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The flow of the treadmill

Small hail pelted the streets in the early morning darkness. In order to complete a long run and get the most out of it, I took the treadmill. 

Ugh. The dreadmill. For 90 minutes I had to run on its conveyor belt. Normally, I would brace for this to be painful, but my mind was preoccupied with the weather and my travel plans for that day. Still running for 90 minutes on the treadmill did not sound like tons of fun.

My friend Sue took the treadmill next to me. She was doing a workout with speed intervals. One of the advantages of running on a treadmill is being able to run with friends regardless of pace or intention for the workout. But Sue and I didn't chat the entire time. It can be difficult to hear over the noise of the treadmill and the televisions in the room. Plus, well, sometimes we don't chat away the run. We just pounded the treadmill for most of the time, side by side, with no music or TV in front of us -- just occasional conversation and our reflection in the window.

But something interesting happened.

That 90 minutes flew by.

It was one of the quickest treadmill workouts I have ever experienced. The feeling was amazing. That time just kept ticking away and I just kept running. This loss of time while running (or cycling or swimming) has happened to me before. But for it to occur on a long treadmill run, well, that was completely unique.

The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses just this sort of thing. It's not just in athletics. Artists get into this state, too. So do people who are just plain happy. My reading of Flow has just begun and while there are some things off the top I find I disagree with, the basic premise of finding that state of purely enjoying what you are doing in that moment contains a lot of wisdom an resonance. 

"The best moments," he writes, "usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. ... Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmer's muscles might have ached during his most memorable race, his lungs might have felt like exploding and he might have been dizzy with fatigue -- yet these could have been the best moments of his life."

That definition of flow is a great tool for endurance athletes who have to answer the question, "Why would you do that," to family and friends.

But how to capture that? Well, Csikszentmihalyi does not promise a prescriptive how-to. Harnessing flow seems to be mostly an inside job, being committed to the moment, not the end result. But each time we feel the flow, we can find out a little bit more about how to recreate it in our lives. That creation is unique for each of us.

For me, perhaps it means no longer calling the treadmill nasty names. Forget the dread. It's my safe running path, always there for me when I need it.

Maybe that will help keep me in a state of flow.

--- Amy Moritz
Follow Journey to the Finish Line on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amymoritz

The Biggest Loser: Finale

It was an evening of celebrations and surprises on The Biggest Loser as the eighth season came to a close.

All the contestants returned to the show for one last weigh-in with those eliminated competing for the at-home prize of $100,000 while the final three were fighting for the $250,000 prize and Biggest Loser title.

Rebecca, the 25-year old student from Iowa, won the at-home prize, completing transforming her body and her look. But more importantly, she changed the way she saw herself. During a video recap of her story, the audience saw Rebecca complete a half marathon on her own, stating that she has now become the person she always wanted to be.

Antoine had a surprise during the live finale after he met Alexandra during the course of the show. The two began dating when the both were eliminated and Antoine used the opportunity of national television to propose. The journey he was on was made easier when he had Alexandra to share it with.

Shay received a surprise from the show and one of its sponsors, Subway. One of the most inspirational of the contestants this season, Shay was the largest participant in the show's history, beginning near 480 pounds and weighing in at the final just above 300 pounds. Her story includes a difficult childhood with her mother and foster care -- one that touched many viewers. Shay's breakthrough came when she realized she couldn't make her mother love her nor could she save her mother. Instead, she had to love herself and fight to save herself.

Committed to the process of continuing to lose weight, she understood her journey would not be completed by the time last night's finale rolled around. But to encourage her, Subway invited her back to the Season 9 finale in May to show the world how much additional weight she lost. And for each pound she loses, Subway would give her $1,000. That's some powerful motivation, but also a powerful message that good things come your way when you take control of your life.

Danny became The Biggest Loser, noting that when walks the streets of his hometown, no one recognizes him anymore. But what the show ran out of time to discuss were the changes for Danny at home. Last week on the show, the producers highlighted some issues between Danny and his wife, who was proud and happy for the new Danny but felt like she had lost her place in his life a bit. Conversely, Danny was trying to readjust to being home after his wife and children learned to live for nearly three months without him.

One of the reasons I've grown to love The Biggest Loser is because it is much more than about really overweight people trying to lose weight.

It's even about more than a group of people trying to win large sums of cash for losing weight.

It's about stepping into your authentic self, about becoming who you really are, who you were really meant to be. Weight issues -- whether they be in the morbidly obese range, the slightly overweight range or even eating disorder issues of extreme thinness on the other end of the spectrum -- are often a symptom of other issues, things not quite right in a person's life. The weight issue represents a coping mechanism or an unmet need and until those thoughts and feelings are flushed out, a person will often be held captive by their outside appearance and corresponding bad health.

Through The Biggest Loser, we see stories of people reconnecting with their former athletic selves. In some case, we see people discovering their athletic identity. And in other people, we see examples of using physical challenge and fitness as a means to self-discovery.

