Framing Your Mind for Success in Adversity

Mind over matter. You’ve heard this, read this, and might have even said this to someone else at some point. In the military, we turn that into, “Embrace the suck,” which is to say that in the misery of the moment, learn to find something in it that you can cling to, and to maybe even enjoy. Maybe not in the moment, but later, when you can say, “That 6 mile road march was hell, but it felt really good to cross that finish line.”

Speaking of road marches, I found myself embracing the suck in October during a 3.1 mile road march with a 54 lbs pack on my back, carrying an 8 lbs M4 rifle, and wearing a helmet. It was around 5:45 a.m., and there I was, alternating between a light run and walking as fast as my little 28 inch legs would carry me. A person’s mind wanders all over the place during one of these road marches, but I try to keep my mind focused on the task at hand which was completing the event within the time required; in this case, 53 minutes.

In one of the moments between light runs, I started smiling, but not because the road march was particularly fun. To the contrary, road marches are tough endurance events, and I had packed my rucksack too heavy (I had made it harder on myself on purpose because subsequent road marches will require 48 lbs, and I wanted to make sure I could do it). I started smiling because I thought of all the people I know who are my age and with whom I served in the Marines. The vast majority of those Marines have told me that they wished that they could still serve, still get out there and do the hard work, still get out there and wear the uniform. And there I was, doing just that. It was hard. It was miserable. It was testing my endurance and willpower, but there I was: making it happen, and still in the military at my age.

I also smiled because I was succeeding. I kept track of the time, and I knew where I needed to be by the half-way point, and I was way ahead of schedule. I kept pushing on the second half, knowing that I had all day to rest after the event was done. The weather was actually perfect, and although I hadn’t slept well the night before, I had banked some sleep in the weeks prior to this road march, so I was feeling energetic and mentally sharp. Putting all these positives together overcame the discomfort of the heavy pack and my legs burning from exertion. All the preparation was paying off. This is why I run and lift; to make these events easy.

It’s easy to allow yourself to get overwhelmed with negativity while going through big changes. A new diet, adopting a new lifestyle, a new fitness plan; all of these bring about new challenges, difficulties, and discomfort. It’s how you handle them that differentiates you from those who only tried and failed. I’ve said before that the hardest part in taking on a new lifestyle or fitness plan is starting. It’s even harder to start a workout when you’re sore from the last one. It’s harder to start on meal prep when you have flu-like symptoms from cutting the sugar out of your diet. But it’s the push-through to actually get going that gets you to success. It’s pushing the discomfort or the challenge aside and making the conscious decision to keep at it anyway.

That’s where I am today. I wasn’t sore yesterday from the kayaking and mountain biking we did on Saturday, but I am today. I had planned on my daily Army preparation drill (I’m trying to learn them all because I need to lead PRT at my next WOCS drill) followed by my StrongLifts 5×5 weightlifting workout and then a 2 mile roard march with a rucksack filled with 48 lbs of weight. When I woke up, I thought to myself, “Maybe I need another day to rest these old muscles,” but then that other voice in my head said, “Nah. You aren’t having any injury pain, just exerted muscle pain. Push through, be safe, and continue on the path.” That second voice? That one isn’t nearly as loud as the first one, and it takes some practice to hear it, but that’s the one to listen to. That’s the voice of reason and logic, and it’s easy to miss in the cacophany of emotions and feelings.

In this case, it’s mind over matter, or embracing the suck. Do my muscles hurt? Absolutely, and they hurt all over. But I’m going to get out there and get it done anyway. The same will apply to Thanksgiving this week. Will there be food on the table that I know is delicious but not Paleo? Yes. But I will stick to my Paleo foods, I will stay on-track, and I will continue to fuel my body with the best foods possible to keep myself healthy. It’ll be a challenge, but this won’t be my first rodeo.

A Day of Activity and Adventure

This weekend, my wife Sherry and I went camping at Huntsville State Park in Texas, and we took our Tucktec kayaks and our bikes with us. We were hoping to get some time on the water with our new kayaks, and I was hoping for some trail time with the bikes. Fortunately, the weather was perfect, and we were able to do both!

Breakfast was Paleo pumpkin spice pancakes and sausage made from scratch by Sherry. As always, the meal was yummy and just what we needed to fuel our morning activity: kayaking. We assembled our kayaks (the Tucktecs are foldable which make them easy to store and carry in the back of our 4Runner), and put them into the water. We ended up kayaking for nearly four hours, up one side of Lake Raven and down the other before heading back to our campsite for lunch. I did have one close call; I tried to grab Sherry’s kayak as a joke and almost capsized. My kayak took on a lot of water, and I was pretty wet below the waist, but I was able to get the kayak righted without falling in. It was a scary couple of moments, but it was a good lesson for two reasons:

  1. I was reminded to not mess around when in the kayak.
  2. I learned that the Tucktecs are very stable, but it’s still a kayak, and if you try to do something out of the norm, you can find yourself in trouble quickly.

