Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Bodies and how we see them

Like many (most? all?) women (people?) I’ve had my issues with body self-perception. Thankfully, with age things have changed, a lot. I no longer fret as much about all the imperfections, maybe because I don’t have the time or mental energy available to do so. That doesn’t mean I don’t still see things that I dislike, just that they don’t consume me. But I’ve noticed something recently that seemed strange to me, and worth a post.

What is this strange thing? It’s that as I get fitter and leaner, some imperfections seem to get bigger. An example, last year for the first time I noticed some dreaded ‘back fat’. As I was losing fat overall, some areas seemed to get worse! Another one, this year, my spare tire, that I have had since my teens in the front, was now also clearly on my sides. At first I though that maybe the positive changes I saw were all imaginary. But no, my husband was had independently commented on the fact that I looked better (in a very supportive way, and he never comments in a bad way when I'm going the other direction). Or maybe just those spots were getting bigger? Nope, in reality, neither of these had actually gotten bigger as other parts of me were getting smaller. Nor had they just appeared - they been both there for a while when I really thought about it. So was I just noticing them because I was paying more attention to my body, caring more about how I look, and so the lumps and bumps started to matter more? Probably not. Upon a few seconds of reflection I ruled that out; it wasn’t the case that I cared more. And what’s more, they weren’t actually bothering me much. I am 47 years old, and although I don’t have the body I did when I was in my 20s, I feel better about how I look. I feel like I look great for my age (other than being haggard and tired a lot of the time). More important, I enjoy being active and now more than ever, dress for comfort and movement, not looks (although I have been trying to look like I feel good about myself when I dress too, I just won’t sacrifice comfort). I care less, and feel better. And as I slowly get fitter, I feel even better, not worse. So if that’s not it, what is it?

I think it’s that they really are standing out more. Not perceptually, but physically. As some of my lumps and bumps have gotten smaller, things that they are attached to or next to shrink at slower rates. The result of this is that things get uneven, and the bits that are slower to shrink suddenly do stand out, because they are not proportional. So when I had a nice even layer of fat all around my middle, none of it stood out. But when I started to lose it, the parts that were shrinking more slowly suddenly looked bigger – even though in reality they were also smaller than they had been. So I noticed my back fat when I was losing it, not when it was at its peak. The comparison made it look worse than it really was. My main motivation in getting fitter hasn't been to lose weight, or look better, it has been to feel better, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it's nice to feel like I look better too. Side effects aren't always negative.*

My solution has been to find the right comparisons. For example, compare the whole to the whole. And over longer time periods I can also see a difference in the slower to shrink lumps and bumps. I just need to compare them to them, not to the bits of my body next to them. Bodies and our perceptions of them are funny. But luckily, they seem to be flexible – I can decide what to look at and how to see it. (At least I was comparing myself to a version of myself that was approximately the same age. If I had been comparing myself now to myself in my 20s or even my 30s I think I’d have a much harder time dealing with things. I think that this is just a memory issue. I can remember what my body looked like a short time ago, but have no real memory for what it looked like 20 years ago. Sometimes our cognitive limitations are good!)

There wasn’t supposed to be any grand message in this post. But as I wrote I thought about other sorts of comparisons, and it seems that it is always important to compare to the things that make sense. I am motivated to keep working toward a healthier, fitter whole. For me that means not taking things too seriously and keeping things fun. If I compare my fitness with that of many of the people I know through cycling, etc., I am so not keeping up with them. They are running marathons, doing Ironmans, etc., even with kids and busy careers. I can’t seem to do what they do. Sometimes I compare myself to them and feel crappy about what I am doing (I clearly am not as committed, don’t have the self-discipline, etc...). But if I can stop to compare my life with what I’d like my life to be in totality (work, home, etc.), I see a different picture. I see things I would like to change, and can decide to work on. But mostly I see things I like. Their lives are not mine. I am happy they are doing things they like, but I don’t need to feel like I need to be the same. (They don’t tell me I should be the same, but sometimes I do.) But again, the whole is good. Some parts are not great, and I can work on those (or not, depending on how much I care/time I have). I’m not saying that focusing on your whole life will magically make it all seem fine – it may or may not, your whole may not be good – just that a change in perspective can help things look different.

*Lately I've lost more weight than in the past 3 years combined, but due to a hopefully now resolved health issue. The compliments I've gotten on how I look because of it are a bit unsettling - but that's a topic for a different post that I may get to at some point.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Mumblings on my almost didn't happen ride.

