull out that embroidery you began in 1985. “2018 is a Craft Big Year,” you announce, almost apologetically.

Diet is the new sin

Yes, diet seems like how Catholicism treated (and still does?) sex – the taboo we lie about, feel most guilty about. For me, what I eat and drink has been a source of existential exploration for four decades. I’ve previously posted that diet is NOT something my Big Year folly can tackle well, so why raise it now? Because I’m still groping. So here are words of wisdom from my friend Shane:

How much should one worry about this stuff? Maybe the most sensible approach is to hove to the basics: exercise, don’t smoke, pursue a whole foods, vegetarian/vegan diet

More from Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”

I continue to re-examine this wonderfully written book – can it teach anything fresh? He writes:

How do habits change? There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.

I find this sobering but realistic. After skipping sections on the “habits” of organizations and societies, subjects of little interest to me right now, at the tail end of the book I focus on his  “advice” chapter, but even then he counsels:

The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid change, right?

I first read “The Power of Habit” two years ago with precisely that hope in mind. “If only it were that easy,” writes Duhigg. “It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.”

I remain hopeful . . . more to come . . .