Slow & Steady: Why An Unathletic Exercise Regimen Is Perfect For Me

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I’ve been a regular runner for, oh, more than a decade. Although, “run” doesn’t quite describe my technique, which is more of an awkward hybrid of fast walk and slow jog. I’ve also played tennis since age 5, but I don't boast a killer serve and I rarely win a game. I started swimming even earlier, at age 3, quickly mastering the crawl and proudly earning my junior lifesaving badge at age 12. Yet nowadays (as you’ve maybe already deduced), when I dive into a body of water, I don’t push myself too hard. Generally, I swim on my back, a modified frog stroke that barely raises my heart rate.

In my defense, mine is not exactly an athlete’s body. I’m pear-shaped, not petite, and prone to trips and falls; when I run, it’s an effort to lift my feet high enough to clear the ground’s surface, which not only makes it tough to sprint over hills, but also presents a challenge when I’m trying to reach a tricky cross-court volley from my ever-competitive spouse across the tennis net.

Not that I’m making excuses for myself. I guess you could say that when it comes to fitness, I’m a little lazy — a term that doesn’t apply to the rest of my life. Living as I do in New York City, where even walking can seem like an Olympic-caliber sport, I’m usually rushing to appointments, to see friends for drinks, or to turn an assignment in on time. I also appreciate the pleasure that can come with great effort — the joy that goes along with doing a task expertly, the satisfied exhaustion that follows pushing myself farther than I thought possible.

Except when it comes to athletics, where I know from experience that I am best steering clear of any situation in which my skills (or lack thereof) will be on display. You will never see me doing CrossFit, a Tough Mudder, or a triathlon. When I try too hard to deliver my A-game, I either vomit from exertion or fall miserably apart. Take tennis, for instance: If you put me on a court and tell me to hit a few back and forth, no pressure, I’m happy, relishing the ping of the fuzzy yellow ball on the center of my racquet and the feel of my sneakers pounding on the clay. But the instant I begin keeping score, my muscles tense up, my breathing becomes shallow, and instead of relaxing and enjoying the sport I’ve played since kindergarten, I concentrate all my effort on winning — and then I lose. You’d think that now that I’m past middle school (and definitely not headed for the pro-circuit tour), I’d have stopped fretting about performance. But some things don’t get better with age, and for me, competing is one of them. If I’m not hitting for fun, I miss most shots, and (I’m ashamed to say) I give up the fight with a sulk.
Photographed by Kava Gorna.
I don’t fare much better when I try to compete in running. Recently, I signed up for a 5K with my sister. I wasn’t worried. I’d done races before — “fun runs” where plenty of people walked and sweet treats were given out at the end. I felt confident that I could hold my own. But as the wiry group of 150 or so runners amassed at the starting line, I noticed that everyone but me was studiously stretching, not talking much, and focused on the miles ahead. And as soon as the crowd began moving forward, I could tell that I was outclassed. For a minute or two, I kept pace, but I quickly fell behind, red-faced and panting. I began to frantically look over my shoulder, making sure that there were one or two runners at my heels, but inevitably, even those laggards left me in the dust. By the time I reached the finish (yes, I was last — though, to be fair, two people dropped out along the way), the happy, sweaty racers, damn them, were dispersing. My sister was waiting, too, with a big smile for me, but I didn’t return it. Screw the fact that I’d finished — that I’d run 3.5 miles on a beautiful evening. I felt like a loser: slow, plodding, worthless.

Maybe that’s when I decided that my days of competing were over, at least in the athletic realm. The other day, as I set out on one of my glacially paced jogs, my husband exhorted me to “Run hard!” as he always does. I decided to ignore him. Instead, I proceeded at a trot, stopping to pet two frisky standard poodles on a walk with their owner, and then finally looping around again toward the finish, feeling warm, slightly tired (but not exhausted), and happy that I’d made the effort at all.

I felt even happier when I read about a report in the American Journal of Cardiology that slow jogging (slower than 10 minutes per mile; mine takes about 12) confers the same health benefits as bona fide running — adding three years of life, compared with people who don’t run at all. I like to rationalize my paltry athletic efforts on the track, tennis court, and pool by asking myself, Don’t I get points simply for trying? It seems like, maybe, I finally do.

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