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Getting Gritty

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Getting Gritty

How do you stick to a daily exercise regime when it just seems a bit too hard? At this time of year, when it’s cold, wet and blowy, hiding under the duvet can seem like the best option. If your resolution is on the wane, analysing the reasons why you’ve made your commitment can help you keep to your plan.

Two miles from home, plodding through a muddy field, I missed my step and went ankle deep into a freezing puddle. ‘Brilliant’, I thought bitterly, as the unpleasant wetness oozed into my socks. ‘Brilliant.’ I muttered again. Then, after a half dozen sodden steps: ‘Why exactly am I doing this?

Over the past year, for various reasons – pressure of time, ageing dog who wasn’t up for half-marathon training, creeping laziness – I’ve slipped out of the habit of going on big adventures. So, like millions of others, I decided New Year was the time to make an appeal to my better self, start anew and become a New And Better Person.

Well, not quite. Rather than going down the ‘New Year, New You’ road, I adopted more of a ‘New Year, Old You’ resolution. Once upon a time I’d been super-fit: a postie with a couple of broken-lifted tower blocks on my route, a committed runner and hill-climber. I wanted 2020 to be the year I got back to that level, starting off with a few miles every day. Not exactly an earth-shattering challenge, but I felt sure with a bit of a push, I’d rediscover my urge for adventure.

First time out, and it wasn’t going too well (as evidenced by the one wet foot). I’d chosen to ignore the forecast – cloud, bit of drizzle – the kind of day that puts the ‘meh’ into meteorology. I also realised, pretty soon, that the route I had chosen was a lot less glamorous than it looked on the map: there was a long stretch through a seventies housing estate, then an A-Road which took me under a heavily tagged underpass, opening up to what I hoped would be the ‘pastoral’ bit, but instead involved a complex and lengthy detour around a flooded pathway.

I’d also messed up my timing, setting out much later than planned. As the dusk gathered, the sky started lowering and the trees began to loom. The horizon, once sharpened by a blade of light, was gradually lost to the gloom as the sun dipped nightwards.

It wasn’t only the horizon that was lost; I was in no-man’s land. Lost on a golf course in the dark. Golf courses can be quite unnerving places when the light is fading and you don’t know where you are. Abandoned golf carts, ghostly bunkers, flags whipping in the wind. Truth be told, I got a bit carried away with the whole Gothic atmos. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘This is exactly like walking through a Caspar David Freidrich painting! (as the pictures below clearly illustrate).

Romantic painting and our relationship with the outdoors

Spot the difference. On the left, Caspar David Freidrich painting (Winter, 1807); on the right, a golf course in the dark. Both, in their own way, examples of allegorical landscapes, which, in the words of art historian Christopher John Murray, invite the viewers to ‘gaze towards their metaphysical dimension.’

When I finally made it back home, after a few more wrong turns, diversions and cul-de-sacs, I was both exhausted and relieved, and not all that enthusiastic about the next day’s run. Still, wet feet aside, it hadn’t been a complete disaster. The golf course was good.

Feelin’ Bad about Not Feeling Good

As conch shell is to hermit crab, duvet is to human. Only Day Two, and I was already aware of how much I had lost touch with my inner Polar Explorer. Waking up in a comfy bed, I was severely tempted to bin the whole resolution thing off.

A few years back I’d been to a workshop on the Wim Hof technique and this saved the day. If it works for wild swimmers running near-naked into the November Baltic, I thought, it’ll work for me standing upright. A few deep breaths, count to three, and just go for it… one, two, three… off with the duvet, on with the thick socks, on with the jumper. Go, go, go!

First story on my daily news feed: a re-post celebrating the youngest-ever explorer trekking unaided to the South Pole. This is the kind of bitter irony that life serves up on a daily basis, without so much as a second thought. Commit yourself to doing a few sit-ups a day, and immediately your phone is awash with reports of human beings achieving extraordinary feats – one-armed climbers taking on El Capitan, six-year olds embarking on solo walks through the Arctic, people rowing the Atlantic while standing on their heads. The honest acknowledgement that you can’t be arsed to go for a mile-long jog through the local park makes you feel quite inadequate.

I decided to dial down the blogs about Polar Explorers, and went on a different tack. I needed a bit of human-level positivity and inspiration. Although I’m not a regular visitor to the self-help section of my local bookstore, I figured there must be some good stuff in all those miles of titles, a few choice lessons that would help regular mortals like me.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life

If your thing is self-help you may well fall about at the next section, incredulous that someone could be so ignorant of the whole Being A Better Person canon. I accept I am a complete dunce when it comes to self-improvement, which probably explains why I still drink milk straight from the bottle and put it back in the fridge. But, you know, everyone’s got to start somewhere, and I’m here to learn.

Reading the back cover of ‘One Small Step Can Change Your Life’ by Robert Maurer I discovered the notion of Kaizen: a Japanese word to describe how big changes can be made through small, but obtainable, increments. The key idea here is that enacting tiny, non-scary changes is a more achievable way of going about things than undertaking something that turns your universe upside down. Add all the tiny changes together, and they amount to an earth-shattering improvement.

I realised my biggest obstacle to progress was the idea of going on a daily run. Truth be told, although I used to be a super-fit person, I don’t enjoy running on a deep level. Moreover, (I rationalised) there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, if you’re a bit out of shape, in body, mind or spirit, going on a daily walk can be just as beneficial as training for a marathon.

