The Weight Room.

When I first started thinking about getting healthy, my natural inclination was to start by running.  I spent the first year of my new found health pounding the pavement along side of my best friend.  And just a little over a year after I began to run, we crossed the finish line of our very first marathon.

When I crossed that finish line, I felt amazing – totally on top of the world.  I realize now looking back though, that despite being able to run for 26.2 miles, I wasn’t actually in very good shape.  I was in running shape, but not athletic shape – I found out a year later that there is definitely a difference.

Between my first and second marathon, Casey dragged me reluctantly to the gym because he told me we needed to start weight training.  I had a horrible attitude about going to the gym – I felt dumpy, out of place, and like everyone was staring at me.  I had no idea what to do with any of the machines or weights, and I was intimidated by all of the muscular athletes surrounding me on the gym floor.

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Casey gave me a little dose of tough love in the form of “suck it up and do it anyways.”  For the first month, I complained every time we went.  And on more than one occasion, I actually got so down on myself that I cried.  But I kept going back three times a week because I knew there was a reason all these other people were there.  Plus, I was paying for it, and there is nothing I hate more than wasting money.

And then as if it all happened overnight, I looked in the mirror after 6 weeks, and realized I looked different.  My muscles were bigger, I had definition, my clothes hung differently.  I was immediately hooked.

Over the course of the next year, I fell in love with the gym.  My body slowly transformed from a sort-of-in-shape running figure, to a toned and muscular athletic build.

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And for all the hours that I put into the gym, it was never about being skinny or wearing a certain size.  For me, it was about looking and feeling STRONG.

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Coincidentally, it also made me a better runner.  The increase in muscle that I gained helped my metabolism go way up, and without doing anything different – I watched my weight drop almost ten more pounds.  With less weight to carry, and stronger core muscles to help me through those tough final miles, I shaved 45 minutes off my marathon PR and clocked my fastest time ever – 3 hours, 50 minutes.  The only thing I did differently that year was weight train.

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But being muscular and strong did something much bigger for me than simply helping me run faster.  It gave me CONFIDENCE.  For the first time in my entire life, I loved the way I looked.  I had legs that were toned and muscular, and arms that would make Jillian Michaels proud.

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And they key to all of it was the strength training.  I am not a personal trainer, and I am not certified in anything fitness related.  But I feel very assured in giving this one piece of advice: in order to be in great shape and have muscle definition, you have to do more than just cardio – strength training is essential. 

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So often people (women in particular) are willing to go out and run for miles and miles without complaint, and I watch girls at the gym do the elliptical night after night.  And while cardio is still an important part of a healthy and active lifestyle, it does not complete the whole package. 

For some reason most magazines and fitness plans geared towards women seem incredibly wimpy and often-times insulting if you ask me.  I cringe when I see “workout plans” that involve swinging around soup cans and 3 pound weights.  In order to build real muscle, and see visual results, it needs to be difficult.

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Trust me, the first time Casey suggested that I do squats and cleans with a giant plated barbell, I practically ran screaming.  And of course, when lifting heavy weights, it’s important to know the correct things to do and form to use so that you don’t get injured.  Every gym I have ever visited does a free intro day with a personal trainer or staff member – don’t be afraid to ask for some help or direction on the gym floor.  They are there to help you.

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In the past year, we’ve moved across the country twice, I attended and graduated from a full-time school program, and life has just simply gotten a lot busier for us.  There were no gyms near our house in Charlotte, and we did our best to make do with our home gym, but I missed the excitement of the weight room floor, and the rush I used to get from achieving new strength goals.  Somewhere along the way, I started making too many excuses and stopped doing quite as many crunches. 

I used to be driven to the gym each week knowing that a new goal or milestone was waiting there for me.  I loved the surge of pride I would get from completing a set of 30 pushups, or the first time I was able to finally do chin-ups on my own.  When we made the decision to move, I was determined to get that old feeling back, because more than the lost muscle tone, the thing I was missing the most was my confidence.

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As soon as we moved to Virginia, one of the first things we did was seek out and join a gym.  It felt so good to finally be back on the gym floor working towards a better me.  Just a few short weeks later, my car accident forced me back into a totally sedentary lifestyle, and my confidence sunk even lower.  But those weeks on the couch gave me time to reflect and it helped me make better sense of my priorities once I could finally be active again.

I’m happy to report that I’ve been back in the gym now for two weeks, and I feel amazing.  I’m not buff yet, but I’m back on track, and that’s what matters.  And when I am consistently giving my all in the weight room, I find that it motivates me to give my all in every aspect of my life – my writing, my goals, my relationships with others, and my relationship with myself.

So don’t be afraid to step off the elliptical and walk over to the dumbbells.  I promise you – no one is watching.  And if you want to be a better runner, try doing other things in addition to running.  Even the elites put in several hours a day focusing on strength training and core work. 

I love running, and I’ve gone through some pretty important self-discovery out there on the sidewalks and pavement.  But there was another part of me still waiting to be discovered – a stronger, more confident person buried deep within.  And I never would have found her if I hadn’t braved the weight room.