Losing weight was only the beginning...
Don't be too afraid to ask for help, or too competitive to give it.
Sink or Swim
I forced myself back to the pool this week after nearly a 9-month absence from swimming. Getting there took weeks of “self talk” so “forced” is definitely the right term. Swimming is not my favorite activity. It’s nothing like the other sports I enjoy, mainly running & cycling – that I often do as part of a group, and if you spend time doing them, group or solo, you’re almost assured to get better. Unless you’re genetically gifted, that’s just not the case with swimming. You need proper form and stroke, you need coaching and corrections and overriding everything is the fact that you have to “re-learn” how to breathe. It’s very technique oriented and physically demanding, uncomfortable and awkward. And it’s not only overweight people who have “swimsuit stress” so for some of us it’s also mentally demanding, uncomfortable and awkward.
I seem to have a lot of qualms about swimming – pool, open water doesn’t matter – I can easily adapt them to the situation. Some are valid concerns (chlorine allergies), some probably not so much (grossed out by algae & dead fish in Lake Erie!). I’m also not a fan of being cold – progressive Reynaud’s in my hands makes that legit and wetsuits can only do so much (and apparently they’re not intended for use in a chilly pool.) But then I’ve had to do swim workouts in a pool that was too warm and that’s not fun either (yeah, I know, Goldilocks or The Princess and the Pea are probably coming to mind!). But the “prima donna” in me aside, I’m slow – I mean “off the charts slow” and workouts take a very long time, and let’s face it, swimming laps is down right boring!
It’s also pretty obvious to me now that I have horrible upper body strength. I’m sure this plays a role in my lack of ability when it comes to swimming, but personally I think it hinders me more when I’m stuck in a middle lane and have to try to get out of the pool by hoisting myself up on the edge. You’ve seen people do it all the time, all those long, lean swimmers with broad shoulders pop up like they’re on springs and then in one fluid motion their foot is on the deck and they’re out and into a stride – easy right? My attempts are much less graceful – more like a “plop, flop and roll” technique – which kind of works, perhaps with a little bruising (to both body and ego) and only then if I don’t lose my grip and go flailing and splashing back into the pool.
So yes, I have a few “issues” when it comes to swimming. But, I’ll confess that my foray back into the pool wasn’t half as bad I’d imagined – it rarely is you know. This can serve as yet another reminder that the scenarios we conjure up in our heads always seem to be a thousand times worse than reality. It’s that “own worst enemy” idea coming to fruition yet again. Talking ourselves out of cool things and great opportunities because we ‘imagine’ something different. I know if we can avoid that, great things can happen. In the photo above I am scared to death, yet optimistic before my first Ironman swim – turned out the swim was the best part of my day – and there’s no Ironman medal without a 2.4mi swim! More proof that I should know better, but there are still times when my own fears and past failings can get the best of me.
I didn’t always dread swimming; it definitely used to be fun. But keep in mind as I was growing up, the photo below accurately reflects my definition and point of reference for “swimming.” Floating? I’ve got that down pat! There’s nothing “technical” or “uncomfortable” about it – it was what I longed to do every summer day. As I got older, the floaties got bigger, and as I got bigger they got more elaborate – with things like pillows and armrests and cup holders – suffice to say I never used the words “swimming” and “strenuous” in the same sentence.
Sometimes I wonder if all my swimming attempts are just futile effort? If it’ll ever get easier? If I’ll ever get any better? Or if it’ll ever feel more ‘natural?’ Some of the best athletes I know seem to be natural swimmers and make it appear effortless when I know it’s anything but. Others would see a challenge like this and literally dive right in, then work and work and work at it and eventually be able to revel in their triumph. To be honest, I’m just not sure I have it in me – don’t get me wrong, I do want that to be the case, but it seems pretty unrealistic at times and I wonder if there’s some arbitrary length of time I should give it before I just give it up. When is it ok to concede? To face reality and just be happy with what is?
