Make It Simple

When I finally arrive in Vail for a women’s empowerment workshop I wonder why it seemed so difficult to get away and why I was even having second thoughts about leaving. Hmmm, work or go to the mountains for an outdoor adventure retreat designed to rejuvenate and nourish mind, body, and spirit? The answer suddenly couldn’t be simpler.

The next few days are packed with activities (yoga, hiking, rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, and equine empowerment, speakers, and seminars. I decided to shut my phone and computer off and enjoy a couple of days off the grid. This is my conscious effort to disconnect from the expectations of work and others fueled by the constant chatter of technology. Instead, I hope to truly appreciate the natural world that so often just dissolves into the background of our lives.

The next day starts with an easy run and yoga before breakfast and although this is a normal routine today feels different, as if a weight has been lifted mentally and physically.

While half of the group leaves to go rock climbing, I join the group going hiking with Trailwise Guides. We approach the Gore Creek Trail in a way that I am not accustomed to at all. Crossing the threshold into the Eagles Nest Wilderness we have no plan of destination or distance, just an opportunity to enjoy the mountains and see where the trail takes us. The guide says we can go 500 feet or 5 miles. I force myself to stay near the back of the group to attenuate my habit of only focusing on the destination. Since I have no idea where that point is I’m determined to enjoy the hike in a different way today. Immediately I notice I am seeing more of the scenery instead of just picking out my footsteps on the rocky trail. I stop to take pictures – which I never do – of things that I probably might never see.

We stop for lunch by the creek and our guide hands us crayons and paper to make leaf rubbings. Yes, it sounds silly and like something you haven’t done since you were a kid but all of a sudden it’s fun and again changes the perspective and the sometimes limited way in which we enjoy our outdoor recreation.

The day ends with an inspiring talk from Shannon Galpin, founder of Mountain2Mountain, a non-profit that focuses on women in war-torn regions, mainly Afghanistan. In a culture where women do not have a lot of freedom and are not allowed to do much recreationally (much less ride bikes), Shannon became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan riding through the Panjshir Valley. Taking this risk to simply ride a bike immediately communicated her passion and drive to everyone who saw her without the need for one spoken word.

It occurs to me that we have made our lives and fitness routines so hectic and complex that we often miss or forget the simple things that allow us to thrive and were the original source to our motivation and enjoyment. Of course the ironic twist was recognized by da Vinci when he said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

Laughing Matter

Staying fit has become a very serious matter. We have miles to conquer, muscles to break down, pounds to lose and competitors to beat!

Among the ever growing number of ironman triathletes, vegetarian ultra runners, meditating yogi masters, cross fit maniacs, and solo mountaineers I have started to wonder where the visible signs of enjoyment are? Have we traded in the smiles, jokes, and laughter during training and racing and replaced them with blisters, muscle cramps, saddle sores, and sunburns? The inevitable consequences of exercise seem to have become a bigger badge of honor than the sheer enjoyment of it. These items are now what memories are made of, clogging race reports and long-term memory banks. The indicators of suffering are our new best friends.

I started regularly attending a group workout where laughter plays an equal partner to suffering. It has reminded me of the times when I regularly trained with a team and we laughed everyday through the process. I vaguely remember some of the difficult conditioning and harsh weather conditions, but most of my memories are of having fun and laughing out loud on and off the field. It didn’t mean we were not serious about our sport, quite the contrary, but the humor was always a welcome relief and a necessity in the development and success of our hard work.

Gelotology is the study of laughter and the results are no joke. Scientists are finding that laughter induces a similar response in the body as exercise does. Just think of the supercharge when combining the two!

Dr. Fry of Stanford University, has published numerous studies on laughter and its equivalence to exercise. Laughter stimulates the heart and circulation much the same as aerobic exercise. Laughing aloud (real or fake) 100 times produces a cardiovascular workout similar to 10 minutes on a rowing machine.

There seem to be several positives from getting a good laugh. First, it improves respiration, increases circulation and the production of those “feel good” endorphins. It also relaxes muscles while decreasing the ever present stress-related hormones. Pain tolerance goes up (thanks to the endorphins), immunity increases and a positive emotional state ensues. Statistics show that kids easily laugh 400 times a day, but adults are sometimes lucky to laugh just five times a day. No wonder our health and fitness seem to decline as we age.

“A good, real, unrestrained, hearty laugh is a sort of glorified internal massage, performed rapidly and automatically.  It manipulates and revitalizes corners and unexplored crannies of the system that are unresponsive to most other exercise methods.”  ~Author unknown

It has been said for centuries that laughter is the best medicine but now you can start to use it as a training tool! Add a few daily laughs to your workout routine and you’ll perform better, feel less pain, look younger and massage your internal organs all at the same time. If your schedule gets the best of you and you miss a workout, then just make sure you laugh 400-500 times during the day and you can write down 40+ minutes on the rowing machine in your exercise journal! Even if you don’t start winning races your friends and training partners will probably enjoy you that much more.

