Pacing Myself: Philosophies on Writing and Exercise

I never enjoyed sports growing up. Hated watching them, and wasn’t any good at them. Naturally, living in a sports-obsessed community like the Gold Coast, I had a shitty time relating to people. (I was more about girls and music and Nintendo.) I know, right? What an inauspicious way to start a post. It’s not all bad. Since high school, I’ve found physical activities that I enjoy and don’t suck at, like hiking, kayaking, recreational swimming, and long-distance biking. I’ve done these things sporadically over the last seven years but, as a lanky, six-foot-two male with a light-speed metabolism, exercise never really seemed like a priority to me.

Enter 2013: the year my girlfriend and I broke the lazy streak and signed up for See Change Personal Training’s outdoor boot camp. (There were a few dalliances with personal trainers from 2010–2012, but I won’t get into those.) I know what I’m about to say will sound stupid and clichéd, but here goes: boot camp has genuinely changed my life. Not in a ‘It cured my cancer’ or ‘It helped me shake cocaine’ sort of way. Boot camp has made me a much happier person day-to-day. For perhaps the first time in my life, I actually look forward to exercising. I leave morning sessions feeling charged and ready for the day. I ran my first 5k this year – for fun. I’m not hardcore or obsessive about it; I don’t care about developing guns or a six-pack; and I don’t stringently monitor my times or gains. (But just so you know, I don’t look down on anyone who does those things. Everyone has different goals; I’m just not sure my routine would feel as rewarding if my priorities weren’t right for me.)

It’s taken a lot for me to reach this perspective. My perpetually aching body is a testament to how hard I push myself. (And to how infrequently I stretch. Working on this last one!)

Here are a few things I’ve learnt about myself, thanks to boot camp:

  • Except for the odd ‘good job!’ from my trainers, I don’t need external approval.
  • Pushing one’s physical limits has little to do with fitness levels. It’s more about settling into the right state of mind.
  • I understand my body’s limits and have learnt to push through my pain threshold. (Prior to boot camp, I used to stop at the first sign of pain.)
  • I’m capable of far more than I thought. I regularly complete circuit workouts requiring up to a hundred repetitions of individual exercises. Not long ago, the thought of doing even ten or fifteen burpees terrified me; now I walk away having notched up sixty, or even eighty.

Some of that may sound hokey or braggy. I don’t mean for it to. The credit’s not even all mine: my amazing boot camp instructors are instrument in pushing me to achieve. I love the varied routines, the thoughtful warm-up games, and the physical and emotional support. If you’re a Melbournian interested in getting fitter, I heartily endorse See Change.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not sharing my achievements to brag; I’m doing it to emphasise how remarkable a feeling it is when long-held attitudes shift. Exercise really is a great metaphor for all of life’s other challenges. I think that’s why so many rally behind favourite sporting teams, and why everyone loves an underdog victory. It’s only now, as I reflect on my progress, that I feel the way I do.

Throughout the year, I endured plenty of pain and discouragement; there were many ugly moments when I beat myself up, perceiving I’d fallen short. Because boot camp is a group activity, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform as well as – or even outperform – my peers. For some, competition is a great way to motivate. I’ve much respect for that, but I’ve never really been a competitive person.

What I failed to recognise was that most of the people I was comparing myself to had been exercising a lot longer than I had. That’s an inevitable problem when lumping people with disparate fitness and experience levels together. There’s never any outside pressure, though; my trainers and co-boot campers would never make anyone feel inadequate. It’s really about the expenditure of effort; if you work hard, others will respect you. As they say, going out and doing exercise – no matter how meagre – puts you ahead of all those who stayed home on the couch. The atmosphere at boot camp is one of love and encouragement, but negative self-talk has always been a part of my nature. I guess I’m a little ashamed that I succumbed to my own ego. I wasn’t frustrated at myself for not trying (I always try); I was frustrated at myself for not being the best. That’s not me. I’d always thought I had more humility than that.

