Running While Fat
|Image courtesy GaborfromHungary|
Hello, Internet. I'm fat!
It's times like these I'm glad almost zero people read my blog, because otherwise this is the point where people come out of the woodwork to let me know that I'm unattractive and deserve an early grave. No, really; if fame meant having to field those sorts of comments, I'm okay with obscurity.
I was never a super athletic or sporty kid. There was no joy in movement for me; I didn't have all kinds of crazy little kid energy to burn off. I liked to read and play video games. In the summer I loved to swim and in the winter I loved to go sledding, and that was about it for movement. I remember being fascinated by martial arts but being too timid to ask my parents if I could have lessons. I suspect I would have had a miserable time, anyway. After all, if countless summers of t-shirt soccer and kiddie softball hadn't made me any more athletic, karate wouldn't either.
But now I'm a grown-ass adult and my higher brain knows that I should probably do something, because my work involves sitting at a computer all day, and then sometimes sitting and talking with people in their houses. Over the years I've tried a lot of dorky exercise videos and things, none of which stuck. I also tried to get into running a few times, because it's so minimal: just put on the shoes and go. I had a few false starts, but I think I've figured it out now, and so here I'm going to share how I've finally made peace with running.
Running While Fat: The Philosophy and the Paradigm
0. Why I chose running.
I had a lot of reasons to choose running. First, after the initial investment (see point 1), running is free. You don't need equipment, you don't need to schedule a visit to the gym, you can do it anywhere (mostly—see point 2). It's possible to do indoors, if you want. Your downstairs neighbors might complain but jogging in place is always an option! There are things that I know I love (swimming) or would be interested in trying (martial arts, dance), but I don't have the schedule or the expendable income for those sorts of things right now. Running it is!
Running also just seems like a pretty basic skill, on top of which you can layer other skills. Most sports, for example: they would probably be more fun for me if I enjoyed running, or at least didn't mind it. And all the cardio is good for your heart and lungs and such.
Finally, I wanted to challenge myself to learn to like something I thought I hated. My life in Korea taught me to be more adventurous with food; why not use my move to Sweden to teach myself into being more adventurous with my fitness? I tried running before and fell out of it, but I think it might be possible for me to like it. It hasn't hit the seafood threshold yet; I don't know for sure. (Though every couple years I give seafood another go, just to make sure I still hate it. So far, I always do.)
Your reasons for starting a running program will probably be different than mine. That's cool. I just wanted to share my take on it. :)
1. Get some proper workout gear.
I hesitate to endorse this particular piece of advice because I'm wary of participating in mindless consumer culture, but on the other hand good quality clothing makes a difference, especially if you are a fat girl. At the very least, if you are a fat girl, you probably have boobs, so a sports bra of some type is important. (I get along fine with a boring not-really-sports cloth bra/crop top from KappAhl; the sports stores here do not cater to people of my size, go figure!)
But there is something totemic and motivating about having good workout clothes. I don't necessarily mean cute workout clothes, though that might help—I just mean comfortable. And I mean something that will be your ritualistic "I'm running now" outfit. For me, I decided to invest in a pair of Lineage Wear leggings. This isn't an affiliate link and I'm not getting compensated for this post; I just think these are really comfortable leggings. They also go up to a 5X, with plans for options of 6X coming down the pike. (If you're wondering, I have these Watercolor leggings in the capri length.)
It's a silly thing, but having something comfortable that doesn't get in the way when you run helps. Something that you know is high quality, so that you can think of it as an investment in yourself. (There's that consumer capitalist framework again, though! But oh man, something about pulling on those leggings makes me SUPER EXCITED for a run.) Otherwise (and I know this from sad, uncomfortable experience), at least make sure you're wearing something breathable and cotton-like on your nethers, and anywhere that's going to get a lot of sweat and skin rubbing on skin. I run in my LineageWear leggings, and I do yoga either in them or some cotton jersey trousers. I've sometimes made the mistake of wearing the polyester trousers because everything else was in the wash, and oh man, no bueno. Anything that talks about wicking away moisture is A+.
Good shoes are also important, though I think you can save those for later. To start with you'll be walking for the overwhelming majority of the time; you can upgrade to a "running shoe" when you start running a little more. Something that is comfortable to walk in for long periods of time is your best bet. (Like with sports bras, I am sized out of shoes here. I'll have to wait for a good wide width running shoe until I go back to the states in October.)
Music is also essential for me. It's a good distraction and a good motivator.
