Saturday, August 23, 2014

Deadlifts, doughnuts and happiness. A.K.A. Food is just food.

Earlier today, my CrossFit friend Cathy Innes deadlifted 323 pounds. Cathy is 62 years old. A 323-pound deadlift by a 62-year-old woman is elite-level stuff. That's awesome -- completely effing ridiculously awesome.

Afterwards, she posted a photo of a maple bacon doughnut with the following caption: "I earned this today with a 323 lb deadlift!"

After congratulating her on her deadlift, I gave her a little bit of shit.

No, not about eating the doughnut -- about the notion that she had somehow "earned" the right to eat it. What comes with that notion is the converse one as well: that if she hadn't done something extraordinary, it would be "wrong" to eat the "unearned" doughnut. What also comes with all that is the idea that one has to "earn" the right to eat anything.

And every one of those concepts is complete bullshit. More particularly, they are bullshit wrapped in a thick layer of guilt and shame that has no place near food.

If there is any one idea I would love for everyone in the fitness/health industry to embrace, and evangelize about, it wouldn't be a "way" to eat -- paleo, primal, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, whatever -- nor a "system" of exercise. It would be a simple fact: food is food. It is neither good nor evil. It is not reward or punishment. Food should not be a currency that you use in transactions with yourself. It doesn't have a damn thing to do with sex, love, romance, guilt or shame. And nothing you do "earns" particular food for you.

You can eat whatever the hell you want. You are an adult. By reaching a stage of life where you are buying the food, you get to decide what you eat.

Yes, it will benefit you greatly if you figure out a way to eat that helps you feel great every day. And if you have fat-loss goals, certain food choices, if made consistently, are going to either help or hinder your attainment of those goals. But what is most important is getting to the point where you are making all your food choices based on a simple concept: "Do I want to eat that?" Because you should eat whatever you want to eat. The question is whether you really want it, and only you can make that choice.

Let's go back to that doughnut. Personally, I probably wouldn't eat it. Doughnuts don't really make me feel very good. The "benefit" of the delicious maple/bacony flavor is short-lived compared to the crappy bloated feeling that gluten gives me, so I choose not to eat it. But before you think I am trying to paint a picture of myself as St. Paleo, patron saint of clean eating, if that were maple/bacon ice cream, I'd be on it in two seconds. No guilt, no fuss, no muss, and right back to paleo food I would go afterwards. Because that's how I want to eat.

And the contrary choice would be just as valid. Because it's my choice. And I eat whatever I want.

But in neither instance, no matter what I did -- or didn't do -- that day, would I need to "earn" the right to eat that doughnut, or that ice cream. It's just a piece of food.

By the way, once I gently chided Cathy, she said, "You're right, Steve. I stand corrected. It was the best doughnut I've ever eaten."

Damn right. I bet it was.

No guilt. No shame. Eat what you want. Just figure out what you want and what makes you really happy. That's what you've truly "earned" the right to do.

The non-quantified self

I put together a band recently, because, really, this is what I do. It's hard work, and often -- but not this time -- a giant freaking pain in the ass. Bands are full of real people with distinct personalities, and distinct work ethics, and those people are crammed into tight quarters and they don't always mesh together well. In fact, the last few bands have fallen rather distinctly into the category called "fun for a little while and then... not so much." But the new one seems to be -- from a musicianship/quality/enjoyment sense -- taking names and kicking ass at a heightened level. This means I have to be on my A-game behind the drums. This also means that I have been playing on my own a lot more than in the previous six months in order to stay on top of all that.

It's been spectacular. There's a cliche that goes something like: "A bad day doing ____ is still better than a good day doing something dull." And for me that blank gets filled in with either of two things: drumming or hiking.

Why those two? I've thought about that one a lot, and I think I've finally nailed it:  it's because the "success" of the activity is measured in beauty (even in art), and there is what I'll call a distinct absence of quantification.

I've talked before (e.g., here and here) about how, when I turn a fun pursuit into a numbers game, it eventually sucks the joy right out of it. And it's been a long slow slog through that lesson because I am, at my core, a pretty competitive person, most of all with myself.

But I simply can't "grade" my performance at a band practice -- or during an hour playing drums on my own, or on a hike -- with a number. Each of those things runs deeper, or maybe the word is "simpler." The beauty is in the doing, not in reaching a particular destination.

I've told you before to "enjoy the ride," but I think I am, slowly, but surely, getting a real handle on what that means. And I say the "ride," rather than the "journey" because a journey implies a destination, and if a person doesn't reach the precise goal he or she seeks, there tends to be disappointment. (The missed PR in the gym or on the track comes to mind). The "ride" is more of a rollercoaster analogy, because no one's ever disappointed at the end of an amusement-park ride because it failed to take the passengers to a particular place. The joy of that enterprise is in the getting there, not in measuring whether "there" is the precise spot you wanted to be.