Anyway, the clouds have parted now, and I’ve made another stupid commonsense realisation, something that’s applicable not just to exercise, but to all areas of life: everyone has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Even those experienced boot campers – who excel at some, or even most, activities – will have some area of their lives where they feel genuinely out of their element. Unless you’re Tim Robards (The Bachelor. Risky reference, I know), nobody can excel at everything. That’s not meant to be a consolation for failure, but rather a way of keeping perspective. It’s great that we all want to improve at the things we find challenging, but I wish our culture celebrated strength more than it denigrated weakness.

Writing’s just the same. You get prolific writers, who can bang out thousands of words in an hour, and you get spontaneous writers, who can pluck perfectly realised analogies from, well, seemingly thin air. Then there are others, like me, who take a more measured approach, edging along incrementally, rewriting and refining until, finally, progress is made. Just as I’m jealous of natural athletes, I’ve always been incredibly envious of those fearless writers who effortlessly bleed onto the page. My approach has always felt slow, stilted, overwrought. Frankly – and I’m not saying this to perpetuate any tortured artist stereotypes – I find fiction writing agonising most of the time. Though my rational mind knows not to, I scrutinise every little thing I write – even texts and emails. I’m constantly self-editing. Even scores of positive feedback does little to help; though I feel I have the capacity for greatness in me, I’ve never felt truly satisfied with anything I’ve written. I’m always always looking for ways to strengthen or reinterpret something. But the internal editor and writer can’t coexist. At any given time, one needs to step back to let the other do its job. That’s difficult for me. It’s why I start new projects ad infinitum, and why I know novel writing is not for me.

But there’s one thing I realised when I sat in at a few NaNo write-ins this November, and it’s more or less the same lesson I had to learn at boot camp: I shouldn’t compare myself to others. I’ve always done things slower than most. When I draw, I obsessively tweak until the picture is as good as it can be. With writing, I’m the same; I get more satisfaction from meticulously cutting redundant words than from maniacally putting down a first draft. When I run, I’ve always preferred pacing myself over longer distances. I’m the tortoise, not the hare. If my writing, running or drawing isn’t to ‘beat’ or ‘please’ anyone, then the speed of my approach shouldn’t make a lick of difference. Instead of beating myself up because I can’t do twenty push-ups in twenty seconds, I should celebrate the fact that I’m meticulous about good form. Technically, I’m digging deeper and getting more out of each repetition than those whose push-ups resemble frantic shallow spasms. Similarly, instead of feeling bad about my inability to achieve swift, inflated word counts, I should note that my attention to detail can result in higher quality drafts. All that really matters is that I work hard and at my own natural pace. For me, it’s always been quality over quantity. Others may feel differently, and that’s cool, too.

At the end of the day, I’m satisfied knowing I work to the best of my ability. Doesn’t matter whether I get the coveted first place ribbon. That’s a healthier standard to hold myself to because it’s something I can control. Life’s not a competition. At least I don’t think so.

Or, I don’t know, maybe this is all just self-commiserating loser talk. Maybe the world is a giant treadmill, and all those that can’t keep the pace simply fall off. After all, competitiveness may have spurred some of history’s greatest achievements. Maybe I have this all wrong …

I’m going to contemplate this over a sandwich. Race me to the fridge?

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One thought on “Pacing Myself: Philosophies on Writing and Exercise

  1. Oh burpees… The total jerk spawned of the pushup and the high-five.

    I love that you’ve captured the ‘practitioner’s mind’ so well here. There was an article not too long ago that talked about embracing suffering — but I much prefer the positive spin on it you’ve put here. You’re absolutely spot-on in that you’re more likely to do a thing if you enjoy it. If the journey, rather than the goal, is in the forefront of your mind.

    It’s easier to climb a hill if you enjoy sweating and walking on inclines, yeah? Most folk only think of standing at the top, enjoying the view and a sandwich.

    Write on!

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