When I profess to hate it so much people have asked me why I do it, and I honestly don’t have an answer – probably so I can participate in triathlons, or maybe on the off chance that something will happen and I’ll wake up one morning and be good at it. It could happen, right? I mean, swimming was never something I feared or dreaded and I keep hoping that if I do it long enough maybe I’ll actually come to love it or at the very least enjoy it … maybe I’ll get just fast enough to be on the pace charts, maybe one day I’ll have a real stroke; be able to do a flip turn and breathe naturally in the water, maybe one day I can hop out of the pool like a real swimmer…maybe… but in the meantime I’ll stop wishing and keep doing, and I can always just use the ladder!
In 2003, I turned 40, hit 280 lbs and realized something had to give. The 100 lbs I lost with exercise and Weight Watchers was followed by my first road bike, my first century ride, then running and swimming - a journey marked by both challenges and successes. Today, I'm a triathlete with a marathon and Ironman under my belt, and a lot of gratitude for the friends, coaches, and fellow athletes who helped me along the way. Through Team LUNA Chix, I'm ready to "pay it forward".
Find Mary Lou
How to Properly Wear a Swim Cap
Jen from the Los Angeles Tri Team runs through the best way to wear a swim cap with long hair.
Join a group, stay motivated.
We’re all in this fitness thing together. One surefire way to stay motivated is to work out with a friend or join a group, like a local team LUNA Chix, that meets to run, cycle, swim, whatever. Not only is more fun to exercise with some pals, it also gives you a sense of obligation to get your butt out the door on even the nastiest days.
Drinking while cycling.
When you’re on the bike, 12 ounces of water every half hour is a good rule of thumb, so make sure your bike has room for a couple of bottles. For longer rides where you’re not planning to stop (woo hoo!) you’ll want to kick your gear investment up a notch with a large hydration pack.
For long races, change is not good.
For an endurance race like a triathlon, fueling well is essential, but DON’T eat or drink anything during the race that you haven’t already practiced with during your training. Think of long training sessions as “race simulations” for your fuel plan on the big day. This will help you avoid indigestion and “potty issues”.
Triathlon fashion tips.
While having a lot of clothing options is great for a weekend in Vegas, in a triathlon you really want to shoot for something you can wear throughout the race to make transitions as easy as possible. Tops and shorts specifically designed for triathlons are a great choice—they’re made to go into the water, on the bike, etc.
To clip, or not to clip…
Clip in pedals are a better choice for power efficiency, but they can be a bit intimidating for newbies. Go with flat if you are really uncomfortable, you can always switch to a clip in pedal later. If you do get clips, it should only take a few rides to master how to quickly twist your foot out.
Turbo charge your run.
If you always practice at the same pace, you’ll always run at the same pace. You need to do intervals if you want to get faster. Start with 30 seconds hard every five minutes and work your way up to five minutes hard and five minutes easy. Play AC/DC, Jack Johnson, AC/DC, Jack Johnson…
Running requires patience.
If you are really new and running doesn’t come naturally to you (and really, it doesn’t come naturally for most of us!) start with a combination of running and walking. Run for four minutes, walk for one. Keep repeating this until you get to 30 minutes and then add in longer phases of running the next time you work out.
Building endurance for a triathlon.
If you are ready to try a tri, each week of training you’ll want to do one longer workout in each sport, to build up your endurance.
Be kind to your knees.
Running on dirt trails provides the best cushion. Concrete is the worst because there’s no shock absorption. Asphalt is somewhere in the middle. Choose wisely if you have problems with your knees.
85-90 leg strikes per minute (count on one leg) is what you want to aim for to work on improving your running speed and time.
Be a stronger swimmer.
To improve your swim performance, practice rotating from the hips, and dragging your fingertips on the recovery. Use a kickboard to focus on strengthening your leg. A pull buoy and paddles can help you work on your arms.
Land with your foot flat.
If you land on your heel when you run, you’ll put a lot of strain on your knees. Landing on your toes strains your calves. Land with your foot flat, and more importantly, land it under your body for good momentum and shock absorption.
Let’s get this (cycling) party started!
Looking for a group to ride with? If there’s local LUNA Chix team in your area, you’ve already found a great way to connect with other women who ride. You can also find out about groups at your local bike shop, in cycling magazines, or just ask other cyclists—they usually know.
Glide out of your wet suit.
