10 thoughts on the gym and its native inhabitants.

While being injured I’ve been in the gym more than I usually would be, doing weight and “cardio” (I HATE that term) sessions, sometimes twice a day. So I’ve got to do quite a bit of gym anthropology. My main observations are:

  1. Some of the personal trainers are really, really bad. I watched as one “trained” a girl on the squat rack. Every single squat she did, she rotated her left leg laterally at the knee. Every time. Not once was she corrected. I think the trainer was too busy watching himself in the mirror.
  2. Some of the personal trainers are brilliant. Over the last few weeks I’ve coincided with a session between a freelance trainer and a very overweight young woman, who at the start was extremely nervous. Each week he’s helped her gain in confidence, given her really well designed exercises and kept her interested, pushing without exhausting. I was impressed.
  3. “Cardio” is bulls*it. I was doing a lot of work on the elliptical and step machines to try to keep up my fitness while I couldn’t run. It didn’t work. Nothing really emulates the effect of pure running. If you want to get fit, don’t call it “cardio”, just put on some decent trainers and go outside and run if you can. If you can’t because of injury, and you are a runner already, embrace the enforced rest because even if you spend hours on the elliptical, you’ll lose fitness. Concentrate on building strength through weight and circuit training. Do pool running if you really must. Spinning is probably worth doing (I couldn’t because it hurt my leg to push down through the pedals). But don’t even try to keep running fit because you can’t.
  4. The gym is boring, but doing crossfit style intensity exercises makes it more interesting. Just be aware that you will shred your arms.
  5. Do use a recovery drink after doing weights or circuits as otherwise you’ll be starving in a few hours. But commercial whey protein shakes are vile. I use pure powered chia seeds mixed in with coconut water and almond milk. It sounds weird but it is far, far nicer than the chemical nastiness that are whey protein mixes.
  6. Men don’t like girls who use the barbells and benches. They try to cut in and add additional plates when you are having a drink. Screw them. They wouldn’t do that to another dude. Call them out on it and stand your ground.
  7. Gyms are strange places when it comes to bodies. People do check each other out. People do like to shame and compare. I’m a lot more muscular now that I was a few years ago. I’ve been told I’m “lucky” (err, no, I work really hard for this physique). I’ve had men comment that I’m “obviously in shape but I bet you can’t lift xyz” (intimidated/a bit jealous/whatever).
  8. It is truly amazing how not fit most people are. 20 minutes slow running on a treadmill has most gym goers gasping for air.
  9. The majority of gym goers sort of float from machine to apparatus, doing a bit of this and a bit of that, not particularly hard, without much structure. This is marginally better than sitting in Starbucks. But it doesn’t do much for your fitness (see #8 above).
  10. Changing rooms are for getting changed and showering. Don’t look at me like I’m some sort of deviant because I take off my sweaty clothes and shower, dry myself off and get dressed without doing a stupid towel dance. It is female only changing room. If you can’t cope with seeing bits of my body, that is your problem.

Food, energy, fitness ….and bollocks 

Anyone who is interested in fitness or who takes part in endurance sport will have been exposed to plenty of ideologies around nutrition and health. There are a lot of them about, and endurance athletes seem to be particularly susceptible to buying into various fads and theories. I think this is because we are often desperate for something, anything, that will help us not be injured and give us the marginal gains we need to help boost out performance. 

I know a lot of endurance athletes who are by nature perfectionists. You wouldn’t put yourself through the training that it takes for a marathon, ultra, or Ironman, unless part of you believes in the ultimate perfectibility of your own body. Every training day, every meal, it becomes a means to an end: your performance. 

But bodies are rarely predictable. They get sick, injured, lack energy. They give you GI distress despite having your nutrition “dialed in”. They put on or lose weight, get hungry, crave foods that the brain says they can’t have. 

It is understandable that people grasp out for answers that purport to make sense of all of this. Eat this thing, and get this response. Your injury will get better if you do this. You are perfectible. If you are less than perfect it is because you haven’t done this, eaten that. It makes us the ideal customers. 

Truth is that lots of things work, sometimes, for some people. Other things don’t. We aren’t perfectible but can strive for incremental improvements. We shouldn’t be trying to “hack” our bodies. We should be listening to them and understanding them, not putting them in a metaphorical straight jacket woven out of ideology and stitched together with half baked theories. 

The internet is a rabbit warren of ideas, plenty of holes that you can disappear down, but a few warm spots that can protect you. Rational and intelligent people can get drawn into diet cults or exercise regimes without scepticism or scrutiny. They seek the truth, but the truth is opaque, and the only answer that makes sense is that there are no shortcuts.