Five things I learned about coming back from a serious illness

Me a few days before pneumonia had set in. I weighed 180 pounds in this photo. Now imagine that person with 18 fewer pounds on that frame. Coming back from the illness and the damage it caused was a long process.

A little over ten years ago, I had what was one of the most eye-opening sessions I’ve ever had in the gym. Following a weeks-long bout with pneumonia, I finally felt healthy enough to get back into the weight room and rebuild what I’d lost.

When I’d fallen ill, I was 180 pounds and in pretty decent shape. And then I dropped 18 pounds in a span of just 10 days. It would be several weeks later before I felt good enough to return to training.

I knew I’d be weak, and I was. But what was most stunning was how I looked. I was ridiculously skinny. And from the side, I looked like I was barely there, like a gust of wind could carry me off. It was almost like I was completely starting over, back in high school when I was a scrawny little twerp with more hair than muscles.

But I had a few things going for me, namely, a lot of knowledge built up over years of training. Still, it was a long road back. And I learned a few things along the way.

If you’re coming back from being sidelined because of injury or illness, then this one’s for you. Let’s start:

You’re going to be weaker. Don’t expect to move nearly as much weight as you did before. I remember doing bench press sets with 225 pounds before I fell ill. Coming back several weeks later, 165 pounds felt like I was trying to lift a Buick. So don’t push yourself past your new limits because of pride. Ease back into it.

Your conditioning is going to suck. Strength ebbs more slowly than conditioning. If you’re a runner, a cyclist or some other form of athlete that depends on a high level of conditioning, be prepared to feel almost like you’ve never ran/biked/swam before. Yes, it can be that bad. Once you accept that, you can get on with regaining your form.

It’s going to take some time. Maybe you squatted 500 pounds or ran a 20-minute 5K when things were good. But now that you’re two months removed from your training, please understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was that squat/deadlift/5K/marathon PR. Or whatever. It took a long time to build up to all of that, and rather unfairly, a short time to lose it. Rebuilding it will be an exercise in patience.

But eventually, muscle memory will take over. Too often we see our past athletic performance as purely exercises of strength and conditioning. It is all that, but it’s also skill. Lifts are skills. Running is a skill, at least if you’re doing it at a higher level. Your brain hasn’t forgotten these things, and once you get back to it, your cranial neurons are going to fire up and tell your body what to do. That’s going to help in your recovery process.

This is a great time to learn new things. Often, we get stuck in our routines when things are going well. When you’re not chasing PRs (because you’re a shadow of what you were), this lets you take a new look at training and methodologies. Things you may not have tried before might be worth looking at now since your ego is solidly held in check. You never know what secret sauce you’ll unlock to eventually make you better than you were before.

I won’t lie, there’s nothing fun about being in the middle of a comeback. But once you’re healthy enough to start down that long road, there is opportunity. You might become stronger. Faster. Able to go further. It’s hard to believe when your fitness is in its nadir, but there is always a chance that you might climb out of that valley to a higher peak than the one you fell from.

Bob Doucette

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Switching things up for a new season

My master for the next 12 weeks.

The start of September tells me a couple of things.

First, it’s not really fall. Not here, not now. I’m looking at sunny skies, high temps in the mid- to upper-90s, and no sign of that alleged crisp cool air of autumn anytime soon. So that means I’ll be sweating plenty on any given run for at least a few more weeks, if not longer.

Second, it’s the beginning of the fall race season. I don’t race much in the spring or summer, because frankly, I don’t do fast when it’s hot. I like it cool to cold. But getting ready for longer races takes time, so training for those distances (a half marathon in this case) takes a little time.

I was stung a bit by my underwhelming performance in the Rockies back in July. My pride took a hit from not being able to manage even one alpine summit. Just the nudge I needed to jump on that fall schedule and get cracking.

It’s nerdy, but I really got into making up my training schedule. Figuring out distances, where to schedule races, and when that blessed taper week rolls around just before my goal race. I made a grid of sorts, with each day’s workout planned to the exact mile, and even included a weight training schedule with specific exercises to be performed. I’m experimenting with speed workouts. Basically throwing myself into this thing, temperatures be damned, because I don’t want the year to end having accomplished nothing.

I know I shouldn’t let a leisure activity define me. No one cares if I summited zero peaks this summer or a hundred. They don’t care about how fast or far I run, or how much I lift. But it still drives me. I suppose the things I do in my free time just matter to me more, at least internally. Goals are useful if they make you better in some way, either by achieving them or at least trying.

