An idiot’s guide to training without “training tools”: RPE and mind-body awareness

Disclaimer: the word “idiot” in the title of this post is by no means meant to be directed at readers; on the contrary, it’s my default way of being self-deprecating while writing these posts as if journaling to myself. Soon to come: “How to overcome unbridled self-deprecation as an endurance athlete.”

My last post, “I quit Facebook, canceled my subscription to Runner’s World, and erased my training log. Here’s why” received so much positive feedback and enthusiastic sharing of similar experiences from readers that I felt almost immediately inspired to expound upon my adventures in living the analog life–more specifically, how living relatively unencumbered by technology-driven distractions has improved my life as a recreational athlete (I could easily elaborate upon the benefits of this lifestyle in my personal and professional lives, but I’ll spare you the boredom and stick strictly to my badass, ninja, double-life which involves superhuman feats of strength, power, and will).

The theme of this blog post is centered around my newfound—and I use the word “newfound” cautiously—appreciation of how to move and train mindfully. The reality is that this skill is not so much newly found as rediscovered—something that has always been there, lurking just beneath the veneer of GPS watches and dubstep music turned to max volume. Each of us possesses a degree of wisdom within our musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems that can be easily ignored, beaten into submission, or eclipsed by the sheen of a training plan. But what happens when we remove the agenda (mind) and just listen, feel, and experience (full inhabitation of body)?

This is risky, right? With structure comes progress (pretty much scientifically proven at this point) and accountability. Apply a specified, tried-and-true algorithm and, barring any rare medical complications, one can expect a certain outcome. I like this. I like science. I like applying evidence in order to forecast predictable outcomes.

I also like numbers, gadgets, and technical, detail-oriented things. Elevation gain, distance, HR fluctuations, cadence, max power, speed—these digital readouts are like candy for my left hemisphere.

Stripping myself of the comfort blankets that are my training journal, watch, and GPS was, quite frankly, terrifying for me. This was for several reasons, but among them: fear of boredom, fear of failure, lack of trust in myself to follow through, lack of trust in my body to progress, and attachment to the numbers/data game.

So I adopted something I could cling to: RPE. RPE, or “Rated Perceived Exertion” (a.k.a. “Borg scale”) refers to a numeric scale frequently used in exercise science research. The scale is completely subjective; in other words, it’s based entirely on an individual’s personal perception and concept of relativity. The idea is simple: on a scale of 6-20, how intense is your effort right now? (If 6-20 seems like an arbitrary range, rest assured it’s not–it’s based on heart-rate equivalents. It’s math.) For reference, 6 is lying on the couch, 11 is “light” activity, 15 is “heavy” activity, and 20 is “maximal exertion.” How the subject chooses to define “light” and “heavy” is up to him or her. Obviously one person’s light may be another person’s heavy depending on fitness, pain tolerance, and an incalculable number of other factors, but that’s beside the point. The point is to create a relative scale unique to each person, in order to gauge his or her psychological response to physical exertion in a given exercise session. Using RPE can be a useful tool for structuring a workout: intervals of alternating 12 and 15, or 17 effort uphill and 11 effort downhill, etc.—all while sidestepping the common pitfalls of using more traditional training tools (most notably, overtraining). RPE gives numerophiles such as myself something ordinal and organized, while also evading the possible dangers of too intense a focus on objective readouts (such as heart rate, speed, etc.).

Let me tell you something: RPE WORKS. It takes a little getting used to, but once you’re there, you’ve done it. You’ve figured out how to beat the system. But only if you play your cards right (in other words, no slacking!).

Here’s what using RPE requires: intense laser-focus on the present moment; constant and vigilant assessment of physical experience; unabashed honesty and ability to practice being objective with oneself; finely-tuned mind-body awareness; ability to interpret physiologic readouts; mental flexibility; and nuanced ability to ascertain when pushing limits is acceptable and beneficial.

Here’s what using RPE avoids: training to a preconceived number; ignoring bodily sensations for the sake of said number; zoning out; excessive overreaching; excessive underreaching; mind-body disconnect.

Here’s what an RPE-driven workout looks like: start out at a warm-up pace, and once you get to that point where the engine feels good and revved, push a little more speed or power for a discrete period. Mind you, this is all based on feel. Don’t push it too hard or too fast right out of the gates; rather, wait until you’re well into glycogen utilization (or beta oxidation, whatever you’re going for) to push into higher gears. This will become apparent not when you feel like you “should” start to speed up but when your body starts to crave it. I usually hit a point where I am ready to push myself pretty hard (15-19 on the Borg/RPE scale), and then I go for it for as long as it feels doable, maybe plus 15-25% for good measure. I let myself recover for a little while, but not too long, before messing around with lactate threshold again. Then when my body starts to feel like it’s breaking down, like I’m losing my form, I’ll reel it in and call it a day.