It's one powerful example of people starting their own journey to the finish line. The starting point and end game looks different for everyone. But there are things to learn from watching other people struggle then triumph. Things which you make you eager to step outside of your own comfort zone and see what new opportunities wait just for you.

--- Amy Moritz
Follow Journey to the Finish Line on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amymoritz

A new shoe gimmick

Welcome to the holiday season, the biggest ramp up to purchasing health and fitness equipment which will sit in corners for 50 weeks out of the year.

Among the holiday gift advertisements come the new fitness gimmicks. The advent of the new year, coupled with the "holiday weight gain" sends people to purchase the latest, and most importantly easiest, way to lose weight and gain tone.

Enter the new brand of athletic shoe which promises to firm the lower of half your body simply by being on your foot. That's right, no treadmills or real sweat required. Just walk in these shoes and you will tone those problem areas.

Brands of this type of shoe range from MBT to Shape-Ups by Skechers to the Easy/Tone from Reebok. It's the Reebok brand which has gained the most publicity for its unique commercials and print ads which for some in the women's health and media industry are problematic. (See the discussion on this topic at the Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State).

Aside from the messages the ads may be telling women about tying their self-worth to the shape of their bodies, there is a basic question.

Do the shoes work?

An article in the New York Times looks at that question.

The shoes work on the principle of instability. It's like walking on a balance ball or in the sand -- you have to work a bit harder than walking in a normal athletic shoe. The New York Times article points out that "the claim that the shoes offer muscle toning is backed by a single study involving just five people, not published in a peer-reviewed academic journal."

That's the classic recipe for bad science.

The article continues to say that Reebok has collected 15,000 hours worth of data from shoe wearers who say they can feel their muscles engaging more.

Perhaps.

But getting out walking more will do the same thing, without needing the gimmick. Sometimes new products and information are helpful and applicable to our fitness and training needs. We can benefit from learning things about how the body uses food or it may be motivating to us to train in heart rate zones or at a certain running pace. But there's a difference between looking to simplify your workout to make it more effective (whether you're a life-long athlete or just getting off the couch for the first time) and trying to avoid the work all together. The work, after all, is part of the joy.

--- Amy Moritz
Follow Journey to the Finish Line on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amymoritz

Perfection

The laps ticked off. My breath was challenged and my arms were starting to burn a little bit. It was a set of swimming 200 yards with paddles on my hands and a pull buoy immobilizing my kick. Each time working as hard as I could, my one hand hit the wall and the other stopped my watch.

Each time I was around a minute off the pace prescribed in my workout.

But something quite extraordinary happened in the pool.

I avoided becoming frustrated.

If I knew exactly how this happened, I would create a PBS special with a step-by-step multi-media guide as thank-you gifts for donating to public television.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure exactly how it happened. It just did.

Oh, my face turned to "aghast" when the first set of numbers showed up on my watch. But something had clicked into place. Why was my time slower than what my coach (who knows my swim ability) had asked me to do?

Dang if I know.

What I do know is that I worked hard. What was the purpose of that set of 200s? In part, it was to build strength with the use of the paddles and buoy. It was to work a bit on form. And it was to go hard. I concentrated on those things, the things I could control. My effort was not half-baked. It was real. So what if my time was off. The time wasn't the essence of the workout. My effort was.

Last spring I visited my aunt in North Carolina and she talked about a book she was reading. She learned, she told me, that one of the things she needs to work on is "perfectionism." (And this desire for self-improvement comes from a woman in her 80s.) Apparently, the apple doesn't fall far from the family tree.

 When it comes to training, there are days when I want to be perfect. For me, that doesn't meaning equating my performance with an elite athlete. Instead, it's my desire to do exactly what my coach wrote in my workout. To the letter. I want all the numbers to be spot on and I want to feel really good.

While perfectionism may create a drive (sometimes healthy, sometimes not) to action, it also can be a source of inaction. In other words, how many times have I sat out on the sidelines because I felt I couldn't do something perfectly? And, how many times have I emotionally beat myself up because my execution was less than flawless, then decided to sit out the next round of whatever it was that I felt imperfect about?

I am pretty sure that the perfection bug will creep up on me again. After all, I lack that magic spell to rid myself of it entirely.

But I have a tool to fight it, now. The knowledge that the right effort, the right approach, the right attitude is far more important than the specific outcome. Letting go of the numbers, of the results, will likely bring me to my goals even faster. If not, at least it will bring me more joy along the way.

--- Amy Moritz
Follow Journey to the Finish Line on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amymoritz

The Biggest Loser: Marathon

It's become a right of passage for the final four contestants of The Biggest Loser -- to run a marathon.

They ran the race just six months after starting the show and after spending 60 days at home to prepare for the 26.2 miles.

And regardless of the way in which they got there, all four of them had similar experiences during the marathon. That's the beauty of the marathon. Whether you're an elite runner finishing in world record time or struggling to finish the distance in seven or eight hours, there are universal truths.

The wall may come at different points for different people, but surely it comes. The wall is when doubt starts to take over. When you lose belief in yourself. When every ache and pain seems insurmountable.

