Saturday, January 31, 2015

Fitness in a Suitcase

Char and I have been traveling a lot this past year. And we learned the hard way some important lessons about maintaining fitness while living out of a suitcase. Here are the main lessons:

1. Establish a routine whenever possible
2. Be dedicated to making fitness a priority
3. Try to eat healthy while on the move (stay away from fast/junk food when possible)
4. Be creative

To summarize our journey from Texas/New Mexico to Italy:

4 homes, 5 military installations, 9 hotels, 2 weeklong stays with family while traveling between homes, totaling to 8 states, 2 countries and approximately 11 different gyms or fitness centers.
What do you mean my carry-on is too big?
Over the last year, between the two of us, we ran marathons, cycled centuries, finished triathlons, lifted lots of weights, swam in oceans, lakes and pools, ran on beautiful beaches, trails and through historical landmarks, and faced searing heat, freezing cold, pouring rain and pummeling winds. We saw whales breaching, dogs barking, deer leaping, squirrels chattering, rabbits frolicking, roosters strutting and sea turtles waving goodbye.
Riding up and out of the clouds at 10,000 feet on top of a volcano. One more for the bucket list.
It was quite a year, but not without challenges.

So much travel required us to explore different facilities and different routes. It was both an adventure to learn and experience something new and a quest for safety in a new and different land. We learned to use Strava to see where the locals liked to run or ride. Hopefully, we wouldn’t stand out if we were also running or riding those same routes which meant we were less likely to be molested, robbed, beaten or run over. It also helped to ask family or friends where they liked to run or ride. Usually they knew of a route or path that would show us a different side of the town or city.

Exploring new facilities presented another challenge. Not all fitness centers and gyms are created equal. And when you’re bouncing from one place to another, not all hotels even have workout equipment, and what is available can be very limited and not necessarily in the best shape. In one gym we would find a plethora of weights but not much in the way of cardio or “Crossfit” toys. In another, there might be plenty of kettlebells and medicine balls, but very little space to use them. One gym had a room full of spin bikes, but it was chained off until the budget could afford to rehire instructors. Pools were the most difficult, as the hours never seemed to fit our fitness routine or work schedule, and there always seemed to be a youth swim team practice or lesson taking place right when we were trying to do some lap swim.

One of the many priceless views we found.
Flexibility and creativity were very important when adapting to a new place. Our workout routines changed to match what was available, and to take advantage of new trails or routes. We swam very little in Oklahoma, but took advantage of over 70 miles of nearly empty pavement roads on the fort. No bicycles in Maryland (they were shipped ahead to meet us overseas) so we found some incredible trails in local parks that let us run through beautiful fall colors.

We replaced kettlebells with dumbbells, box jumps with jumping lunges and ran everywhere we could in every kind of weather.

The lack of space was not just at the gym. Choosing what to pack and what to ship ahead was a very difficult decision. One of the hardest things I personally chose was to ship my bike with our household goods, leaving me bike-less for almost five months. That saved a lot of space in my suitcase that’s usually taken up by bike tools, pump, spare tires, shorts, jerseys, gloves, helmet, etc. Our personal gym collection of yoga mats, dumbbells, medicine and Swiss balls, was also shipped ahead. Instead, we packed more cold weather running gear, nutritional supplements (pre- and post-workout powders and energy gels) and a Tiger Tail to roll out those post-workout kinks.

Sometimes our warm-up consisted of picking up after other people in the gym.

The biggest challenge of all was figuring out how to maintain our focus on our physical fitness. When traveling across the country, and beyond, how do we not only keep from eating poorly at every fast food, greasy diner, but also keep working towards our fitness goals when our routines are completely disrupted? What gets lost in all the confusion of moving from place to place? Which workouts get dropped, which goals are sacrificed to make room for others?

Post-run fuel at a Denver bagel shop. We earned it, right?
The answer for us was to reevaluate our goals with every new location and to establish a routine to support the new goals. In Oklahoma, we set our sights on some major bike rides in the last summer, and I took the plunge on my first open-water triathlon. Char chose a half-marathon in Kansas that gave her something to work towards and keep focused on while in-between homes.

Focusing on these goals helped us to keep from falling off the wagon too far or too often. Of course, there were mornings when it just wasn’t happening, when one of us was up too late the night before with homework or a late shift. There were evenings when it was just too easy to grab a junk food meal on the go or order in some local pizza.

But, in the end, we were able to maintain most of our fitness and even to keep working towards the ever-elusive goal of physical improvement. Most of all, we learned to be flexible and creative in our workouts, even when we don’t have all the toys available that we’re used to.

Friday, January 2, 2015

When the Big Guy at the Gym Says You’re Doing it Right

In other words, how not to look like a hot mess in front of strangers. 

Introverts that we are, Char and I can be pretty shy around strangers, especially when working out. It isn’t the lack of clothing or tightness of our outfits. We can wear as much or as little as we want. I’ve been cycling long enough that I can sport a pair of short shorts with the best of them. But every weight we lift, every lap we swim or run, is a form of evaluation in a very public setting. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, or thinking that they are judging us, by our performance, by our fitness or physique, even by the cut of our workout gear.

However, once we’ve been going to a gym for a while, we’re both pretty comfortable with our routines and self-image. Even when strangers show up, we’re not intimidated ‘cause we’re the regulars.

Last week, we found ourselves at a new gym in Charla’s hometown that’s in the city recreation center (with a swimming pool and ice skating rink). She’d been many times as a kid growing up, but never to the gym side of the building.

We were working our way through the weights and machines, finding some things we were familiar with and some we weren’t.

I had just started a set of clusters, a combination of cleans, jerks, and thrusters. It’s something I’ve never been really good at and am still learning how to do properly.

I was in mid exercise when he appeared.

Most gyms have at least one, like him. Some have several.

He’s huge, shaped like an upside down triangle. He looks like the beasts that barely resemble human genetic projects that you see on magazines or bottles of protein shakes.

Yeah, she's a beast.
And he knows what he’s doing.

You see, we’re in his world, his universe, and he’s the king. He lifts everyday, several times a day, and has been lifting heavy objects since before we could lift a milk bottle to our lips. He’s tried every supplement, been to that shady dealer in Mexico, and laughs when you talk about the benefits of Crossfit and Paleo as he contemplates his steak and bourbon dinner waiting for him in his Viking-esque cabin of a home that’s really a shrine to his weight-lifting career.

He’d snuck up behind me, mid squat. I tried not to notice, play it cool, like I was a pro. Like I knew what I was doing.

I told myself to ignore the paltry excuse for weight I had on the bar, to focus on my form and just try really hard not to embarrass myself in front of the inverted mountain of iron standing behind me, contemplating breaking my body in half for violating his temple of steel.

He watched for a while.

As a former workout companion once told
me, "We do bicep curls for the ladies!"
His eyes felt like the fires of the forge of Valhalla, and I was sure that at any moment a deep rumble would emanate from his chest, and I would hear those dreaded words, “You’re doing it wrong.”

A single bead of sweat trickled down my face, maybe it was a tear, I don’t remember.  He watched me for about three or four repetitions, but it felt like much longer.

Then he nodded his head slowly, approvingly, and walked on.

Elation, pure excitement and satisfaction filled my chest. I had gained approval from the walking human anvil. My dignity and gym privileges intact and sanctified.

Twenty minutes later he was showing Char and I some new moves on a lateral pull-down machine, like we were part of the “in-crowd.” Not bad for a couple of scrawny out-of-towners.