Wet suits can leave nasty hickey burns on your neck, and really, who wants to explain that? Before a long swim, lather your neck and ankles with Body Glide and you’ll be much more comfortable while swimming and get your suit off with ease. Plus, you won’t have to show up at work the next day looking like you’ve been mauled by a vampire.
Another great way to stay motivated? Enter an event. Whether it’s a charity ride for a cause you really care about or a competitive race, having a goal to work towards can really give you that extra push to pull on your workout gear and go.
Riding with turtles and hares.
Whether fast or slow, ride with people you know! It’s more fun that way. Fast friends will push you a bit more, which is great if you’re prepping for a race, and you can draft off them on big climbs. If you’re the quick one, get out in front and give your less experienced friends a break!
Have you checked your tire pressure and brakes? Did you give your bike the once over to make sure nothing’s cracked or otherwise out of whack? OK, now you can go.
Chasing those elusive zzzz’s.
Hard-core trainers will tell you that 8-10 hours of sleep a night, plus a daily nap, is optimal while training for a big race. Back in the real world, those of us with busy jobs or little kids can only dream about this much. Shoot for as many hours as you can and stick with a consistent schedule—quality rest will help your muscles repair and protect your immune system.
If your knees are sore after a ride…
It could be that your saddle is too low. Try putting your saddle at a height where your knee is soft, but not locked at 6 o’clock.
Cycling time, optimized.
If you have an hour or less and want a good cycling workout, crank it, sister! You can go high intensity by hitting steep hills hard or by going out with a riding group that challenges you speed-wise and hanging on as long as you can. If you’re feeling really feisty, get out in front and “take pulls” every chance you get. Just don’t forget to warm up for 15 minutes first.
Keep those hands where they belong.
On your bike’s handlebars. Road cyclists don’t use hand signals much, aside from pointing out hazards like potholes or rocks. It’s also polite to indicate a turnoff. Otherwise, give a yell if a car is coming or if there’s a need for a quick stop.
Let your bike do the work.
When riding off road, your bike should be moving more than your body. And unlike road cycling, you’ll need to use your upper body as much as your legs to absorb those bumps. And don’t forget to look ahead… that way your body will have a chance to anticipate changes in the terrain, like that tree.
Tired muscles need a little TLC. Massage is great as a recovery aid, and working out extra hard is the perfect excuse to indulge. Yoga is also wonderful for increasing flexibility and focus. Distance runners can benefit from 8-10 minutes in an ice bath. If you are brave enough to take the plunge, have a tall Starbucks on hand.
Say no to saddle sores.
Think only cowboys get saddle sores? Nope, they’re also a problem for cyclists. Finding the right bike saddle can help, but if you ride long enough, you’re occasionally going to end up with a sore butt. A good chamois cream can help soothe those sores, but many bikers swear by a cow utter cream called Bag Balm. Who cares as long as it works!
Cyclists are drafting when they line up behind one another to conserve energy. The rider in front breaks the headwind, those behind get a break. Mastering this move can be tricky: the closer you ride to the person in front, the better the draft, but you also risk a pile-up! While learning, stay at least three feet away from the tire ahead.
Building tri strength with “bricks”.
A “brick” is a workout where one activity is directly followed by another (a bike ride + run, for example.) Training this way 1-2 times a week is a great way to gear up for a triathlon.
New to the dirt?
Go out on easy unpaved roads or wide fire trails with a more experienced friend who can show you the ropes. Relax your arms and legs, and let the bike do the rest. And remember, there’s no shame in getting off and walking for a stretch if the terrain gets hairy.
Dust off that road bike.
Been a few years since you’ve cycled on the road? Before snapping on your helmet, take your bike to a local shop for a safety tune up. At minimum, have them check tire pressure, brakes, the chainring and gear shifts to make sure everything works and that all connections are snug. Now you can feel the wind on your face without worrying about your brakes giving out!
Shape up for cycling.
A hour long ride once or twice a week is just about right for a beginner looking to get her legs (and butt!) in cycling shape. And if you want to enjoy that post-ride high all day, set your alarm and head on out there when the sun is coming up.
Climbing with conviction.
Positioning yourself for a big climb can be tricky. Common mistakes are leaning too far forward, putting too much weight in the hands, and straining your quads. Lean back a bit so you’re centered over the saddle, let your glutes and hamstrings do some of the work, and go easy on those handlebars.