And maybe that’s the real value. I’ve met awesome people in the running community and on the trail. Some real bosses at the gym. People who inspire me, who teach me, who push me to do better and be a little more.

The only negative of the fall for me is that as I run more, I have to lift less. Again, no one else really cares about this, but I’ve been a gym rat for decades now, and strength training is a familiar discipline to me, a companion that has been as faithful as any other. I’ll still lift over these next 12 weeks, just not as much. That puts strength gains on hold for a bit.

I picked this up. It was heavy. 10/10 recommend.

But I did get a last hurrah in. While I’m not where I want to be, I’ve been able to load up the bar pretty good lately. A couple of buddies at the gym were doing their deadlifts and pulling some decent weight. It lit a fire under me.

So a few days later, I did the same. I warmed up, loaded the bar and did my lifts. I pulled a moderately heavy weight just fine. Then loaded it with what was, to that point, the heaviest deadlift I’d ever done, 350 pounds. It popped right up. So I added 20 more pounds, just to see if I could. Sure enough, after an initial grind, I stood with the bar in my hands, the rep complete. It wasn’t too far from twice my body weight. I’m not going to brag on a 370-pound deadlift – it’s OK, but not great. But it’s a PR for me. And a win during a year that’s been mostly devoid of them. It gave me a pick-me-up just as the fall race season ramps up.

The truth is I love this stuff. I bitch about running miles when it’s blazing hot, or walking funny after leg day. I cuss myself in the middle of some epic Type 2 fun. But I’m not getting any younger. Time is slipping away. I can still do hard things, and maybe get a little better, and it’s best to make hay when the sun’s still shining. Maybe by the end of the year I’ll have a few more in the win column. I’ll just have to keep grinding and see.

Bob Doucette

The silver linings of failure

There are silver linings in those clouds.

One of the challenges of living in the middle of the country is that my opportunities to go to the places I love – namely, the mountains – are far fewer than I’d like. I envy my friends in western states where mountain adventures can be had in the span of a day trip, or maybe a few hours by car for multi-day outings.

For me, it’s planned weeks and months in advance, saving up money, getting time off from work approved, and all the logistical challenges that come with it. Being from a lower elevation doesn’t help my cause when I get there. In any case, I have to make the most of things when I finally get away.

And I guess that’s what irks me about my last trip, that it ended a mere 800 vertical feet from a lone summit on what was otherwise a perfect day in the mountains. The weather, the route conditions, pretty much objective variable out there, was in my favor. And yet I got stopped short because the one thing I didn’t do – prepare well enough physically – bit me in the ass.

A return trip this year was out. Too many car repair bills, not enough cash flow. Middle class ain’t what it used to be. So this failure gets to stick in my craw for a while, maybe as much as a year.

I suppose there are plenty of adventures to be had close to home. But summer in the Southern Plains is not that inviting. Blazing hot temps, high humidity and plenty of bugs. There’s no cool of the alpine air to which I can escape, no splashing in an ocean nearby. Just hundreds of miles of baking earth in the Sun Belt.

I got home a little ticked off. It was great to see friends and family, and really, any time in the mountains is worthwhile, even if it’s hard, uncomfortable, or ultimately leads to less than what was planned. I spent four hours driving from my campsite to civilization, and another 10 hours from Denver to home. Plenty of time to think about the whole mess.

And therein lies the silver lining. I knew my conditioning wasn’t up to snuff. I could do something about that. So as soon as I got back, I got to work. And worked harder. More miles on the road. Bigger effort in the gym. Getting outside in the heat and tackling it head-on. I sucked on the trail, so I was going to make myself pay for it now so I wouldn’t suck later.

In about two weeks, I’ll be starting a training cycle for fall races. Looking back on the last few weeks, and the improvements I’ve already seen, I may just enter that 12-week cycle better prepared than I have in years. Which means come November, I might not suck at all.

So there it is. Failing to plan begets failure in execution. But failure in execution can be a great motivator for the tasks to come.

Bob Doucette

Summer is coming. Here are six tips on how to make hot weather running work for you

Summer is coming. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Yesterday I went out for my weekly Wednesday 5-mile run. When I left the gym, it was sunny, breezy, and 90 degrees. May is sort of the unofficial start of the summer sweaty season for me, when hot showers go away and some really tough outdoor training begins. It will likely persist through mid-October where I live.

I’m not a hot-weather runner, and the last couple of miles of yesterday’s run were miserable. I’m not acclimated for the heat yet, and frankly, I wasn’t ready for it. My bad.

