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When the ground shifts: lessons from my treadmill

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

During the coronavirus pandemic, I have limited my daily physical exercise to activities I can do outside or in my basement. Most weekdays, I use a fitness app on my phone to guide me through strength and running workouts; and as a gal pretty intolerant to high heat and humidity, this summer I’ve logged most of those miles on my treadmill. I’ve consistently put in the work, and I’ve reached new strength, speed, and distance thresholds. It’s been fun.

Yesterday, just two days after finishing one of my most successful treadmill workouts, I stepped back on the belt, headphones in, my app’s running coach talking to me about the plan for the day: a thirty-minute endurance run split into three 10-minute intervals. No problem.

Except there was a problem. About six minutes in, I started getting fatigued. Despite the encouragement and cheers flooding in from my coach, it felt harder than usual. Halfway through, during one of the more intense and faster parts of the workout, I got winded quickly and had to adjust my speed back in order to finish the interval. My eyes were on the clock much more than usual, looking forward to the end, something I rarely do. With just five minutes left, I found myself wanting to quit early. I stayed the course. When the coach congratulated me on finishing, I lowered the speed to a walking pace to cool down, grateful to have finished, and also really self-critical:

Did I not get enough sleep last night? Maybe I didn’t eat enough earlier today, or maybe I didn’t get enough water pre-workout. Did I overdo it on my last workout? Maybe I’m sick. What is wrong with me?

There are two panels on the screen of my treadmill – one for speed and one for incline. When I was ready to step off, I went to adjust the speed to zero, but accidentally pressed the zero button on the incline panel. I shook my head, correcting myself. As I did, I heard the familiar sound of the treadmill lowering itself. Wait. What?

The entire time I was running, the treadmill had been on an incline. I had been running uphill. It was slight enough that it didn’t signal ‘hill’ from the way my feet hit so I didn’t question it. Thirty minutes running uphill is quite a bit different from thirty minutes running on flat ground. No wonder it felt harder. It felt harder because it was harder.

I don’t have to tell you that the ground we’ve all been running on lately is drastically different. This pandemic has shifted the way we do everything, leaving nothing untouched. Things that we used to navigate easily, like going to church or getting to the dentist, now require more from us, if we’re able to access them at all. Meanwhile, many are struggling, and we find ourselves getting anxious more frequently and experiencing an internal state of angst that we not otherwise feel from the day-to-day stressors we face. It feels harder because it is harder. The ground has shifted beneath us.

So, what do we do?

First, be careful how quickly you question (blame) yourself. Hills are hard, even when you’re strong. When I was struggling on the treadmill, I was critical of my preparation, my health, my capacity. But I hadn’t changed – the ground I was running on had. Remember, you’re not immune to changes in your circumstances. Pay attention when something feels off or different than usual but you think it shouldn't. Evaluate your environment to understand what has changed around you before you blame yourself.

Second, give yourself permission to show up differently. The moment we’re in right now is unlike the moment we were in a year ago. If we meet it with the same tactics, we’re bound to come up short. Think about the approach you're taking to a problem, situation, or experience and ask yourself: Does this approach fit now? Be ready to adapt and know that it is not only ok to do so, it's probably necessary.

Third, make a plan for how you will reduce your speed and intensity. For me, that means spending time with the people, places, and things that keep me grounded. I am making regular phone calls to old friends, baking regularly, writing, and scheduling regular breaks from my work to go outside. What helps you slow down and notice what matters to you? List one or two of your most powerful helpers and refer to them when you feel out of control.

None of these strategies will change our circumstances, but they do make it possible for us to survive them physically and emotionally, and perhaps emerge stronger on the other side.

What plan can you make today to survive and sustain your energy for the journey?

Special thanks to friend and editor, Trish Boyles, for providing meaningful ways to apply these lessons in real life.

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