Things don’t always go as planned.

Today was the annual Cypress Challenge hill climb ‘race’. (It’s a fund-raising ride for a great cause.) I’ve never done it, but my husband has the past few years. For various reasons, he decided not to do it this year. I was considering it as my riding group was trying to get a big group riding it, but in the end, I didn’t sign up either. Turns out it was a good thing.

The air quality has been atrocious around here for the past few weeks, so bad, that I haven’t been able to cycle. But it cleared up yesterday and I was anxious to get out for a ride, so I had planned to go and ride a local hill a few times this morning. I was really tired though, and so didn’t manage to get myself out of bed as early as I had planned. But I figured I should still go anyway. So about 1-1.5 hours later than planned I was breakfasted and kitted up and went to get my bike. I checked the tires to see if I was going to need to pump them up a bit before my ride. Turns out my front tire was totally flat. As in, no air in it at all. My husband offered to change the tube for me, but I didn’t want to wait. And because the tires are tubeless, they’re not easy to fill again. (One can always put in a tube. But if there’s an issue with the tire itself, as might have been the case, then that wouldn’t really help.) Last year he bought a special device for reinflating tubeless tires which he hadn’t had a chance to use yet, so he was quite happy to work on my tire while I was out riding something else. I was going to just head out on my winter road bike, which meant changing shoes. (I accidentally ended up with different pedals on the two bikes – don’t ask – and so have to use different cleats. I have old shoes that I’ve kept around for now for this purpose. I will get around to just changing the pedals at some point. But to this point it’s just been cheaper to use my old shoes.)
By now it’s getting really late to head out for a 2-3 hour ride. And I’m tired, and not really feeling motivated to go do hill climb repeats. So I started to think about not going out at all. But my husband suggested I take my cross bike out for a spin. After all, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Yay! (In fact, yesterday I booked a whack of ferry reservations so we can go do cross races on Vancouver Island in the fall. They have a great series there – Cross on the Rock – that I highly recommend. One of the best parts about their races is that if you finish, you get points.)

Turned out to be a great suggestion and I'm glad I listened. I went out for about 1.5 hours. Rode to some local hilly trails where I worked on various cx skills. Mostly I practiced going downhill, did some hill repeats on dirt and pea gravel, and pushed myself on the flats. I learned that road fitness really is not the same as cross fitness. I say learned rather than was reminded because I didn’t have as much road fitness last year, and didn’t push myself in cross as much as I’m going to have to this year, so I didn’t notice the difference as much last fall. Mentally, it was the right thing for me to do today. I was in the tress, smelling the forest, and having fun on my bike (while working hard, don’t get my wrong). (Usually at this time of year I’m spending time on the trails on my feet, but I have an injured foot at the moment and am really missing that.)

I’m making the move up to Masters in cross this year, so I’ll have longer races, and against women who are faster as a group than the beginners I’ve been riding against for the past two seasons. While beginners always includes some very fast riders who are just new to cross, it also includes a lot of people who are not like that, and so the range is bigger than it is in Masters. Anyway, that means I’m going to have to be more ‘on’ this year in races. Cross really is different than riding on the road: you (are supposed to) go as hard as you can for the length of the race. You have to pick spots for little micro-rests, but they are really micro. And whenever there’s a spot you can push is (e.g., a nice flat section) you go go go. And if you are not at the limit, then go faster, go up a gear, or both. on the road you learn to pace yourself, especially in the beginning of a ride. Cross is not like that. At all. And it’s hard to change the way you think about what you’re doing on the bike. Even harder when you’re, ahem, older, and are better at endurance than short speedy efforts. But that’s why it’s a great work out, especially for people like us for whom the fall is always crazy busy (we’re both professors) and it’s much harder to find the time for a day out on the road.

Anyway, I wouldn’t have liked to have found the flat this morning while trying to hurry out the door to get to the Cypress Challenge. I’m happy the rain held off for all the people who did ride it, I hope my friends who did it had a good climb, and I hope they raised a lot of money again this year. But today I did the ride I needed to do. I figured out that I really need to work on my cross fitness. I could spend my time practicing mounts and dismounts, and done properly I would save a few seconds here and there, but they really aren’t where I can make the biggest gains right now. And I’m pumped for race season!

If you're interested, here's some links to information on races in the lower mainland and other places nearby.