But hot weather training has its merits – it builds toughness and will pay off in terms of overall conditioning. Running in the heat taxes your heart and lungs in unpleasant ways, but if you do it right, it will pay off when the temperatures cool down.

That said, training in the heat does you no good if you end up getting sick or worse from heat exposure. So this Sun Belt guy has a few ideas on this subject.

So here are six tips for training in the heat:

Hydrate. A lot. Before you go to bed, drink some water. When you get up, drink some more. And throughout the day running up to your workout, be drinking more water. Bring some with you (hand-held water bottle, hip belt or hydration pack) or be sure your route has drinking fountains available. Don’t wait till you crash to stop for a water break. Heat-related illnesses and dehydration are no joke. Is a gallon a day excessive? Not if it’s summer and you’re outside training.

Shade your face. A ball cap will help you keep a little shade on your face and direct sun off your head. If it’s a moisture-wicking cap, it will help you stay cool.

If you can, pick routes with trees. I love trail running, and many of my trails are in wooded areas. You’ll lose some of the breeze in the woods, but the shade will help keep you cooler.

Pace yourself. Your body will not be able to maintain the same intensity at 98 degrees as it does at 78 degrees or 58 degrees. But you will still be working hard, and that’s what you’re going for — putting in some hard work. Which leads me to the next point…

Watch your heart rate. Whether it’s just listening to your body or wearing a heart-rate monitor, those beats-per-minute will be very telling in terms of how hard your body is working. In the winter, you burn more calories because your body is trying hard to keep your core temperature up. But in the summer, it’s fighting — and losing — the battle to keep you cool. If your pulse is pounding in your temples at 180 bpm or more, maybe it’s time to slow down and walk a couple of blocks. No shame in that.

And finally, and this might go without saying, pick a cooler time of day to run. This means running pre-dawn or after sunset during the summer, but those hours will be cooler and easier to manage.

This week, I did well on these except for the hydration part, and I paid for it. Guess I should follow my own advice! Enjoy your time out there.

Bob Doucette

A snapshot of the fall race season

Those fall long runs.

I do this thing every year when once the summer mountain trips come to a close, I get more serious about running and start training for fall races.

It usually goes down like this:

Step 1: I create a training schedule. It’s usually a mashup of something Hal Higdon has built, customized with a few things I think I need, and studded with weight training workouts. I wouldn’t advise following my lead. I’m not a running coach and am a confirmed midpack runner. If you really want to be successful, hire a coach. Or experiment like me and see what happens. The former is probably going to have a higher rate of success; the latter will be more interesting.

Step 2: Spend the first month of training bitching about how out of shape I am, bitching about the heat, and bitching about being too heavy, too beat up and too old to do this anymore. But I do it anyway because the thought of quitting a training program for any reason other than injury is abhorrent to me.

Step 3: Gradually peel off a few pounds, get more miles under my belt, see slight improvement in my running and continue bitching about the heat because autumn in Oklahoma is weird like that. Sometimes we get 80-degree days in November.

Step 4: On the last Saturday of October, toe the line at the Tulsa Run 15K. Up until then, I’ve felt too roly-poly to race, but I feel compelled to do this one. And then I realize that once it’s over, I can actually run a longer distance at speeds that don’t resemble a zombie shuffle. I wasn’t all that fast this year: 1:35:56, which isn’t my slowest 15K, but definitely not my fastest. If nothing else, it tells me that I can kick it up a gear or two when race day arrives.

Step 5: Suddenly reap the benefits of cooler temps, higher mileage volume, speed workouts and the mental edge that seems to appear every year after the Tulsa Run. The hill climbs aren’t as daunting, the flats breeze by and I bomb the downhills. Everything feels like it’s coming together. And maybe that half marathon at the end of November won’t be so bad. Maybe I won’t totally suck. That’s pretty much my goal for the Route 66 Marathon half every year: Don’t suck.

And so it goes. Running is funny like that. I’m a man of routines, so training schedules and daily rituals dovetail nicely into how I do things, and every fall I emerge fitter, faster and leaner than where I was in the summer. It shouldn’t be this way, of course. Ideally, I’d be in peak condition when I’m trying to will myself to 14,000 feet. But again, routines. And a not-so-productive affinity for tacos, barbecue and brews.

I’m looking forward to this year’s race, but I also recognize that I need to change the way I do things. I can’t destroy myself in the weight room for nine months of the year and expect to remain uninjured. My personal history alone tells me that. And I can’t eat everything in sight while dialing back my training. I mean, it’s great fun and all, and an awesome way to build a gut and love handles if that’s your thing. It’s not my thing, though sometimes I wonder.

