Monday, June 29, 2015

Roller Derby Will Break Your Heart Sometimes

Last night was our last bout of the home team season, my third season with the DC Rollergirls.  My team didn't make it to the championship this year.  We played for third place and lost, finishing fourth.  It's not the losing that makes me sad.  The score was close the whole time, we played a really good game and had fun.  No, it's not the losing.  It's all the leaving.

When I was drafted into the league in the fall of 2012, there were twelve of us in my meat class.  Three years later, only five of us are still here.

When I look at my team's roster from that year, only six of us finished this year on skates.  And last night was the last bout for at least four of them.

I didn't bother counting up the other skaters who got drafted over the last three seasons and are no longer skating with us.  It's too depressing.

A fair number of them simply moved away--some are playing for other leagues--but others retired altogether.  Roller derby is tough.  People get injured.  They get burned out from balancing their day jobs and other life commitments with a sport that takes so much time and mental energy.  (Never having an off season contributes to this, but tonight is not the night to get on my soapbox about how idiotic that is.)

Tonight, I'm just sad.  I'm feeling sorry for myself.  I've written many times about how hard it is for me to open up to people, to trust them, to make friends.  My teammates are the closest friends I have.  And even though I'm not that close with all of them outside of derby, I respect and care about each of them so much.  Every single retirement makes me sad.  Retirement en masse is even worse.

There have been other losses this spring, too.  Nothing to blog about, just variations on the usual themes.  But the confluence of all these goodbyes has really shaken me.  I feel like after all this time in DC--it will be six years this fall--I am almost as rootless as I was when I arrived.  Emily Dickinson said, "Hope is the thing with feathers."  No disrespect to Emily, but I personally have never heard a bird sing in a hurricane.  I suppose hope is what allows us to be vulnerable and to take emotional risks.  But watching all these people go makes it hard to risk feeling hopeful.  It really does.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Considering Some Data

In February 2009, Brian took my measurements.  At that point, I weighed 174 pounds, 31 less than my heaviest weight of 205.  I've held onto those measurements all these years, my baseline data, even though it wasn't really a baseline since I never had my measurements taken at my heaviest.

In September 2013 when I started weightlifting, I weighed 147 pounds, my lowest weight since high school.  I didn't have anyone take my measurements, so once again I have no baseline for comparing how my body composition changed after I started lifting.  What I do know is that since then I have gained 14 pounds, weighing in this morning at 159.  I'd like to think a good portion of that weight is muscle.

Tonight I met with a personal trainer at my gym to discuss a program for my two-month roller derby off-season coming up in July and August.  (More on this coming soon.)  I asked him if he'd take my measurements, not because I am expecting any major changes in body composition in two months, but because it's high time I collected some more data.  I wanted to see how my numbers have changed since February 2009, and a year from now as I continue to get stronger, I'd like to see how they continue to change.

I have to say, the changes were not as dramatic as I thought they would be, but maybe that is just because I am really only 15 pounds lighter now than I was in 2009.  Still, when you consider how much stronger I have gotten since then, I would have expected more dramatic changes.

Here's a summary:

  • Body fat percentage decreased from 36% to 34.7%.
  • Waist decreased 2.25 inches.
  • Left quad increased by 2.25 inches.  (This is a good thing, since that is absolutely muscle gain.  Yay!)
  • Left bicep increased by half an inch.  Also a good thing, I think.
About that body fat percentage: I really thought my body fat percentage would have decreased more than it has.  The American Council on Exercise says that an "acceptable" body fat percentage for women is 25-31%.  They consider 32% obese.  Of course, "obese" is a loaded word with a lot of fat-shaming baggage attached to it, so I can't say I'm thrilled to have it applied to me.

Of course, the little body fat calculating machine that was used to take this measurement is not as accurate as the old-school skin-fold caliper method.  My trainer said it could be plus or minus 5%, which means I might not be obese after all.  Whatever.

Meanwhile, my BMI puts me in the "overweight" range.  Back in 2009, my BMI classification was "obese" so at least now I am only obese on one measure.  I think it is interesting that people are always saying BMI is unreliable if you have a lot of muscle mass, but in my case I am doing better on BMI than I am on body fat percentage.  (This article does a pretty good job of explaining body fat measurements and BMI, and the limitations of each.)