So how does this realization play into other things I do for fun -- like CrossFit and heavy lifting? As I've told you here, when I first stumbled upon the notion, I'm trying to quantify my exercise experience as little as possible. Sure, I know what weight is on the bar, but I'm not tracking my performance day to day or week to week. I'm just going in and doing as well as I can on a given day. I'm lifting weights, or doing conditioning workouts, like it's a process to be enjoyed, rather than a goal-directed activity burdened with a struggle between success and failure that comes down to numbers.

And if that sounds like I am trying to approach exercise a little more like it's like drumming or hiking, then yeah. That's exactly what I am doing. In fact, I'm trying to do it with my whole life.

You know... enjoying the beauty of the ride, not obsessing over the destination.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Zen and the art of, oh, everything....

It's one of my favorite punk-rock lyrics, and, yes, I've used it here before:

"Don't get tangled up trying to be free."
                               -- Fugazi

It was a little over a month ago that my sons and I were out in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, spending our days hiking and the rest of the time eating spectacularly well while watching more World Cup soccer than any of us could believe.

It was amazing, and a recurring thought came to me: "Why can't I always be this stress-free?" 

So I came home with a simple plan: try to live life in a "vacation state of mind." Not a "vacation plan of action," mind you. I can't go hiking every day, and ignore work responsibilities in favor of watching a lot of soccer. But it's the mental angle that I can try and preserve.

It began with food. I don't stress out significantly over paleo, but I have been known to make my food more complicated than it needs to be. So the first victim of metaphorical defenestration was so-called "bulletproof coffee." Why, I asked myself, had I turned my morning routine into a bastion of -- let's be objective here -- complete fucking weirdness by dumping quantities of butter and coconut oil into my coffee that seemed fairly obscene? I didn't really know. It was delicious, but I was running through sticks of Kerrygold unsalted like it was my job to eat dairy fat. 

Also, protein powder.... I still use it occasionally if I am in a jam post-workout and can't eat real food right away, but it had become the post-workout norm. Instead of just eating real food when I got home from the gym, I was pretending that I'm some sort of "athlete" and going for protein overload. 

I didn't do any of that nonsense on vacation. And I felt great there. I ate intuitively in the Eastern Sierra -- stuffing in more real food on days when the caloric demands of hiking were greater, and less when they weren't. And it's not like I was thinking about it, or planning it. I just -- get this -- ate when I was hungry.

With no thought, no plan, no stress. 

So for the last month or so, I've been just... eating paleo, when I'm hungry. It's not exciting, or gimmicky, or particularly sexy, but it is utterly stress-free, and easy. And delicious. I haven't been jonesing for butter in my coffee, or protein powder post-workout. My body seems to like moderation.

It also likes easy. And easy fits in rather nicely with another recurring thought I had on vacation: "Do you ever notice that Robb Wolf never suggests that you do stupid, weird, gimmicky shit?"

(You could sub a number of other folks into that thought besides Robb, by the way. Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, Diane Sanfilippo, Liz Wolfe....)

Then my thoughts moved on to exercise. I just posted about that, so I won't repeat it all here. But just as I wasn't "tracking performance" on my vacation hikes, why -- I asked myself -- was I tracking performance in the gym? So I just started going to the gym and exercising in a way that felt right that day. It's been unbelievably mentally freeing. Yesterday, instead of chasing a front-squat PR -- with all the accompanying stress of that plus the added "I suck" feeling if I were to miss it -- I just did multiple reps at a solidly heavy weight, and then even did a drop set afterwards at a slightly lower weight. It felt fantastic, with none of the pressure. On Friday, I knew I wanted to do some conditioning in addition to lifting weights, but sprints seemed like the order of the day instead of the barbell metcon that was programmed. So out into the street I went for some 400 repeats with rest in between. Again, it was perfect, for that day.

This gimmick-free/intuitive thought process even extends to my meditation practice. During the past few months, I had been exclusively using the EmWave2 -- a heartrate variability monitor/program -- to meditate. I liked it, but I wondered aloud, amidst all the other purposeful simplification that I was undertaking, whether, maybe just maybe, I was over-complicating meditation too. So I headed back to the basics, the Zen stuff: me, a floor, a pillow and a wall. It's spectacular. And simple.

I think it was Thoreau who said something like, "Simplify. Simplify." 

Or maybe it was Fugazi. 

Either way, I am digging it all immensely.