Runners talk about pushing through the pain, but what you're really pushing through is the self doubt and the voices that tell you what you can't do.

Amanda had a complete breakdown around Mile 17. She talked about not being able to feel her legs, but the tears were likely from the reality of having to walk when she set a goal to run or jog the entire thing. (I make this observation based on personal experience.) But she had a support system, including Tara from Season 7 of The Biggest Loser and her best friend from home who helped her play games to ignore the pain and keeping moving forward. It was an allegory for the support system we all need to cultivate in our lives -- our tribe which supports us when we'd rather curl up in the fetal position in a corner of the couch and watch Law and Order reruns.

Danny was ready to quit. He thought about it. Even talked about it. But his better self pulled through.

"What you get from stopping is you get 430 pounds," he said.

Trainer Jillian Michaels noted that you feel the fear, you move through it and you do it anyway. Because it's not about getting to a point where there is no fear or doubt. Those feeling surely will come your way. But it's in how you choose to stand in the face of fear and doubt that matters most.

--- Amy Moritz
Follow Journey to the Finish Line on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amymoritz

Holiday gift guide

During a panel discussion at Ironman Muskoka 70.3, one of the professionals (and his name escapes me now) commented that he did a short distance local race in Ontario in the summer not just as a training day but as a chance to load up on gels. He shoved as many as he could into his pocket to take home with him as a cost saving measure.

The crowed laughed.

"Hey, those things are expensive,' he said. "They're like $1.25 each. So PowerBar, I could use a sponsor."

And yes, endurance sports can be a pricey proposition. Granted, it doesn't need to be, but even distance running can pile up pennies.

So, if you have a triathlete or a runner on your holiday gift list, here are a few ideas of what you can get them:

Nutrition: As our intrepid pro triathlete noted, nutrition products can be expensive. Gels and chews usually fuel athletes during the run while there are powder mixes to provide hydration and nutrition during competition as well as for post-activity recovery. Granted, opening up a box of Clif Shot Bloks or a canister of Gatorade Endurance may not be the most exciting thing on Christmas morning, but it can be a welcomed gift. Just make sure you know what products and flavors your athlete likes because a box of gel in a flavor that makes you gag is kinda like getting a fruitcake begging the experiment of how long it will last on the shelf until you can unload it on a friend.

Swim toys: These range from fins, kick boards, pull buoys and paddles to new swim suits, swim caps and googles. The newest toy on the block is a waterproof mp3 player. Created specifically for swimming, there are several different brands available offering you the ability to do your swim workout to your favorite tunes.

Bike gear: Isn't the shiny new 10-speed one of the quintessential Christmas gifts? OK, a new bike is likely out of most people's price range, but there are plenty of other options. If you're willing to spend a bit of money, you can pick up an indoor bicycle trainer so your favorite athlete can ride all year long. Beginner Triathlete has a good introduction to the different types of trainers. Other gift ideas include bike jerseys, shorts and gloves. When in doubt, a gift certificate to their favorite bike shop for a tune-up (or gear) is almost always a safe bet.

Running: If you happen to know your runner's favorite pair of shoes (and know that they're getting difficult to find because of underproduction, hint hint Santa) then you can't go wrong with a new pair of kicks. For distance runners, there are all types of fuel belts which hold water and gels, along with ergonomically designed water bottles which are made to be easier to hold while running. Clothing also makes good gifts -- wicking t-shirts, jackets, socks, gloves, hats. Speed laces are more popular with triathletes but also help avoid the pesky untied-shoelace problem. The two major brands are Yankz! and Lace Locks.

Media: There are books and DVDs aplenty for endurance athletes. Indoor cyclists may appreciate the Spinervals series -- an exercise video for your bike trainer. Mark Remy, and editor at Runner's World, recently authored the book The Runner's Rule Book: Everything a Runner Needs to Know -- and Then Some. Filled with tips and humor, it's a fun, fast read for the novice to the experienced runner. Other key reads include Once a Runner: A Novel by John L. Parker Jr. and Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. 

Other stuff: Very good boys and girls may find a Garmin under their tree. Garmins can be a useful training tool or your biggest crutch. And often it depends on the day. There are different levels of Garmins, which range from showing the basics (either just heart rate or just pace and distance) to ones which do everything but the run for you. Aside from the GPS features of the Garmin, any heart rate monitor will do for runners, triathletes and walkers. (Check out the heart rate monitor review in Runner's World).

Aside from gadgets, there are tried-and-true water bottles (which always seem to disappear or grow funk between seasons) and gear bags (whether they be triathlon backpacks or swim bags to keep your wet stuff from developing a musty smell).

The Road ID is one of those items most athletes know they should have, but often overlook purchasing. It comes in a variety of ways -- wrist, ankle, shoe tag -- and provides important information, including your name, contact information and any medical issues. It's your personal identification gear.

Happy shopping!

--- Amy Moritz
Follow Journey to the Finish Line on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amymoritz

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