Friday, July 17, 2015

Off-Season Existentialism

It doesn’t happen to me very often anymore, now that I am so long settled into a regular fitness routine in a city that is no longer new to me.  These moments of disbelief and gratitude.  I felt it last night walking to meet Nellie for our track workout.  It’s almost like an out-of-body experience when it happens:  I can remember so clearly what it felt like to be living my sad, disappointing, sedentary life in Maine and dreaming of something different.  Maybe I’d travel somewhere for work and see other women my age jogging past me on the sidewalk, or headed somewhere in their fancy work clothes.  I’d wonder, how did they get here?  And how did I get so stuck in a life I never wanted for myself?  The gulf between those (probably very ordinary) women and me seemed so great.  I had no idea how to bridge it.  I didn’t even believe it was possible.

Every once in awhile I remember how far I have traveled, and I am grateful.

This fall will mark six years of living in DC.  The first of those three years were full of upheaval: the divorce and its emotional aftermath, the move, the new job, the illness that eventually resulted in surgery.  The last three years I’ve spent as a DC Rollergirl.  Despite the apparent glamour, it’s not always an easy thing to be.  Like most truly extraordinary experiences, there’s a lot going on in the shadows: The relationships that fail because you only have time for a date once every three weeks.  The non-derby friends who drift out of your life because you keep canceling plans.  All the basic life activities you don’t have time for—sleep, grocery shopping, reading a book, the occasional cultural activity. 

Sometimes I wonder if roller derby is my life, or just a way to avoid life. 

Even now that I’m in my off-season and have a little more free time, I’m still working out four nights a week.  It occurs to me I’ve built a very nice wall of activity around myself these last three years.  It occurs to me that I may be just as invisible behind that wall than I ever was in my old body.  The extra time I’ve had lately has made me feel unmoored.  I see space opening up in my life, and it scares me.  What is there to fill it?  What if there’s nothing there to fill it?

It’s only temporary space, though, isn’t it?  This off-season won’t last long.  I think about balance.  Is that what I want?  I’ve always thought that balance is overrated.  Just another word for mediocrity.

I think about those dark days in Maine.  There was never a time I couldn’t visualize something different for myself.  I didn’t know how to get there, but I could always imagine where I wanted to be.  Now I can’t imagine anything beyond this routine of mine, which once seemed unattainable but now feels ordinary.

I know what I don’t want though.  I don’t want to live behind walls.  I don’t want to live in a box.

I think I need to open a window.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

My Off-Season Training Plan, Part 2: Professional Help

After getting my updated power lifting program from Frak and reading up on all the personal trainers at my awesome gym, I approached Michael Ungar because he specializes in Olympic lifting and sports conditioning.  I figured he'd understand what I was trying to accomplish with my power lifting program and would also know the best off season derby training.  When I met with him, I told him I wanted to:
  • Follow my power lifting program in order to prepare for a fall competition
  • Add additional derby-specific training that might not be addressed in the power lifting program
  • Figure out a conditioning program, including my regular Wednesday track workout with Nellie, to make sure my endurance is where it needs to be when I return to skating
  • Skate twice a week, focusing on footwork and agility
I told Michael I wanted to maximize efficiency so I didn't spend my entire summer in the gym, but that I could hire him to train me once a week.  I honestly wasn't sure if it would be possible to fit this all together without killing me--it seemed like a lot.  Michael took a few days to put it all together, and he came back to me with a program I can do all by myself.  (I was pretty surprised he didn't want to take my money once a week, but happy to save the money and really pleased with the program he put together.  He said if I was having trouble with it, I could always hire him for a couple sessions to make sure I was doing everything right.)

Derby-Specific Strength Training
Michael gave me additional derby-specific strength training exercises to add onto each of my regular power lifting days.  (No extra days in the gym that way!)  These are all lower weight, higher volume exercises (generally 3 sets of 10 reps per exercise) that isolate smaller muscles or muscle groups.  Michael grouped them into supersets, which maximizes efficiency.  There's core work (plank and situp variations), which you would expect for derby.  There's quite a bit of upper body work, which Michael explained would help stabilize the shoulders and neck to prevent injuries.  I had never really thought of upper body training as being important for derby because we focus so much on our legs and hips, but we do a lot of jostling with our shoulders, too, and the sport definitely has its share of shoulder injuries.  And he said strengthening the neck would help with stability if you get hit in the head, which also happens.  It made perfect sense as soon as he explained it to me.  Lastly, there are some single leg exercises, like box step-ups and reverse lunges, which help with both balance and power.  