Finally, in this age of smartphones, it can be really motivating to augment your workout, so to speak. My phone can't handle Pokemon Go (battery life lol) but it can handle Charity Miles, an app I've talked about before. There's also WoofTrax/Walk For a Dog, which focuses exclusively on dog shelters. I prefer Charity Miles because it brings a lot of different charities together in one app and lets you choose which one you'd like to support, instead of just being an app for one charity in particular. But you do you!
2. Embrace the outdoors.
I realize this isn't possible for everyone. Some people, especially fat people, have had really discouraging experiences exercising in public. Other people don't live in areas where it's safe to walk or run outside.
But if you're just intimidated about huffing and puffing where people can see me, I want to say: I feel you. Swedes are generally private, keep-to-themselves people and so I can go puff along with my fat self and no one will really give me grief/that awkward, condescending "congratulations on doing something about your health!" "support."* But it took a lot of nerve to work up to allowing myself to sometimes run in public. Where other people could see me. Where actual runners could see me (and lap me).
Working through that ick is worth it, though. For one, it's just good for your mental health to be outdoors, especially in nature (or in nature-like spaces). For lack of a better term, it's been proven to recharge your mood batteries. For another, it also puts you in better touch with what is comfortable and what your body can handle. When I was running on treadmills, I was really caught up in my pace and the number and staying at a certain pace the whole time rather than staying at a certain comfort level. When you're running in the real world, you can instantly change your pace to match how you're feeling; on a treadmill you've got all those numbers staring you in the face, like a silent, digital version of Jillian Michaels.
Fuck that noise.
3. Be gentle.
Jillian Michaels is a good segue into my next point, which is probably the most controversial. (Good thing I'm an Internet nobody!) But when you're someone like me, who spent a whole lifetime not being a super athlete, pushing yourself too much at the beginning of a new exercise regimen is definitely a bad thing. I would go so far as to say that pushing yourself at all is a bad thing. (At least at first!) Learn to be okay with being slow. Like, really okay. And really slow.
My armchair psychology theory is that when trying to form a new habit that is completely antithetical to everything else you've enjoyed thus far in your life, you need to start at the incredibly, trivially easy level at first. That way you can build up lots of successes and positive associations with the new habit. This theory is based on large part by Elodie Under Glass's post on Captain Awkward about Low Mood Cycles.
When the habit is finally a habit (and I can't say for sure when you will that feeling in your gut like IT'S A HABIT, but maybe after the three month mark?), and you've spent some time enjoying the habit for its own sake, then you can start to push yourself. But to be able to enjoy a challenge, you first need to feel like you have some sense of mastery.
Not to mention that going too hard, too soon will almost definitely lead you into injury, and no one wants that.
4. Ignore the competition. (Even with yourself.)
To quote Cat Ellen, "This body, this day." If you're like me, you haven't spent your whole life being super sporty. A lot of the other people you see out running have. It's still okay to be slow. (There are people who can walk a mile faster than I can currently jog it, I have no doubt.) Movement is movement, and movement is beneficial.
When non-athletic people express frustration or despair over being the slowest runner on the block (or the worst dancer in class, etc.), already-fit people provide encouragement along the lines of, "As long as you are improving and doing better than before, it's all good!" In other words, it's okay to not compete with others, so long as you're competing with yourself. These are the same people who work really hard towards lifting heavier or running faster and who get really excited about new personal records.
I think that attitude is fine for seasoned jocks, but I don't think that's a mindset that's helpful for everyone. If you make your goal to decrease your mile time by a minute, then you will be freaked out if you have a bad run and it feels like you're only getting s-l-o-w-e-r. If you're finally enjoying running for the first time in your life but realize you're not getting much faster, you'll feel like you're somehow doing it wrong.
I like data, so I like to keep a vague track of my mile pace, but I found that when I was working on driving that number down, I was enjoying my runs less. And if I was enjoying my runs less, it would be easy to give up on them entirely. So now I just keep track of the number and let it be what it is. My focus is now on building my endurance so I can jog for longer periods of time at a stretch, which is arguably just a different kind of competition with myself, but even so the first priority is that I listen to my body and have a good run.
Running While Fat: The Actual Game Plan
The Couch to 5K program is wildly popular. This is the one I tried and failed a few times, and I think it's because the program is inherently flawed. At least when it comes to very unathletic people (such as myself)—it's probably just the right program for a reasonably fit person who's just recently become a bit deconditioned. There was a point in time where I could start the first week without a problem, but today...I'm not so sure. There is also some terrible point where you jump from running 8 minutes at a time (something I grew pretty comfortable with) to running 20 minutes. This after the program had previously increased the running intervals by 2 or 3 minutes at most. Maybe there's a physiological or training reason behind it, I don't know, but it's a huge psychic roadblock that I think is to the program's detriment.