I say to myself that these numbers and labels should not matter.  Especially because the numbers show a positive trend, even if the trend line is not as steep as I would like it to be.  Nevertheless, I am confronted with these numbers at the same time that I am eating more, and still freaking out about it a little bit, and feeling fat pretty much every day even though the numbers on the scale confirm daily that the fear in my mind does not match the reality in my body.

Even so, I had this one moment when I was talking with my trainer today.  I had just finished explaining everything I want to do this summer.  It is a lot, and it seems a little crazy and overwhelming to me.  There's my power lifting program three times a week, individual skating practice, HIIT, plus the personal training for some extra core, balance and agility.  And it was clear that this guy was taking me seriously.  He was looking right at me, and he did not see an obese, forty-year old lady who was overreaching with her summer goals.  He saw an athlete.  And the truth is, body fat percentages and calorie-tracking angst aside, I feel like an athlete.  Whatever the numbers say, I know I am fitter and stronger now than I have been at any other time in my life.  If I can focus on holding onto that feeling, and doing the things I need to do to be an even better athlete, the numbers will take care of themselves.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

May Review and June Goals

My only goal for May was to stay consistent with my workout schedule and my nutrition.  Here's how I did:

Nutrition:  I tracked my weight and calories every day except the few I was out of town and didn't have access to a scale.  So now I have a whole month's worth of data (having failed to save part of last month's data.)  I averaged 2,661 calories per day, and my weight fluctuated about 2.5 pounds over the course of the month, averaging 159.  The fluctuation is consistent with last month, but the average is a little higher than last month's average of 157 based on my limited April data.  Did I build some muscle, or am I eating too much?  Actually, I think I skated less, which means I wasn't burning as many calories as usual through cardio.  Whatever the reason, I think I can bring my calories down to 2,500 a day and be fine nutrition-wise, so I am going to work on that in June.  I want to get stronger, but I also want to stay in my current weight class for power lifting, so I am aiming to keep my weight where it is now.

Workouts:   I got all my lifting workouts in this month.  Lifting is going so much better now that I'm eating more!  Yesterday was my heavy day, and I was very happy with how I did.  I got 210 for three reps on squat, which beats my best lift of 209 from the competition in December.  I got 102.5 for three on bench, and 235 for five on dead lift.

I only attended 3 of 6 practices in May, but I also got a lot of skating in at the Northeast Derby Convention, a three-day roller derby convention in Providence.  I also learned a ton and am very glad I went.

I got my HIIT workouts in two of four weeks.  The weeks I missed were bout week and the week I was in Rhode Island, so that's not too bad.

June Goals

June is the last month of the roller derby home team season, and it's going to be a crazy one.  I'm headed to Texas for work, skating in three bouts, and attending East Coast Derby Extravaganza in Philly.  Whee!  I have plotted out my schedule, and I will definitely miss a few practices and lifting days.  For this month, I'm just going to try to keep calm and follow my plan.  I'm planning to take July and August off from derby, so I will also be working on putting together a good off season training plan that will prepare me for next season.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Post-Workout Carb Equation

I've shared the recovery snack carb equation from the Why Food Works blog before.  It's an equation that tells you how many grams of carbs your body needs to recover from a workout.  The truth, though, is that after I got all excited and shared it, I basically ignored it.  What happened was, I did the calculation and thought I must have made some sort of math error because I did not understand how I could possibly eat that many carbs in one meal.

I weigh about 155 pounds, or 70 kg.  Plug that into the carb equation for a two-hour roller derby practice and you end up with 98 grams of carbs.  Which is a lot.

The first thing I did to increase my post-training carb intake was to change my post-workout snack.  I've been drinking protein powder post-workout for a couple of years now, and I know it's important to get that protein in during the 30-minute recovery window.  (Another thing I learned from Why Food Works.)  But the carbs are important, too.  So lately I've been eating a Luna protein bar, which has 12 grams of protein and 21 grams of carbs.  Before the Luna bars, I tried Quest Bars, which a lot of people really like, and which have about as much protein as a protein drink plus about 25 grams of carbs.  Sadly, I think they are kind of disgusting, although sometimes I can force one down.