It's perfect.  I love it.  Well, to be honest, I am not crazy about all the low rep, high volume stuff.  That stuff is the reason I used to hate strength training before I started lifting heavy.  It is painful and boring!  Even so, understanding how each exercise is important for derby makes a huge difference.  I might not love every exercise, but I know why I'm doing them.  And I'm already in the gym doing my power lifting anyway, so it's not like I have to make a special trip.

I told Michael I wanted to keep doing my weekly track workout with Nellie.  (As much for the social time as for the conditioning.)  He said that was fine and that our 200-meter sprints would be my "long distance" for the week.  

My second conditioning workout is sprints on the Airdyne bike.  He gave me a progression for the next eight weeks and told me to do all the reps even if they are slow and painful.  Week 1, last week, was 8 sets of 15 seconds sprinting at 100% effort followed by 45 seconds of slow pedaling, aka active rest.  Yesterday's workout was 8 sets of 30 seconds with 60 seconds active rest.  It was so hard!  But I shall persevere.

Michael said in August I should add a third conditioning day--another bike day or short (15 second) sprints on the track.  

Here's a video that shows a very fit lady doing Airdyne sprints and looking like she's going to die.  It makes me feel better about myself because that is how I feel when I do them, too:

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

My Off-Season Training Plan, Part 1: Power Lifting

I'm taking July and August off from roller derby to give myself a real, albeit still rather short, off-season.  This is the longest break I have taken from roller derby since at least the spring of 2012.

My off-season training plan has a lot of pieces to it.  I was a bit overwhelmed by all the moving parts until I turned to a personal trainer at my gym to help me put it all together.  (More on that next time.)  But before turning to the trainer, I asked to Frak to update my power lifting plan. I am hoping to do another competition in the fall sometime, so the off-season is a great opportunity to put lifting front and center.

The program I have been following for many months now is a modified version of a lifting program called the Texas Method.  It's a three-day-a-week program with high volume the first day, assistance work the second day, and heavy lifts the third day, although I have been known to divide up the accessory work and do half on volume day and half on heavy day when I don't have time to get to the gym three times a week.

But now I am on derby break and have no excuse for not getting to the gym three times a week!  Which means that Frak was able to beef up the program a little bit more.  Here's the plan:

Volume Day:
Squat and bench are both 5 sets x 5 reps at 85% of whatever weight I lifted on my preceding heavy day.  This is basically the same as it was before except the percentage is adjusted (from 90% to 85%) because my heavy day is getting heavier.  Frak added Romanian dead lifts for 3x8.  I had only been dead lifting on my heavy day, so adding this variation will help improve my form, strengthen my back and get me a little more dead lift volume.

Accessory day includes front squat, overhead press, dumbbell row and lateral pull-down, all of which I had been doing already most weeks, plus dumbbell bench.

Intensity Day
My intensity day was one set of five heavy reps for squat, bench and dead lift.  Frak told me to add 5-10 pounds and instead to do two sets of three reps.  I'm making this switch for my next heavy session.  Because my June lifting schedule was so erratic, I wanted to get one good, solid heavy day under the old program to build my confidence before adding more weight.  I did that last Friday and was pleased with my progress.  I did 210 for squat, which is one pound more than my one rep max at the competition I did in December, plus 102.5 for bench and 240 for dead lift.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

My Off-Season Training Plan, Part 3: The Whole Package

Power lifting, derby-specific lifting, conditioning and skating.  When you put it all together, here's how it breaks down.

Monday - Lifting (evening)
Tuesday - Conditioning on bike (morning); Skating (evening)
Wednesday - Lifting (morning); Track workout (evening)
Thursday - Rest
Friday - Lifting (evening)
Saturday - Skating (morning)
Sunday - Rest

When I met with Michael he asked, "What time do you go to work?"  When I told him 9:30 am, he said, "You can definitely get in here in the morning, then."  While I'm not a morning person, there really isn't any way to fit everything together and still allow adequate time for recovery without the morning workouts.  Since roller derby is the single biggest impediment to my sleep schedule--I often do not fall asleep until 1:00 or 2:00 am on nights when I have practice--the biggest issue with my sleep is removed during the off season.

