Learning to Lean into Intuitive Exercise

I just finished delivering my no accountability cycle ride last week so it seemed like an appropriate time to write about how I learned to lean into a more intuitive way of exercising. I am a fitness person. I always have been and I always will be. I remember falling in love with 'Get in Shape Girl' when I was 8. I loved everything about it: twirling the pink ribbon, the little dumbbells, the happy music. I would play the cassette tape and rock out in my pink leotard and matching leg warmers with pure joy.  

I learned to exercise more mindfully by remembering what I loved about exercise in the first place. 

But exercise can be a bit of a slippery slope for me. The concept of too much of a good thing definitely rings true for me here. I became addicted to exercise in college. I stopped exercising for the sheer joy of moving my body and it became about doing so much and pushing so hard. And I had very high expectations. I measured my success in terms of how much cardio I did each day - how many weight training sessions I completed per week - how many classes I taught. And if I had a week where I actually felt good about my 'output', I was hell bent to do it week after week regardless of how my body felt. It became a measure of my worth and I used it to try to prove to myself that I was good enough and strong enough. 

And because I was pushing so hard, my body got to the point where I just couldn't sustain it and I threw in the towel. I stopped all together for a while. Because I have the tendency to be a black and white thinker, I have started and stopped various exercise routines countless times over the years. I have always taught my classes but what I do in addition to that tends to vary. I'm either really aggressive with my training or I pull back completely. But I have recently started to explore the shades of gray with exercise and what I have experienced has been completely liberating and absolutely empowering.

I actually figured all this out through running. I went through a period prior to having children when I started running and was training for various half-marathons. I would improve with each race and it felt pretty awesome. I ran my fastest half-marathon in 2006 - about a year before I got pregnant with my first child. That race was incredible. I had made the connection to the dialogue in my head and my physical performance. I was working on retraining my inner voice in a way that supported me and I finished that race with a time that blew me away. I obliterated my goal and on top of it I felt like I could have gone faster. I wanted to go faster. I was going to go faster. I had it all mapped out in my mind. The following year I was going to do it. I knew the course. I knew my finishing time. I knew my pace. I was determined and I was going to win my age group, damn it. 

But shortly after that race I transitioned into motherhood and my priorities changed. Running and all exercise fell to the back burner and family and kids moved to the front. But I won't lie. I always had a comeback planned. I still had that time and pace in my mind. It was on my vision board.

My body changed a lot after having children. I carried my weight differently. I had an umbilical hernia. I had no endurance and had lost a lot of my strength. I couldn't just go out the door and knock out a few miles because my knees and hips ached every time I ran. I wasn't exactly on track for a comeback. And every time I would start training for this comeback, I felt defeated because I wasn't running as fast or as far as I thought I should. And I slipped into that all or nothing mentality. If I couldn't perform in the way I thought I should or I could, I just wouldn't do it. At all.

But that way of thinking wasn't supportive. Running is an outlet for me - both mentally and physically. So about 2 years ago, I decided to try it again but I decided to take an entirely different approach. I decided to focus on making my body strong so that I can do what makes me feel emotionally and physically strong. I started out slow with a lot of walking. I ditched all forms of accountability. That meant no keeping track of time, pace, or distance. That meant no 'Map My Run' app. No Garmin. Absolutely no form of measurement at all. It was just me, my music, and my thoughts.  

A more mindful and intuitive way of running. Running became a way for me to practice mindfulness through fitness and working out.

And it was a game changer. When I let go of what I thought I should do, I was able to reconnect with everything I loved about running in the first place. Being outside. Moving my body. The music. Getting inside my head.  

These runs became about me feeling strong and becoming stronger. I would work through a visualization where I saw my body running with good form and in perfect alignment so that it was able to do this activity I enjoyed. I visualized my quads and hamstrings working perfectly to support my knees. I saw my glutes and my thighs supporting my hips. I imagined my core was engaged and my back was supported. I would feel my body becoming stronger with each stride.  

I would focus on giving what I could in any given moment. I didn't have a watch so I couldn't judge myself against the numbers on the screen. I pushed hard when I felt good and pulled back when I felt the need to recover. I did what felt right in the moment.  

And you know what?! I am running more consistently than I ever have before and have maintained this consistency for 2 years. I haven't started and stopped like I used to. I still don't use a watch and I still have no clue how far or how fast I am going and I've discovered this really works for me.  

I truly look forward to these runs. I don't do them because I feel like I have to get a certain amount of cardio in or knock out a certain number of miles because I am training for some race. I do them because I enjoy them. They have become a form of active meditation. They are where I get inside my head. Where I figure shit out. These runs are where I rewrite my story.  

So back to the no accountability cycle ride. I like to do this every so often - usually when I need the reminder myself. This last time because I felt myself getting anxious over my workout routine tapering back a bit with the onset of our summer schedule.   

My goal was to recreate my own experience with running and take it into the cycle room. The purpose being to connect riders with their own intuition regarding exercise, bring an awareness of how they feel in any given moment, and ultimately to encourage them to drop the judgment that we so often place on our data and our numbers.  

I cover up the monitors with towels so riders can't see their wattage, distance, or number of calories burned. I ask them for their trust - not just of me as their instructor but most importantly of themselves. And I coach them through an endurance based ride where we shift our focus from the data to something more internal. We reconnect with the fun in group exercise. We focus on retraining that inner voice to lift us up instead of push us down. We ride for the joy of riding.

For more workout motivation, I cover up the monitors of the bikes for our no accountability ride. It is a way to practice mindfulness through fitness and working out.

I always encourage riders to honor their body and do what feels right in the moment because it will all work out in the end. When they feel strong, push hard. When they feel the need to pull back, pull back. And probably the most rewarding thing about doing this ride is that when it is over and the riders take the towels off their monitors, at least one rider reports that he/she actually pushed harder and pulled higher overall numbers than usual.  

We are so much stronger than we realize and so much more capable than we know. But sometimes the data screws with our heads. If our numbers aren't where we feel they should be, our Inner Critic often starts saying some pretty ridiculous things. And consequently, we wind up feeling badly about ourselves and stop listening to our body and engaging in the present moment.

Now please don't get me wrong. I am not against data and measurement. It is fabulous for goal setting and amazing for quantifying your success. But it's what we ATTACH to our numbers that I think we need to become more mindful and more aware of.

When we slip into the all or nothing mentality. When that Inner Critic tries to convince us that we aren't strong enough or good enough because we didn't do enough. When it becomes a measure of our worth or what we feel we are capable of. That's when we must check ourselves. That's when it is imperative that we reassess and take a different approach.

My challenge to you is to become aware of you interact with your data. What does your Inner Critic say when you don't hit your target? How do you measure yourself against the numbers? Is what you notice supportive? If it isn't, could you pull away from the data for a day? Could you take off the Fit Bit? Maybe resist the urge to step the scale? Just see what happens when you become a little more mindful and lean into a more intuitive way of being.  

For a little workout motivation, remember this: you are so much stronger than you realize and so much more capable than you know. But sometimes the numbers can get us down. Become aware of what you attach to your data.