My post-workout dinner lately has been oatmeal, followed by whole-grain waffles with Nutella for dessert.  (Incidentally, I also eat a small pre-workout dinner with some protein and carbs, like some turkey and black bean soup with rice, or egg salad on toast.  Since I often don't get home from the gym or practice until sometime between 9:00 and 11:00 pm, I would get too hungry if I waited to have all of my dinner after working out.)

It's harder to estimate how many carbs I need after strength training.  How do you plug a strength training session, where you might be in the gym for 70 or 80 minutes but only lifting for 20 of those minutes, into the recovery equation?  So I basically just eat the same thing on lifting days and figure it can't hurt.

I fear that I may be starting to sound like a broken record about the carbs, but as I have mentioned before, I never tried to eat low carb, and I continue to be amazed by the degree to which I was under-eating them without even knowing it.  And I should have known it because I had the recovery equation the whole time, but I ignored it!  So the moral of the story is listen to science.  And eat more potatoes.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Advice for New Skaters

It's a great time of year to start learning how to skate and how to play roller derby.  The weather is getting nice, which means you can practice your skills outside.  In DC, we're running a boot camp for new skaters, and one of my friends, who is learning to play men's derby, has been attending!  It is so exciting to see people just getting started on this crazy journey that is roller derby.  I've written advice for new skaters on here before, but all the recent derby talk with my friend has made me want to share some things I wish someone had told me when I started learning to skate.

Skate a lot, but not so much you forget to cross train.  I used to tell new skaters, "skate less, cross train more," but that is an oversimplification.  You do need to spend a lot of time on skates when you're learning.  Even an extra hour or two per week of focused practice outside of boot camp or whatever training program you have in your city will result in big improvement.

Cross train!  People come to derby with different fitness levels.  Maybe you already run or play some other sports, or maybe you're like I was and are just getting back into fitness after years of doing nothing.  Either way, cross training is important!  First of all, if you're just getting back into shape, you will need to establish a baseline of cardiovascular fitness so that when you start doing scrimmages and endurance practices, you can keep up without feeling like you're going to die.

Second, strength training is essential to prevent injuries and to improve your skills.  In the first several years of my derby training, I saw corresponding gains in my skating skills every time I took on a new strength training challenge.  I started with the Roller Derby Workout video and soon got better at crossovers and faster at my time trials.  After that came boot camp fitness classes, which improved my speed and balance, then power lifting, which made me faster and harder to knock down.  (A resource that didn't exist when I started, or if it did, I didn't know about it, is Roller Derby Athletics, and I've heard good things about these derby-specific workouts.)

Third, I would recommend doing something to improve flexibility.  I haven't followed this advice very well yet, so this is a new frontier for me, too.  Yoga can strengthen your core and help you open your hips, which is important for mohawks, transitions and hitting.  It also takes a certain amount of flexibility just to get low in derby stance.

Buy the best helmet and knee pads you can afford.  With regard to helmets, you only have one brain.  Concussions are real.  They can ruin your brain and end your derby career if you get enough of them.  Enough said.  (I wear a Bauer hockey helmet.)

As for knee pads, I spent my first year of skating wearing a $20 pair of knee pads.  My knees were purple all the time, and I thought that meant I was a badass.  It really just meant I was broke and dumb.  Eventually I bought a pair of good knee pads, which can run you about $70, and it felt like falling on a pillow.  After the helmet, good knee pads are by far the best equipment investment you will make.  (I like TSG Force knee pads, but you should try on a few brands because the high profile of different pads can be uncomfortable and get in the way of your crossovers, so try some on and see what feel the best.)  While you're at it, get the gaskets, too.  Nothing sucks more than having your knee pad slide down so the $70 cushion doesn't protect your knee.  Gaskets will keep that from happening

Don't compare yourself to other people.  There is going to be one person in your fresh meat class who seems to turn into a superstar overnight.  Maybe it will be you.  Or maybe you'll be like me and have to struggle over long periods of time for every little bit of improvement you can get.  Either way, don't spend your emotional energy comparing your skills to everyone else's.  Spend your energy getting better at roller derby.  Celebrate other skaters' successes and learn from them.  When you have something to teach someone else, share it.  This is a team sport, and helping each other helps the team.