I'm super excited by all the rest days in this program.  Michael was adamant that I should not do anything except mobility (optional, but recommended) on Thursday.  I also love that after my heavy lifting night on Friday and skating Saturday morning, I get a good solid 48+ hours of rest before my volume workout Monday night.  Also, my weekends are almost entirely free!  I can have a social life!  It's an off-season miracle!

The other nice thing about my Tuesday morning workout is that it's short.  If I get up at 6:00, have a quick breakfast and my coffee (absolutely necessary), I can get to the gym by about 7:30.  My bike workout is over in 15-20 minutes.  This means that I can take some extra time after that for a good mobility session with the foam roller and lacrosse ball before I have to shower and go to work.  Sweet.

I'm not sure where I will add the additional conditioning workout in August.  I'm thinking maybe I will add it to my Saturday morning skating session.  I could just run some sprints or do some HIIT intervals on skates, for that matter.  We'll see how I feel.

Easing Into the Program
Given that this is a lot of new stuff all at once, I decided to ease into things a little bit.  Last week I added all the derby-specific strength training and the bike workout, and I did my track workout with Nellie.  This week I'm adding in the skating and upping the intensity a little bit on some of the strength exercises.  In a few weeks, possibly even before August rolls around, I'll add the extra conditioning.

June Review and July Goals

I knew that June was going to be crazy, and my only goal was to keep calm and follow my training plan.

Before I get into all the ways the month fell apart, here is a highlight:  I was asked to skate in a bout with the travel B-team, the National Maulers, the team I played for last year but was cut from back in January.  (They were short skaters due to injury, etc.)  So that was gratifying.  I was exceptionally nervous before the bout.  It surprised me because with the exception of my first season with DCRG, when I was constantly worried about screwing up and making everyone hate me (not that anyone would have actually hated me, but you know, mind tricks...), I don't usually get nervous before bouts.

I was just really worried I wouldn't play well and would prove that cutting me had been a good decision.  I was worried all the way up until the first whistle, but then I forgot all about it and had fun.  I had forgotten how much fun it is playing for the Maulers!  You get to play with people you usually play against on other home teams, plus you get to play with some of the people from your own home team in a different setting.  I had a great time, and I played well.  I felt good about it.  It made me feel optimistic about trying out again next year.

Skating with the National Maulers!  Photo courtesy of Pablo Raw

And now the low-lights.  Despite my best intentions, with all the travel and bouting I did in June, the plan kind of fell apart.

Skating:  I missed practice when I went to Texas for work.  I missed more practice when I went to Philadelphia, ironically, for the East Coast Derby Extravaganza.  I missed even more practice after I hit my head one day at practice.  (I didn't have any concussion symptoms, but I had a sore neck for awhile and took about a week off from skating just to be safe.)  I skated six times during the month--and two of those were bouts.

Lifting:  I couldn't stay on a lifting schedule in June.  I only lifted six times the whole month.  If nothing else, I tried to do my volume day every week figuring that would at least provide some consistency.  It wasn't ideal, but I think it worked out ok.  I did my first heavy lifting day in two weeks on Friday, and it was a good solid effort.

Nutrition:  The problem with planning your nutrition for a schedule that has you skating 2-3 times a week and lifting 2-3 times a week is that when your schedule becomes erratic, you may be slow to adjust your nutrition accordingly.  I felt like my nutrition was just as erratic as everything else in June.  To make matters worse, I have really been struggling with body image lately.  I guess it's just the fear of eating more finally settling in now that the initial excitement of all the carbs has worn off, coupled with feeling slightly out of control about life in general this past month.  It didn't help that some stranger in the park walked up and congratulated me on my pregnancy one day last week, though.  That is not what you want to hear when you are already silently hating yourself a little.

Oh well.  Onward!  July is here.  I've already started my off-season training plan and will be writing more about that soon.  This month I am working on consistency and recovery.  My goals are to stick to my training plan and to establish a consistent sleep schedule.  The latter means getting up at the same time every morning, which is easier when roller derby is not keeping you up until the wee hours a couple of nights a week.  Because my training plan includes a couple of morning workouts, it also means getting up at 6:00 am, which is not easy for me, but I have done it in the past before I started skating with DCRG and was getting up to run in the mornings.  This past week I made a real effort to get to bed before 11:00 and to stay off the computer/phone/iPad for at least an hour before that.  Turns out there are these things called books you can read before you fall asleep.  I had almost forgotten.

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.