Anyway, I’m less than two weeks out from my fall goal race. Knock on wood, I’m feeling good. The plantar fasciitis of the spring seems to be gone. So is the weird hip pain I’ve been nursing for more than 18 months. Once that race is done (however it turns out), I’ll need a new plan. Let’s just see how that goes.

Bob Doucette

The reality of being an athlete over 40

Most of these shoes are worn out, and these days I’m feeling every one of their miles.

When it comes to being an “athlete” over 40, it really is a tale in two parts. That’s what I’ve discovered, anyway.

Since I’ve turned 40, here are a few things that have happened…

I ran my fastest races.

I pulled my heaviest deadlift.

I ran my longest distance, then topped that a few months later by double.

I climbed tougher mountains and undertook more demanding adventures, including a couple of them solo.

At one point, I can genuinely say that I was in better shape in my 40s than I was at any other time in my life.

Age is just a number, right?

Well, hang on a minute. There’s a flip side to this coin. It’s something people tell you, but you must experience first-hand to appreciate.

When I get up in the morning, I hobble to the bathroom. Lingering plantar fasciitis remains a daily issue. And it’s not just when I first get up in the morning. Any time I get up from a long period of sitting (binging Netflix, being at work or whatever), the effect is the same. It takes me a few strides to smooth out my gait.

I also battle other injuries now more than ever. A shoulder tweak, an angry lower back, twitchy muscles, ankles sprained so many times that they retain permanent stiffness. A janky hip joint. Right now, all of these, plus the foot issues, hit me at once.

It’s a strange and irritating conundrum. When I’m out running, I can break out into a hill sprint or straightaway gallop as good or better than at any time in my 20s or 30s. But give me a couple of hours and I’m walking around the house with a bit of a hitch, gimp or whatnot. I need more sleep to recover, but my body wants me to be awake at all the wrong times.

I guess all this is making me a smarter runner and lifter. I don’t train through pain as much anymore. I train around it. Or just back off. Rehab in the form of postural alignment exercises, foam rolling and more has become more of the norm. But I won’t lie. It’s getting harder. Frustratingly so. It’s making me wonder if the best is behind me, if I’ll race in the fall, and if I need to curb my expectations when it comes to adventure.

It’s been said that life is a marathon and not a sprint. The Apostle Paul even mentioned that in his writings a couple of thousand years ago. The idea behind that is perseverance. Having run a marathon before, it’s easy to feel good about yourself at Mile 3, or Mile 8, or even Mile 13. It’s at Mile 18, or Mile 20, when you’ve already come so far, beat yourself up, and seemingly have too far to go that a race is decided. I’m not sure which mile I’m on, but it sure as hell ain’t Mile 3.

But that’s when I remember those long training miles. I’ve got to pace myself. Be smarter. Not blast my way through every adversity. “Be like water,” as Bruce Lee once said: to be still at times, to flow over when allowed, around when necessary, and crash when appropriate.

I’m learning. Pain is a great teacher. All I know for sure is I don’t want to quit. I don’t want to give in, give up what I love and live a smaller, less pain-inducing life. I know where that leads, and it’s not good.

I guess I need to be better at figuring out how to carry on a bigger life when my arms are a little heavier, my steps a fraction slower, and the aches more persistent. I don’t know any other way.

Bob Doucette

Here’s what happens when a non-crossfitter does Murph

I have a basic approach when it comes to fitness. Do some running. Hike. Get on your bike. Lift heavy things. Lift, run, bike, hike for short.

But I like taking on different challenges, even if they’re out of my wheelhouse.

On Memorial Day, a lot of people like to do a Crossfit workout called “Murph.” I’m not a crossfitter, and I’ve got no plans to be. But they do some things right in the Crossfit world (they’re getting more people into barbell training than anything else right now), and some of these workouts are definitely worth trying.

So on Monday, I decided I join the legions doing Murph. For all you curious non-crossfitters, this one’s for you.

FIRST OF ALL…

Lt. Michael Murphy, aka “Murph.” (U.S. Navy photo)

Let’s get this straight, because it’s important: What is “Murph?”

The more accurate question is not what, but who.

“Murph” is Lt. Michael Murphy, a U.S. Navy SEAL who was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan in 2005. If you’ve read the book “Lone Survivor” or saw the movie of the same title, then you know his story and that of his team. If you don’t know it, look it up. A small group of SEALS fought like hell against huge numerical odds, even while gravely wounded.

Murphy invented this workout, which he called “body armor.” Following his death, the workout was named in his honor.