Setting aside the running jersey and trainers (just for a week) I resolved to stay warm, keep dry, and walk. Start small and build. I layered up with thermals, thin jumpers and a big coat, thick socks and boots, woolly hat, flask of hot coffee. Once I’d settled into a routine, I’d streamline the outfit, but for now, Marathon Man was out. Michelin Man was the way to go.

At this point, in my parallel self-help odyssey, I came across another Big Idea in Angela Lee Duckworth’s book, Grit: the Hard Thing rule. Basically, having to take on (at least) one thing in life that is hard to do, with the caveat that you’re not allowed to quit until you reach a natural break (say, a month or a year). Okay, technically, in the short term I’d given up on my Hard Thing, which was going for a run every day. But I hadn’t quit on the daily exercise. By making things a bit easier and more manageable, I negotiated a bumpy bit in the road. If I managed to establish ‘a walk every day’ as a habit, I’d just increase my speed every day until, hey presto, I’d be a fully-fledged fell runner!

This fits in with the Grit schema. Keep the larger aim in mind, focus on getting one small aspect of your goal right, improve, move on, but don’t fixate on smaller goals at the expense of progression.

Work Out The ‘Why’: the Rest Will Follow

The real turning point came about a week in. I was going for a walk along the sea-front on one of those days that give the British Weather its (mostly deserved) reputation: driving rain, a battering wind with a real edge to it, a Turneresque maelstrom. I took refuge in a pavilion and sat, watching the real-life masterpiece that nature had conjured up. And that was it. Sat for about ten-minutes, an eye in the storm, not moving, not really thinking. Present.

When I finally surfaced, I realised: ‘This is why I do this.’

As I pointed out, even when I was at peak fitness, I didn’t really enjoy running. Once I’m in full flow, I love it, especially ‘wild’ running through woodland or moors, but it wasn’t the physical challenge that gave me the Big Endorphin hit, it was being outdoors that appealed.

Turner's Snow Storm - how the outdoors affects us emotionally

Turner’s ‘Snow Storm’. If you’ve never visited, this is what the UK looks like most of the time.

Once I gave up on the idea that I was establishing an exercise regime, and reframed my purpose as ‘Getting Outdoors’, it stopped being an effort and started to become a pleasure. What was really working for me was the act of breaking the bubble and feeling part of a natural whole, every day. Setting aside time in my schedule meant I had longer to enjoy it; getting fitter meant I could go further, and travel out from urban streets into open country; but these were only aspects that contributed to the core purpose, buttresses that allowed the cathedral to spire to the sky.

With my purpose fixed, I moved from Floundering Eejit into Warrior Flow.

Writing it Down

It’s pretty well understood that if you write your goals down, you’re far more likely to achieve them. For me, this really helped, in particular, focusing on the reward rather than the effort. My daily ‘to-do’ list is now headed up with a little reminder: ‘Outside every day: it makes you feel better’. In addition, I started making a couple of notes about what I enjoyed on the previous day’s adventure (often quite cryptic: ‘the sparrows chirping, hidden’ being a particularly enigmatic example). The great advantage of a Good-times Diary is it’s there to give you a boost on the days when you can feel yourself backsliding.

By Week Two I felt I was well on the way to establishing a routine. Getting to the heart of the ‘higher’ goal certainly helped. My daily walks, now slowly graduating to daily jogs, didn’t necessarily involve big landscapes or rolling hills, but there was always some connection to the natural whole that manifested itself in the ordinary – city streets, pocket parks, even golf courses.

Getting to be a habit

Crash diets, as we all know, don’t really work. You can make dramatic gains, but pretty soon you’re back on the pudding, sliding down a big snake back to square one. You need to form steady, long-term, positive habits that will eventually reap lasting rewards. If this sounds all very grown-up you wouldn’t be wrong, Angela Lee Duckworth says forming good habits is a mark of maturity:

‘We learn life lessons we don’t forget, and we adapt in response to the growing demands of our circumstances. Eventually, new ways of thinking and acting become habitual … We’ve adapted, those adaptations have become durable, and, finally, our identity – the sort of person we see ourselves to be – has evolved.’

I find this immensely pleasing, as I’ve often thought of myself as a part-time adult. Turns out I can actually be self-helped, and I’m better for it.

My Journey, as they say in Hollywood, has only just begun

I have learnt much, travelled far – well, thirty miles or so over the past two weeks. As well as sharpening my appetite for adventure, I think I've also dulled slightly my cynical edge, and I'm a little more open to the insights of the gurocracy. If asked to rank my top three tips from my experience, I’d set out the following:

  • Work Out The Why
  • Write it Down
  • Don’t Give Up.

Maybe a fourth: push yourself a little bit every day – go a bit faster, walk a bit further.

If you’re still on track with your New Year’s resolution, be it Dry January, Veganuary or Outside Every Day, the best of luck. Stick with it. I’m still on track for my 2020 goal, as earth-shatteringly unamazing as it is. Deep into the new year and I’m feeling a lot better, I’ve even started going for the occasional run on top of my daily walk. Still not using a glass to drink milk out the fridge, but nobody’s perfect.

If you’re looking to make 2020 the year of Making The Outdoor Easy, join us on our next Family Wild Walk. They take place every month – and we’ll be adding more as the year goes on….


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