Roller derby is not a poem.  You'll get a lot of feedback when you're learning.  Once upon a time when I was an English major, I learned how to take feedback in writing workshop, which is where your writing teacher and classmates critique something you've written, in my case poems.  I learned very quickly that the best writers kept their mouths shut and listened during workshop.  They didn't defend their choices, they didn't attempt to explain what they had been trying to do with their poems, they just took everything in.  They ultimately might decide not to act on all of the feedback they received, but listening to everything meant they could more easily hear the feedback that would help them because they were not distracted by defending their writing choices.

Roller derby is not a poem.  Nevertheless, the writing workshop approach to accepting feedback will serve you well as a new skater.  Listen to feedback.  Try to do what your trainers are telling you.  Say "ok" to show that you're listening, or "thank you" to show that you appreciate the help, or ask a clarifying question if you don't understand how to do what the trainer is saying.  Sometimes, your body will be incapable of doing what the trainer wants you to do.  This used to happen to me (and still does), and I find this the most frustrating feedback situation of all.  My response in this situation is usually to say ruefully, "I know...I just need to practice more."

And of course that's really the key to everything.  Just get out there and practice.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

April Review and May Goals

My only goals for April were to follow the workout schedule I'd laid out for myself and to track my calories using my fancy macro-tracking spreadsheet.  Here's a basic overview of how things went in April:

Eating all the food!  I tracked my calories and weighed myself every single day in April.  I have never done this, ever in my life.  Of course, I didn't realize until halfway through the month that every week when I re-set the spreadsheet I was losing all that data.  (You would expect more from someone whose job is all about data, I know.)  So I don't have good averages for the month.  I think my average calories were about 2,600.  My average weight since I got smart halfway through the month and started keeping the data was 157.5, which is right where it should be.  (I got a new scale partway through the month, and the new scale weighs two pounds heavier than the old scale.  I started the month weighing 155 on the old scale, so 157 on the new scale.)

On a recent podcast I heard Nia Shanks say something like, "Women who are trying to get stronger  have to let go of having skinny days."  That rang true for me.  My weight really didn't fluctuate all that much over the course of the month, about 2.5 pounds, but I guess when you eat more you carry more water, so the only days I felt skinny were when I caught a stomach bug last weekend.  Tuesday morning was my bad body image moment of the month. I looked wistfully at the mirror and thought, I look so good when I'm dehydrated.  Oh well.

This morning on the Barbell Shrugged podcast, I heard someone say something like, "If you're not vaguely sickened at the thought of eating the next plate of food in front of you, you're not eating enough." That also rang true.  Eating a lot is hard, and sometimes you have to eat when you're not hungry, which goes against everything I have tried to teach this body of mine over the last seven years.  I'm still working on figuring out what to eat to avoid that feeling while hitting my macros.  I do think bringing my average calories closer to 2,500 would help.

While we're on the subject of podcasts, Nia Shanks also recently had someone from Examine.com, a website that summarizes scientific evidence on nutrition topics, on her show, and he said that the evidence shows that even athletes trying to build muscle don't need more than .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, so that has prompted me to reduce my protein goal slightly, which I hope will make it a bit easier to get some more carbs in.

Working out!  I made it to every single practice this month except one, which I missed because of the stomach flu.  It has been at least a year since my attendance percentage was that high, so that's pretty great.  Also, I got all my strength training workouts in every single week except bout week.  Finally, some consistency there.  Lastly, I did my extra HIIT workout every week except bout week.  So I'm feeling good about getting my workouts back on track, and my only goal for May is to keep up the consistency, on both the nutrition and workout fronts, through another month and see where that gets me.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Baltimore

In the last few months of 2014, I alluded a few times to what I called my “secret trauma,” an experience I didn’t intend to blog about, mostly because I didn’t want my parents to read it and worry about me.  But there is some crazy shit happening up the road in Baltimore, and I find that this “secret trauma” is the one experience that colors, more than any other, my thoughts about what is going on there.  So today I’m going to write about it.  If you’re reading this, don’t tell my mom.  Seriously.