My Fitness is My Dog’s Fault

I owe my fitness to my dog. Actually, maybe I owe much more than my fitness to Scooter, my golden retriever who would have turned 13 years old this month. She was about 6 months old when I moved to the Midwest for school and it was a schedule adjustment to get up early for walks. The day I came home to a pile of shredded paper that once amounted to an expensive textbook, it became quite clear that walking was just not going to be enough anymore. So, I started running again. Not that I was ever a “runner”, but I had run many miles over the years playing soccer. However, I regret to admit that once my life with regular practice scheduled by a coach ended I became a sporadic and inconsistent exerciser. Ironically, it was somewhat easy to ignore my own fitness and health but I really wanted to make sure my dog was healthy and fit.

The first organized race I ever ran was the Dog Jog several months later. We ran and walked, stopped at all 3 water stations, and upon finishing felt that a 5k was a long distance. I remember being quite shocked at how fast people ran the distance. I wondered if I would ever be able to get any faster than a 34 minute 5k.

Now that we were running, I started seeking out parks and trails away from the streets and as a result I discovered many great parks and trails that I previously had no idea were there. I met other runners, made new friends and found workout partners. On the weekends I made time to drive a little farther and visit state parks to run and hike half the day with my canine companion. Maybe I would have studied more if I had not had a dog, but I would have missed out on consistently getting out, staying in shape, meeting other like-minded people, experiencing all the different parks, lakes, trails, and camping spots and maybe best of all, watching my dog fall sound asleep with a smile.

Moving back to Colorado, Scooter and I continued to run, hike, swim, or walk on a daily basis. I also started doing longer runs on my own, joined a weekly group run and worked for a health club. From the connections made through running and fitness, my work slowly morphed into a livelihood centered around running, wellness and the outdoors. Looking back, it’s funny because I don’t know that I would have been involved in many of these things had my path not been altered a few degrees just by having a dog.

So, if you struggle with having a consistent fitness program, get a dog. They will be a daily inspiration or obligation for you to get out and be active. Of course, you have to promise not to just put them in the back yard for their exercise but commit to joining them every day for a walk no matter what the weather, mood, or social calendar holds. The days turn into months, then years, and before you know it you have a 10-year streak of daily exercise.

I had to say goodbye to my best friend last year on Thanksgiving morning but I still think of her everyday and smile (or sometimes cry), thankful for her influence on my life and the rewards I continue to enjoy. Happy Birthday to my favorite workout partner, who was never late, never complained, loved all weather, and visibly expressed that every outing was the best one yet!

Assets of Performance

Sitting is our worst enemy when it comes to many health and fitness issues. No “butts” about it, after watching the Olympics, it is obvious that athletic power, speed and overall performance are rooted in the area most of us use mainly as a seat cushion. Physical therapists, including my own, are always emphasizing strengthening and activation of the gluteus maximus. When it comes to athletic performance, avoiding injury, and looking good in jeans, form equals function regarding this particular physical asset.

The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body. With its surrounding team of smaller muscles, it is the powerhouse when it comes to movement and performance. A major player in the posterior chain of muscles (lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves), the function of the glutes is hip extension, abduction and rotation. Also responsible for mobility and stability of the legs and torso, these muscles are not only important for running, jumping, and cutting from side to side, but also for the rotational force created by the uncoiling of the hips, core, and torso needed for throwing and hitting.

If this muscle is such a big player in so many movements you would think it only natural that it would be getting a regular workout in your everyday training. Unfortunately it is often the case that it’s taken out of the game before you even start. Most of us tend to spend the majority of our waking hours seated and that does not bode well for maintaining optimal function of movement. Specifically, for the glutes, it is the seat of weakness and the contributor to athletic performance related problems. Extended time in a seated position causes tightening and shortening of the hip flexor muscles. This can lead to inhibition of the glutes by pulling of the pelvis into a forward tilt. In addition, the constant pressure, combined with minimal use while sitting, contributes to weakness, forcing the surrounding muscles to compensate when the glutes fail to perform.

When it comes to injuries, the glutes can often be a silent player responsible for overuse in other areas. In the situation of inhibition, the glutes are on extended vacation and don’t activate properly to contribute to the movements of normal life and sport. In the situation of weakness, the glutes are activating correctly but they are not as strong as other muscle groups. Thus, in both situations smaller muscles take over and do the job your glutes should be doing. In the short term, this decreases the efficiency of movement and performance and in the long run may develop into some type of pain or injury. Most likely the pain or injury will occur somewhere else in the chain such as the low back, hamstrings, knee, lower leg or foot.

Regardless of your sport or fitness activity, you will benefit from giving your glutes a little attention in the form of a healthy workout. Your glutes can never get too strong, but before you can work on this asset, you have to get off your ass!