I’m an athlete. I play sports. I compete.
First and foremost, that’s how I define myself. That’s where I find value in physical activity. My heart believes that it (the activity) should serve a purpose as a means to end toward a greater goal.
For years I considered myself a purist in this respect. I scoffed at the idea of a gym. I scoffed at the idea of diets and nutrition and exercise tapes and dumbbells and workout “aids”. I actually scoffed at the very idea of a “workout” insofar as I defined it as an isolated set of activities designed only for the purpose of achieving a certain level of fitness driven solely by vanity.
Not for me, I thought. I’m an athlete.
Sure. Sure you are.
What I didn’t realize was that being an athlete wouldn’t keep me fit for the rest of my life. I forgive my cocky, brazen, 18-year-old self for this miscalculation but I am still kicking myself for the stubborn years in my 20s when I was slow to come round to the realization that I needed to begin thinking about fitness in a more focused, more intentional way.
At 22 years old I looked fine. I was average. I have always been average. I am the most average looking person on the face of the freaking planet. Average height, average weight, average everything. I was fine.
But I was a little puffy. And when I say puffy I mean skinny-fat. Sure, I didn’t look fat but most of the definition of my shape was dictated by fat, not muscle structure. This is because after years and years of being only an athlete (and mostly only a runner and softball player) and a fairly crappy eater, I just wasn’t that muscular. So I was soft and yummy and juicy and a perfectly acceptable size and I could run 13 miles at an 8:30 pace but I was not truly fit.
And I didn’t feel very good in general.
Softball will make my heart melt and keep my fast-twitch muscles relatively at the ready but, man, it will absolutely not keep me fit. Especially with all those damn post-game beers that go down so easy when you’ve just eeked out a nail-biter against the best team in the league!
Likewise, running, while great for you in so many respects (trust that I am not knocking runners, a runners heart beats wildly in my little chest), also will not necessarily make you athletically fit and toned. Running a lot will not make you toned – it makes you look like a runner. Or not. Have you ever seen a marathon? A lot of people that run marathons still manage to be overweight. Isn’t that amazing?
So, over time I came to realize that I was not happy with just being able to run far or fast. I wasn’t happy with just playing softball 5 days a week. In college I was at least 15 pounds overweight during my last year of softball and, while I played a great season, I did not feel good.
It took me years to get over the word “fitness” and to envision myself in technical clothing, doing reps in a gym. I didn’t buy a piece of technical clothing until around 2002 and it had mostly to do with Sal’s cycling influence. (See Roadie: the exact opposite of my just-be-an-athlete no frills philosophy. See also, Roadie as defined as GEAR WHORE. I digress – that’s another blog.)
I still cringe every now and then when I have to go to the gym to workout. I get a lot of comments from people who tell me that they “just hate the gym”. Well, kids, I’m with you. Gym rats are the absolute worst. Especially the ones that never seem to work out. And the air is so clogged with testosterone that sometimes you can hardly breathe. I get it. Gyms can be annoying.
But gyms are what I think of when I see the word “fitness”.
Still. Even though I try to disassociate this because there are so many other powerful and effective ways to really become fit, and the intention behind my drive for fitness is so much greater than the vanity that the wrap-around mirrored walls of a gym invoke.
In its essence, fitness for me is about a deep, core-level feeling of wellness and balance. When my body is functioning in prime condition, my mind follows, my motivation skyrockets, and my life feels more manageable and in control. In addition, I’m thinking long-term these days as my body starts to age. A good muscle base helps prevents injury, assists with good posture, helps keep your metabolism high, burns fat, and allows you to carry 8 grocery bags at one go.
(I’m just sayin.)
But I have come to acknowledge that fitness and performance go hand in hand. The work I do at boot camp, in the gym, or with weights on my own, or even in the yoga studio, greatly affects my ability on the softball field or out on a road run. Core strength increases bat speed, shoulder strength reduces risk of injury while throwing, and fast-twitch muscle strength increases speed in the outfield and the basepath. Focusing on my breath while doing yoga or lifting has greatly affected the quality, comfort, and enjoyment of my longer distance running. When I struggle in boot camp and want to stop I always go straight back to the same place: this is taking seconds off your mile time.
Whatever the motivation, whatever the approach, we should be supportive of each other as we move toward a higher level of fitness – whether you’re a purist, old-school marathoner, a total gym rat, or, like me, a strange and troubled mish-mash of runner, rat and beer-guzzling softball player.