This is what my RPE approach to training looks like, but this is by no means a one-size-fits-all approach. I really enjoy interval training and have found this to be a great way to fine-tune my ability to put forth honest efforts while also maintaining complete immersion in the present moment. My regimented, schedule-oriented, left-brain self is actually a fan. And my performance has improved dramatically since January by training this way, despite the fact that my workouts are shorter (at least I think they are…I’m not measuring time, so I honestly have no clue. Similarly, my “performance improvement” is entirely subjective…but I just feel much stronger, lighter on my feet, etc.).

Interestingly, training by RPE also opened up a wormhole into a world oft despised (or even discredited) by endurance athletes: weight training. Running and swimming by RPE has made me keenly aware of any and every weakness in my kinetic chain like never before. Suddenly I am flooded with the sensations of specific muscles contracting and relaxing during movement; this is an overwhelmingly cool sensation, and also a wake-up call: my pelvis wasn’t nearly as stable as I thought it was while running, and my glute medius was all but shot; my pectorals were taking up far too much slack during freestyle and I’d need to do some serious work on strengthening my lats; my core and lower back weren’t doing nearly as good a job as they could be. Weak glutes during a run are bad enough as is; but try experiencing them on a whole other level while experimenting with total mind-body immersion practices. It’s horrific. Each step is like nails on a chalkboard: a glaringly uncomfortable and disorienting nagging sensation that was on the verge of driving me to insanity. So I started hitting the weights again. And surprisingly, I haven’t hated it this time around. I think it might have something to do with being fully present and mindful while doing it.

Through all of this, there is one thing I haven’t left by the wayside, and that is this: music. While I do strive for completely distraction-less living some day, I had to start somewhere, and music has been a nice crutch throughout the transition. My feelings on music also straddle the divide: on the one hand, it can be terribly distracting, but on the other hand, the right song can really help endow me with the laser focus I’m looking for. I suppose it’s all a matter of knowing how and when to use music as a tool.

Perhaps that could be said for all of the training tools—watches, GPS devices, training logs, etc. Perhaps it’s all about knowing how and when to use them effectively, while tempering the desire to go off the deep end and become too encumbered with slaving away to them.

This, however, requires a certain degree of moderation and, as I’ve stated before, moderation has always eluded me and to this day, continues to do so.

I guess that just comes with the territory of being an endurance junkie.

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I quit Facebook, canceled my subscription to Runner’s World, and erased my training log. Here’s why.

Several months ago, I deleted my Facebook account. It was the best decision I’ve made in a while.

A few weeks later, I canceled my years-long subscription to Runner’s World magazine.

Then I threw my training log out of the window.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that these three actions—among many other smaller, subtler ones—are not unrelated. However, at the times when I made these decisions, they seemed independent of one another.

It all started with my decision to bow out of social media. Or at least, with whatever drove that decision.

I’d toyed with the idea of removing Facebook from my life for years, even deactivating my account for extended periods of time, but was never really too serious about committing to a Facebook-free existence. My Myers-Briggs personality type is strongly INTJ, and as such, the logical side of me almost always wins. And it’s logical to stay on Facebook: it’s practical, it’s efficient, and it can be a great resource for information—both regarding the world at large and our most intimate and innermost social circles. As one of my mentors is fond of saying, “Evolve or die!” So logic kept me in the game—kept me checking faraway cousins’ profiles for updates on their lives, kept me relegating my status updates to only what I believed to be the most high-impact and high-yield commentaries, kept me scrolling through “fan pages” of respected authors, scientists, and athletes for the latest scoop on science, sport, and global happenings.

The thing about being an INTJ—or any __NT__, for that matter, is that while the “T” (for “Thinker”) encourages logic to win out, the “N” (for “iNtuitive”) has an equal pull. And here’s a case where intuition trumped logic, overturning the precedent social media has set on my life once and for all.

I recognized that while it was logical for me to stay on Facebook, intuitively it just didn’t feel right anymore. Increasingly, I have found myself looking back upon the “good old days” when Facebook was first piloted to a small cohort of East Coast colleges back in ’04, right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It provided a simple means of organizing contact information for friends; it was really nothing more, and nothing less. As Facebook evolved into something far more complex, and thus transformed the way humans interact with one another, I found myself progressively more uncomfortable with the new paradigms it unveiled every few months.

When being completely honest with myself, I was surprised to encounter that one of my biggest motives for leaving Facebook was my desire to eschew the competitiveness, one-upmanship, and self-comparisons that have become rampant on social media—and of which I myself am as guilty as anyone else. While I don’t see myself as competitive, I am definitely overly ambitious, and Facebook is a great place to a) feel like you’re in fact not nearly as ambitious and accomplished as everyone else in your news feed, and b) trumpet your ambitions for the whole world to see in one of the least classy ways possible. No thanks.

