I assume most of us have recently had experiences with ways we have adapted to these new circumstances that we would not have imagined possible. This need and ability to adapt reminds me of a point that James Clear makes in his excellent book, Atomic Habits. He educates the reader that an action really becomes easier to do once we identify our self-image with it. For example, if my self-image is that, “I am a completely sedentary person,” then the new action of riding a bike every day is more difficult, until I’ve done it enough that I can shift that self image to, “I am a person who rides a bike every day”. But, he warns us to be careful what you attach the self-image to. For example, in case this bicyclist gets injured and can’t ride, a better self-image might be, “I am the kind of person who stays fit, no matter what the obstacles.” That person can shift from cycling, to say, swimming or lifting for exercise, and not be as distressed that cycling is out. I recently had my own “self-image” challenge in a similar way, and had to re-define my own narrative.
I have long had a self-image of being “active,” which is one of the reasons I finally reacted to the mounting evidence to the contrary, as I entered my mid-40s. The slow “softening” I was experiencing contradicted my self-image, and prompted significant changes to re-align my actual performance with my expectations of myself. Two tools were of greatest use to me in getting fit and staying there–running, and a gym membership. I used the gym mainly to get my training runs in when weather conditions (In Arizona, that means “too hot”) made it easier to go inside than do an outside run. I also threw in weight lifting (not enough to notice), yoga (my build and bald head make me look like an expert–until you actually watch me doing it), and very infrequent swimming. For the last 8 years, depending on where I am in event preparation, I have been running 40 to 80 miles per week, and at the gym about 3 times per week. My self-image was of a runner, who used the gym largely as a tool to support that activity.
Then, two things happened nearly simultaneously–a sciatic nerve injury that took me off running, and Covid-19 closed the gyms. I was suddenly a runner, who couldn’t run, and a fitness center regular, without a gym. How quickly and unexpectedly I had gone from just running my 20th marathon, to wondering if I would ever be able to run for exercise again, was a great lesson to me about choosing the right self-image and being willing to change it when needed. I had to quickly redefine myself as a person who finds a way to stay fit, whatever the activity and wherever it can be done. As I healed, I worked in more day hiking, and bought the last stationary bike left in the Valley at that time (Big 5; I’d forgotten that was even a store). Then, when our neighborhood pools opened again, I added in swimming. It took a few months, but, at least for now, I can run again, and I am training for the St George Marathon, if it is held, or one of the creative substitute events, if not.
Even with running currently back, I can feel the change in my self-image is permanent. I was forced to broaden my horizons, and think more in terms of overall fitness, not just miles on my feet. Swimming, especially, seems here to stay. When I started doing laps in late March, I was pretty spent after 15 minutes. Now I am pretty comfortable after an hour. I’ve learned that distance swimming is more about technique than cardio training (runners tend to be surprised how fast we get winded when we turn to swimming). Last Friday morning (5:00 a.m.–swimming while the sun rises–magical!), I did my first open water mile, with some new-found friends, at Saguaro Lake. On Monday, I did it again at Canyon Lake. This morning (Friday again) I was back at Saguaro. Without these recent “setbacks,” I would likely never have experienced the incredible sensation of swimming in open water while the sun rises over the bluffs by these lakes. It reminded me that we were likely “born to swim” before we were “Born To Run” (Christopher McDougall).
The other surprising casualty of shifting my exercise routines is my gym membership. When gyms closed (um, twice), I had to find a way to work around these long-standing habits. If you had asked me in January if I could keep up my exercise routine without running and the fitness club, I would have told you I could not. But, like with so many assumptions we make about ourselves, I’ve learned that one was incorrect. I still like the options presented by a fitness club, but I have substituted in my own stationary bike, community pool, resistance bands, body-weight exercises, etc., as ways to work around this change.
We have the ability to choose new practices and even form new ways of defining ourselves, to achieve the results we most want. Sometimes we have the wisdom to choose to change; other times, the new approaches are forced upon us. It is surprising how often we look back on the “forced” ones with gratitude for the improvement they caused in us. I am certainly feeling that with my new-found fitness activities.