Last September I was assaulted and robbed while walking home from the metro in my neighborhood.  I knew it was going to happen as soon as I saw the two men ahead of me on the sidewalk, and I was prepared to let them take my purse and go.  But instead of grabbing my purse, one of them grabbed me around the neck, and then I wasn’t so sure it was just my purse they wanted, and so I fought back as best I could, which wasn’t very well.  (True Fact: It doesn’t matter how much you can squat or dead lift when someone grabs you around the neck and throws you on the ground.)

Eventually they escaped with my purse, and I escaped with some minor scrapes and bruises and a lot of emotional trauma.  I remember the first time I walked to my bus stop after it happened.  As I stood there in broad daylight looking up the street for my bus, I caught some movement behind me out of the corner of my eye and jumped, terrified.  It was two teenage girls on their way to school, and I stood there at my bus stop weeping until the bus came.

For several weeks after it happened, everyone in my neighborhood felt menacing.  I crossed the street many, many times to avoid encountering anyone who looked even a little bit like one of my attackers.  I knew it was irrational and offensive, but my pounding heart and surging adrenaline would not listen to reason, and I did it anyway.

Eventually, I began to feel some empathy for the men who attacked me.  As I processed the trauma of a random, isolated event, I thought about what life must be like for children born into the daily traumas of poverty, violence and absence of opportunity.  I thought about my two attackers as scared children.  I thought about all the terrible things that might have happened to them growing up, and it wasn’t hard to understand how they could have ended up on that street with me one night in September.

A couple months later, I started dating a cop.  (It didn’t last long.)  One afternoon I went to meet him after he got off duty.  We stopped at a strip mall Starbucks and passed a group of kids loitering.  Still in uniform, he walked up and hassled them about why they weren’t in school.  They seemed scared and harmless, and this was just days after the Ferguson protests, and I thought it was unnecessary.  Afterwards I said, “I’m glad we didn’t have too many cops in my hometown when I was a teenager.”  I saw him bristle, but he deflected the comment, and we got our coffee.   A week or two after that he called me and said he’d spent the afternoon responding to a shooting.  A teenage boy had been killed.  He said, “If he’d been in school like he should have been, he’d still be alive.” 

When my cop friend talked about insomnia and nightmares, I asked if he’d ever seen a counselor.  No, he didn’t want to talk about it.  I thought about how reactive my fear had made me in the days and weeks after one violent incident.  I thought about that morning when two high school girls made me jump out of my skin at the bus stop.  I wondered how anyone could face fear and violence every single day and not be traumatized by it, and then I imagined legions of traumatized cops who didn’t want to talk about it carrying that kind of primal fear out into the streets with them day after day.

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know I have a three-part philosophy:

1. Fear and shame are terrible motivators.  Fear and shame are, of course, the products of trauma, and traumatized people do not always make good decisions when driven by those emotions.  Exhibit A: Baltimore. 

2. Honesty is the antidote to fear and shame.  I think of the cop who didn’t want to talk and the traumatized children growing into young men fluent only in the language of violence. 

3. Love conquers all.  I think of the clergy marching peacefully through the streets of Baltimore. I heard, once, that you don’t find God at the center of horror and tragedy, you find God in the way people respond to horror and tragedy with love.

I don’t know…I’m even less qualified to give social commentary than I am to give fitness advice.  And I’m sure my personal observations greatly oversimplify the legacy of systematic oppression at work in Baltimore and all around the country.  I’m just a white girl from Maine, after all.  But what I know about human experience is this:  Damage to one part of our human ecosystem inevitably damages other parts of that system, even if we don’t always see it.  Sometimes I feel like we are all just a bunch of wounded people wandering through a maze of invisible trauma.  And how do any of us manage to conduct ourselves with any grace at all in that kind of environment?


Walking to my bus stop this morning, I found myself wanting to hug everyone in my neighborhood.  The cops on the corner, the disheveled guy who hangs out on the bench most of the day, the kids on their way to school. I’m not an expert, but I think you can’t go wrong too many times in life responding to trauma with love, and today it felt important to say that.