Last week, hiking up a normally easy slope with a friend, I laughed nervously and made the corny, reused joke: "This mountain got taller since last time I hiked it."
It's not normal for me to be out of breath easily. The truth dawned on me suddenly: I've fallen out of shape. Me?! Me.
Over time, I've become used to having a baseline fitness level. Maybe "used to" is not exactly right: I'm addicted to consistent outdoor exercise. For me, that means being able to run 5 miles easily, knock out 20 push-ups, and spend my weekends in the mountains without needing much recovery time. I'm sure some people consider this ridiculously light and others think it's nutty, but I consider this maintenance.
So how did I lose that? The answer's probably pretty common. A little over a month ago temperatures dropped and the forced air switched back on. I went on some airplanes, I stayed out too late and bam — my lungs decided to stage a revolt against my body. They protested the entire month of September.
Now I'm back and ready to go outside at the same level I'm used to, but find that it's much harder (mostly due to the mountains growing). Even after several days getting outside, I'm just not back to where I was! Astonishing, I know. It's humbling to realize that I, too, must join the club of people who are older than 20 — a foreign land where regaining physical fitness takes longer than one day.
So, with Thanksgiving and Christmas right around the corner, what am I doing to get to where I want to be?
First, I'm trying to be patient and not get discouraged. That's a nice, easy thing to say. When I'm running and find myself running out of gas 30 minutes before what I'm used to, my first reaction is deflation.
I try to pep talk myself out of it. I tell myself it's a miracle my body works at all.
As I'm standing at the street corner with my hands on my legs, breathing hard and sweating, I remind myself this is only one step in a longer process. Something is better than nothing, and at this point it's good if I can just get out for a run and have a positive experience.
That positive experience will draw me back for another. And another. Until my memory bank of running isn't filled with me being sweaty, out of breath, and feeling shame for not being at peak physical fitness, but reminds me that I'm strong and capable. If I continue to run consistently I can maintain and expand that feeling. The trick is to not dwell on feeling "behind," but to focus on the positive. Trite, I know. But it works.
I also tell myself that getting back into a normal outdoor exercise routine will boost my immunity to help prevent me from getting sick again. I figure if I can swear off autumn in general, traveling, small children and staying out too late, I could go my entire life without another sneeze.
It also helps me to have a plan. Those who know me at all will not be surprised by that. During my day-to-day life, particularly when I'm out of the habit of routine exercise, it's easy for me to sweep that time aside. Long term, of course, I pay for that (i.e., by getting sick and crabby). But short term, I rationalize ditching exercise because at least I got that extra work task completed and mouth breathed for 10 more minutes on Instagram.
If I plan out my runs, make friend dates for bikes/hikes, and even set daily goals for things like pushups, it helps me map out how I'll get back to the shape I want to be in, and make sure I'm accommodating that time in my daily schedule.
It's also a great tool for reviewing what I've actually done when I start to feel discouraged. I can look back and see that I've been building up for weeks, and am already a lot stronger than when I went on my first tiny run post-sickness.
What really draws me back and pushes me to keep on going is simple. Being outside and exercising exhilarates me. In a world where there are so many ways to seek thrills — travel, roller coasters and, of course, more self-destructive ways — there are few that are as cheap, reliable and readily available as lacing up my sneakers and getting my heart rate up.
The high I've felt after an hour of hills on a bike or the freedom of finally being out the door for a run is intoxicating. I found myself near tears when I first felt this after being sick. I was so viscerally happy and grateful. I knew on the one hand that it was a simple rush of endorphins, but I had created that feeling on my own.
I was reminded that if I keep working hard, I can access that feeling consistently. That's an amazing resource to have in life. It's also the most powerful motivator for me to get back to the shape I want to be in.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays throughout Southcentral Alaska.