In fact, plenty of social and psychology research has emerged in recent years regarding social media use and its correlation with, or even direct effects on, psychological and emotional well-being (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10). Not surprisingly, those with the most social media activity reported the lowest levels of self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, sense of satisfaction with their lives, and overall productivity, with Facebook use in particular serving as the biggest predictor of mental health outcomes. Sure, one could easily argue that these may be correlated rather than causative. However, even randomized intervention studies have shown that for a discrete period of time after which an individual views his or her Facebook news feed, he or she will report subjectively lower levels of happiness and self-esteem. The investigators’ hypothesis? Too much comparison of ourselves with what we perceive as the “perfection” of others.

While I freely admit that I went through a little bit of Facebook withdrawal for the first week of disuse (my habit of randomly clicking onto my Facebook homepage while bored at work, or while waiting for the subway, was now to be replaced with…what exactly?), this quickly diminished. In time, I’ve seen a distinctive return of a certain quality of life that’s been missing for a while—a quality of life that is built upon small efforts to connect with loved ones in real time and in more intimate, personalized mediums. And the time I spent on Facebook is now being more creatively spent…literally, on Instagram. ;] (ha ha ha…)

Several weeks into my Facebook-free experiment, I received my trusty monthly copy of Runner’s World magazine in the mail—an occurrence that has been so regular during the past seven or eight years of my life, that I could probably set my clock by its arrival. Runner’s World has been a staple of my diet since I first started running cross-country in high school. Admittedly, the scope and overall culture of the magazine has shifted dramatically in the past five or so years to accommodate the recreational running boom and all of the commercial bells and whistles that have accompanied it (Color Runs, neon sneakers, fad-ish training plans). But I still always enjoyed taking a glance through my copy, if for nothing other than Marc Parent’s hilarious spreads, or Peter Sagal’s witty editorials.

But when I received my February copy of RW, I was not so excited to peel apart its pages. For some reason, I hit a mental block just by looking at the cover: yet another overly-airbrushed photo of a lithe, lanky woman with impossible abs and quads of steel; a woman who looked like she could definitely, certainly, tear me apart both on the track and in the dojo.

This is not a new thing for RW mag—they’ve been boasting disappointingly unattainable and unrealistic physiques both on their covers and within their pages for years now—but it was new that I was so turned off by it. I didn’t even open the magazine; I tossed it straight into the recycling bin. Just like that, I’d decided I was through with it. My decisiveness shocked even me. Shortly thereafter, I logged on to my RW online account and canceled my subscription.

Now that I’ve removed two things that constantly tempt me to compare myself to others (and constantly, consistently come up short), I feel a heck of a lot better. Life is good! I’m a worthwhile human being! I am doing stuff today, and it’s good enough! In fact, it’s bad-ass!

All of this has culminated more recently in my foray into distraction-less, record-less training. In other words, I have completely abandoned my training log, my half-iron training plan, my GPS, my watch, and to some extent, my iPod (yes, I still use one of those…circa 2007 and still going strong). What does this have to do, if anything, with quitting Facebook and Runner’s World? It may not seem obvious, but a huge take-away from quitting Facebook and Runner’s World, for me, was also relearning how to be completely present. Eliminating those distractions from my life—and the distracting thoughts they encouraged within me—removed a significant amount of mental clutter. Free from this, I have begun to experience a new clarity of mind and ability to be mindful in the present, one which I am experimenting with both in my day-to-day meanderings and my approach to exercise.

Abandoning all of the gizmos, gadgets, bells, and whistles that quantify my training has also eliminated a source of self-comparison—both with myself (“I ran so much faster two years ago!”) and with others (“But Meb Keflezighi runs a 1:01 half-marathon!”). Also noteworthy is that I’ve dug myself deep into some serious trouble with overtraining in the past, and this is probably largely reflective of my desire to train to my journal rather than to what my body, mind, and spirit are desiring on any given day. This “naked” approach to running, cycling, swimming, and all other sport has also encouraged me to tap into that complete presence of moment, and use it as a tool for honestly and objectively-as-possible gauging my intensity by degree of perceived exertion. Ironically, being completely in the present moment makes upping the intensity easier for me. And suddenly I am becoming keenly aware of that mind-muscle connection (especially in strength training and yoga, but even in running and cycling), which is the coolest feeling ever.

So far, this is my favorite self-experiment to date. That’s really saying something, as I have been known to tinker quite often. I ran these ideas by a good friend recently, and his response was priceless. “Wait, you’re an INTJ?” he asked. “Yeah, I know it’s unusual for a girl,” I replied, feeling special. “No,” he said, “It’s just that, this all sounds like a really great way to cater to the Introvert in you!”

I admit, this is entirely possible. ;]