For the rest of us who were essentially life-long couch potatoes, I would recommend starting off with Jeff Galloway's conditioning program. (The link is a Word document download; I don't know why he doesn't just put it on a regular web page, but there you have it.) Instead of starting you out with a full minute of jogging, which can be difficult for a lot of people, it starts you out with 5-second intervals every minute and builds up to 15-second intervals. It also builds up your exercise time and distance.
After I finished this, I started on Galloway's 5K training schedule. Note that unlike the Couch to 5K program, he doesn't give recommended running versus walking intervals as the weeks progress. He does suggest some run/walk intervals for different mile times, but to be honest the formatting doesn't exactly make it intuitive to grasp. Running With Karen seems to have screencapped a much easier to understand explanation.
I should note, also, that those paces are estimates; in my experience, they are very optimistic. My 15-minute mile intervals correspond to something like a 16- or 17-minute mile in real life. But it's not a competition; this body, this day.
The intuitive thing would be to start with the "slowest" run/walk/run interval mentioned and then build up from that. So after you've done the conditioning program, move on to running for 30 seconds and then walking for a minute. After you can handle that comfortably, move up to 30 seconds of running and 45 seconds of walking, etc.
I've modified this plan slightly, because I think if you sandwich in a few interval patterns from Couch to 5K, it makes the increase less drastic at the beginning:
1. 30 seconds running / 1 minute walking
2. 30 seconds running / 45 seconds walking
3. 60 seconds running / 90 seconds walking
4. 90 seconds running / 2 minutes walking
5. 2 minutes running / 2 minutes walking
and so on. Note that I haven't tried all of this yet; so far I'm still hanging out comfortably at 60 seconds of running / 90 seconds of walking. Another option would be:
1. 30 seconds running / 1 minute walking
2. 40 seconds running / 1 minute walking
3. 50 seconds running / 90 seconds walking
4. 1 minute running / 90 seconds walking
and so on, if you're really intimidated by the jump from 30 seconds to 60 seconds.
Your best option may even be something I don't have listed here. Feel free to tweak the intervals to something you're comfortable with!
Running While Fat: Supplements
While lots of people might just go out running as their main form of exercise, for non-athletes, I don't think "just running" will work. All those runners have pretty stable, strong leg muscles from years of training; someone just starting out does not. I think strength training is important in general, but I think it's especially important for people beginning a running program. You'll be better at running if your legs are stronger, and if you're better at running you'll want to keep doing it. Strengthening your leg muscles also protects you against injury. Long-time athletes are probably okay just going out for a run every few days, but if you're anything like me (a sedentary nerd), you're going to need a bit more than that.
People like to clutch their pearls over fat people and their knees, but this is a relatively simple problem to solve. If you strengthen your leg muscles, particularly the ones related to knee injuries, then your knees will probably be fine. (See the earlier point about being gentle with yourself, as well; you can avoid most serious injuries by taking it easy.) If you can afford a visit to a physical therapist, I would recommend it. They can assess your movement and see if you have any quirks that might lead to a knee injury (or any other kind!) and provide some exercises you can (most likely) do at home. If you don't have the money or time to see a physical therapist, the Internet has you covered.
My cross-training regimen includes squats, heel raises, leg raises (as recommended in this video), and side leg lifts. I've also been a long-time yoga enthusiast (more on that for another post); since I don't have any prior knee injuries, I've modified my daily Sun Salutations to include tree pose. I actually do this one with my eyes closed—believe it or not it gets a lot tougher! And the struggle to maintain balance is a good way to strengthen the muscles that will protect you against knee injury. (Though note that tree pose is one to strengthen already-healthy knees, not help recover injured ones.)
I don't think anyone's put together a really solid running plan for fat people that takes into account both the physical aspects (which include being really deconditioned and just generally unathletic, regardless of weight) as well as the mental aspects (a life-long aversion or, at best, apathy about movement). I don't think this is the perfect running plan, either. It's not even really a plan. But I hope that by sharing my ideas, I can encourage fellow fatties and non-athletes to learn to like running.
*A lot of ink gets spilled about this, and I don't want to get into the debate in this post, but if you want to make a fat exercising person's day, you probably don't want to go the route I just described.