So what’s the workout? Glad you asked.

THE WORKOUT

It’s simple: Run one mile, do 100 pull-ups, do 200 push-ups, do 300 body-weight squats, then run another mile.

Simple, right?

Well, there’s also this: In its strictest form, you also do this with a weighted 20-pound vest.

The goal is to do it in less than an hour. Really fit people can do it in 45 minutes.

Here’s what I figured: I run plenty. I lift several times a week. And I’m getting decent at pull-ups. Why not give it a shot?

SOME CAVEATS

I’m also a realist. I don’t own a weighted vest and didn’t have access to one. Being the first time I tried this, I decided to skip the weighted part.

Crossfitters will kip their pull-ups. I refuse. I’ll do them as strict as I can as long as I can.

I doubt there are many people who can do 100 pull-ups in a row, even if they’re kipping. Same is probably true of the other exercises. I’d be breaking these up into manageable chunks, hoping to make good time.

WHERE I DID IT

I went to a high school track/football field. The track offered me an easy way to measure out a mile and stay close to some water I brought.

The track was a good idea, but this plan had its problems. For starters, it was 91 degrees and mostly sunny, with a heat index of 95. That sort of heat will elevate your heart rate far above what it would normally be indoors or, say, any other time of year. Since I’d be doing the non-running exercises on the field, it would feel even hotter.

Also, there was a lack of decent places to do pull-ups. I settled for a soccer goal crossbar. The steel tubing didn’t offer much grip; it was fat enough that I was more “palming” the bar than gripping it. So that was working against me.

But hey, who cares? If you’re going to do Murph, don’t bitch about your problems. The workout will be hard enough as it is.

HOW IT WENT

The first mile run was a breeze, mostly because I didn’t push too hard. Maybe a 9:30 pace, trying to conserve energy for the work to come.

Once that was done, it was time for the pull-ups. I started doing sets of 6 to 8 reps, taking short breaks. But soon, the sheer volume was killing me. So I scaled it by switching from overhand grip pull-ups to underhand grip chin-ups. I know, lame. But I needed to get reps to move on.

By the time I got to 52 reps, I realized I’d be out there forever unless I found ways to knock out reps in the other exercises. So at the point, I supersetted chins with pull-ups and squats. That helped.

But dang, if this isn’t a whole other kind of fitness. I do all sorts of conditioning drills when I run, but this is just different. The steady flow of work and the heat radiating off the artificial turf surface I was on spiked my heart rate something good. By the time I was done with all that mess, it was time for that second mile-long run.

A zombie shuffle ensued. Maybe one of the slowest miles I’ve ever “run.”

When I was finished, I missed that 60-minute goal. By a lot. I definitely was not physically up to the task of making that goal. I shuffled off the field and into my car a sweaty, beat-down mess. Lesson learned. Murph is legit.

AFTERMATH

The next day, I was sore in some expected places, mostly in my shoulders and upper back. But not in my legs (you’d think 300 squats would have done something, but nope). But I was surprisingly sore in my abs. I wasn’t expecting that. Perhaps I should do more core, eh? Anyway, it was a built-in excuse to not lift the following day. I ran three miles and called it good.

THE TAKEAWAY

What I’ve learned about fitness is that when you do something different, expect to suck at it. I’ve learned this many times over.

I used to play a lot of basketball, maybe three or four times a week. And not that half-court BS, either. We ran the court, fast breaks and all. I got to where I could handle that. But run more than a couple of miles? I might as well have been trying to climb Mount Everest. Two different types of fitness.

Another example: Back when I was doing jujitsu, we had a new guy come in. He told us he’d be fine in terms of conditioning: The dude ran six miles a day. When the workout was over, he was outside puking in the parking lot. Once again, a different kind of fitness.

The same is true here. I know Murph is not indicative of everything Crossfit, but it is a good example of the type of training crossfitters do. Murph is not a strength test; It’s a conditioning test with some elements of strength involved. So while I lift frequently and hard and do my fair share of conditioning drills (400-meter intervals and negative split workouts come to mind), what I do is not going to go that far with something like Murph.

Crossfit bills itself as preparing its trainees to be fit enough to do anything at any time – they pride themselves as fitness “generalists” and through their Crossfit Games, aim to crown the winners as “the fittest people on earth.” There’s some truth to that, although Crossfit programming seems to create a lot of people who need shoulder surgeries.

But there is value in trying new things, and finding your weaknesses. On Monday, on that steaming hot high school track, Murph helped me find a few of mine. I might have to try it again.

Bob Doucette