Ragen Chastain on IRONMAN training

I happened upon a post by Ragen Chastain, a writer and activist on size acceptance. She’s also a dancer and an athlete, and I mention her because a recent post on training resonates with my experience, without quite matching it.

She’s training for an IRONMAN race, and the post in question compares the difference between training skills versus training fitness. In training, for example, dancing, you’re learning stuff. It may be really hard, but once you learn a move, you’ve learned it: For a long time it’s hard and you suck, and then you get it and then it doesn’t suck any more. Running (and swimming and bicycling, but especially running) is very different:

One of the things that is interesting about training for the IRONMAN is that it is a process of constantly increasing distance and time (sometimes alternately, sometimes at the same time.) such that “progress” doesn’t necessarily mean that my workouts feel better, but that my general feeling of suckiness remains constant at an increased time and/or distance.

Case in point – Wednesdays are speedwork which means intervals at the highest speed I can manage.  The interval time has increased four minutes, and the speed has increased 5 minutes per mile since I started training.  I still feel like I’m going to die at the end of each workout but I’ve gone farther, faster, for a longer time period.  It’s the stasis of suck.

I totally get where she’s coming from: running as fast as you can (or as far as you can, or as long as you can) is hard. But my experience is different.

Especially when I’ve gotten out of shape, I absolutely feel the massive suckage of starting to get into shape again. Many times I’ve gone trudging around my old 1.5-mile loop near Kaufman Lake, gasping for air, thinking “I’m going to die.”

But after three, four, five runs—such a short time that I can’t possibly have made more than a tiny improvement in my fitness—my perspective is completely different. I’m still trudging around the same loop. I’m still gasping for air. But now I’m thinking, “Wow, I’m getting a great workout!”

Perhaps this is because I don’t have a coach. Maybe if I had someone carefully measuring my performance and matching it to a model of my theoretical maximum performance, that person could arrange for my experience of suckage to remain constant.

But I don’t really think so. A lot of the experience of suckage is in your head. With one mindset I experience the physical sensations of slowly running as far as I can as miserable, because it’s so hard. With a different mindset I experience the exact same physical sensations as wonderful, because I’m doing what I want to do, accomplishing something that’s difficult and yet rewarding.

That doesn’t suck, even if it’s hard and painful.

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