Aching arches in the morning?
Most likely it’s Plantar Fasciitis—an inflammation of the tissue along the bottom of the foot that connects the heel bone to the toes. Caused by increasing your running volume too quickly, bad shoes, or poor foot mechanics, this annoying injury requires some TLC, ASAP. Slow down for a few days, do some stretches and apply ice. And see a doctor if there’s no improvement.
Training for open water.
There’s no black guideline in the ocean. To prepare for an open water swim, practice in the pool with your eyes closed. (No cheating!)
Surviving the inevitable tumble.
If you mountain bike long enough, there will come a time when you will dismount and tumble unexpectedly. The good news is that most crashes happen at low speeds, either when clipping out or on switchbacks. But if you are really moving, let go of the bike, tuck your arms and legs into your chest and try to “roll” with one shoulder in and your back to the ground.
Pain while running means one thing: STOP.
A mild pain can turn into a major injury over the course of a single run, so listen up when your body says “ouch!” Most problems can be alleviated with a few days rest. If you still feel bad after taking a break, it’s time to call the doc.
Time to go shoe shopping.
Running 300-500 miles is the perfect excuse for a new pair of shoes! Once you’ve gone that far, they lose their support, shock absorption and the wear can mess with your foot biomechanics. Might as well throw in those new wedge sandals too—you’ve earned them.
Lycra or baggie shorts?
Well, that depends on whether you are casual girl at heart or like showing off that booty! Some mountain bikers like the non-racey, looser look of baggie shorts off road, but there is one caveat: when you are bouncing around coming downhill, they can get stuck on your seat.
Try a bike ride.
When giving cycling a try, the objective is fun! Borrow a bike, keep it under an hour and don’t let your Lance-obsessed neighbor talk you into some crazy 100-mile loop. Bring a helmet, water and LUNA Bar in case your energy flags. Also important: a portable pump, tube and repair kit for flats that hopefully the more experienced friend you’ve invited along knows how to use.
Beyond the obvious helmet, no cycling woman’s wardrobe is complete without a pair of tush-friendly chamois shorts, a lycra jersey, gloves and sunglasses to deflect bugs. Any kind of soft-soled athletic shoe will work for flat pedals, but cleats are a must if you clip in. A light jacket is a great accessory for colder climates, as is a safety light when riding after dark.
Stop that stitch!
While the cause of the always-annoying side stitch is up for debate, deep, full belly breathing can help chase it away. Namaste!
Buying a mountain bike?
Before hitting the shop, ask yourself how you want to ride. If you just want to have some weekend fun in the dirt, a bike with full suspension will ensure maximum comfort off road. A more light-weight cross country bike is best for climbing and racing. And if you like tearing it up in the mud, disc brakes are must!
A bike that fits.
Like your favorite black bra, a bike performs best when it’s fitted specifically for your body type. Many pro shops offer this service, so check in with your favorite local outfit to find someone who can take measurements and help make the proper adjustments to your bike.
Saddle up your bike.
Just like a too-soft mattress can be bad for your back, a too-cushy bike saddle can be bad for your butt. Flat and slightly wide is best, with a women-specific slot up the middle. (Trust us on this one—you’ll be thankful.) It doesn’t hurt to check out what the pros use—they definitely put their tushies to the test!
Tart up your transition towel.
Triathlon transitions can slow you down big time if you’re wandering around like a doof looking for your stuff. Buy the loudest, brightest towel you can find (think 80s neon) and park your gear near an obvious signpost in the transition area. Even if your mind is still rehashing your last leg, you’ll be able to transition quick.
Ah, the simplicity of running gear…
Not much is needed to get up and running. Good shoes are essential, of course, and a running specialty store can help you with the best fit for your foot type. You also might want some socks, shorts and tops that can help wick away sweat to keep you cool. Add one iPod for cool tunes.
Fueling for a ride.
Carbs are what you want—about 30-60 grams of carbs per hour, depending on your weight and pace. This can either be in solid or liquid form (try a LUNA Bar or some Clif Shots) but be sure to eat before you are hungry. Forgetting to fuel means you’ll run out of gas mid-ride and have to call your roommate to come pick you up in her car. Embarrassing.