After kayaking, we were hungry, so we had our standard camping/overlanding lunch of Hungarian “Sport” sausage (known as Gyulai in Hungarian) along with some green onions, red pepper, Paleo bread with butter, and radishes. This quick and light lunch is always just enough to give us some calories without weighing us down.

After lunch, I aired up the tires of the bikes and we hit the trails. This was a challenge, as there are lots of hills with tree roots on them, so while going down them can be bumpy, going up them is treacherous. Fortunately, I grew up trail riding, so for me, it was pretty easy and fun. Sherry had a much more difficult time with it, but in the end, she prevailed and did very well!

After biking, Sherry showered (thankfully we have a Waterport and a Tough Stuff Overland shower curtain attached to the 4Runner) and made us an amazing Paleo pizza dinner. For dessert, we had a Paleo brownie that she made Friday night after our dinner. It was the perfect end to a perfect day filled with activity.

Five years ago, before I did my first Whole30 and adopted the Paleo lifestyle, I never could have even considered a day like this, let alone attempt it. I was so overweight and out of shape that there’d be no way I could safely operate the kayak let alone work my arms for four hours straight. The same goes for the biking up and down those hills and along the trails. Thankfully, now that I’m healthier and fit, the day was great and fun and it didn’t physically waste me. To the contrary, waking up this morning, I felt great, and my muscles were happy with the workout.

When you change your lifestyle and adopt a healthier diet and throw some fitness in there, your entire life follows suit, and things you couldn’t even fathom become realities. I never thought I could be an “Adventure person,” yet here I am, along with my wife, doing all kinds of fun things outdoors. We decided we really enjoyed the kayaks and we will be taking them with us more often, making sure to find places where we can use them in the future.

You Are Stronger Than You Think

This was me after my assessment and selection to the SFAB. I got through a lot more than I thought I was capable of back then, too.

Those were the words my daughter left me with on Friday afternoon as I ended our call before I went on post to attend my first official week of Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS). I had expressed to her some anxiety and a little bit of fear about some of the physical aspects of the training I was about to undertake. Later that day, I was to take the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) which is a newly-implemented fitness test that currently has a high failure rate. I had taken one three weeks prior, but I was unable to complete one primary event (the leg-tuck) and had to substitute it with a 2-minute plank (which I was able to complete).

I had set my goal on improving each of the six areas of the ACFT which include:

  • Repetition Strength Deadlift (three deadlifts)
  • Standing Power Throw (throw a 10 lbs medicine ball behind you)
  • Arm Extension Push-Up
  • 250-Meter Sprint, Drag, Carry
  • Leg Tuck
  • The 2-mile Run

My results last time were good enough to pass:

  • 140 lbs deadlift
  • 7.2m standing power throw
  • 20 arm extension push-ups
  • 2:30 250m sprint-drag-carry
  • 0 leg tucks, but successful 2-minute plank
  • 19:47 2-mile run

Those were good, but personally, not good enough. I wanted to not only be able to show improvement through my efforts between drills, but I wanted to push myself to improve for personal reasons. I never like passing any sort of assessment with bare minimums; I want to have some wiggle room just in case I’m not able to perform at my best, I know I can still pass. So, I put in the work, and the following were my results:

  • 180 lbs deadlift
  • 8.5m standing power throw
  • 26 arm extension push-ups
  • 2:12 250m sprint-drag-carry
  • 4 leg tucks
  • 19:17 2-mile run

These are good improvements, but I’m setting a goal for myself to reach the next level of success. There are three levels of testing: Moderate, Significant, and Heavy. As a Warrant Officer, we are required to pass the ACFT at the Moderate, or “Gold” standard which is:

  • 140 lbs deadlift
  • 4.5m standing power throw
  • 10 extension push-ups
  • 3:00 250m sprint-drag-carry
  • 1 leg tuck
  • 21:00 2-mile run

The Significant standard is:

  • 180 lbs deadlift
  • 6.5m standing power throw
  • 20 extension push-ups
  • 2:30 250m sprint-drag-carry
  • 3 leg tucks
  • 19:00 2-mile run

Comparing my results against the Significant standard, I completed everything go Significant standard except for the run. For me to get there, I just needed to run a little faster. It is kind of painful knowing I missed making the significant standard by 17 seconds. 17 seconds is what seperated me from making significant standard across the board.

However, like anything, I have a goal, and I have a process to get me there. I will continue to train and push myself to attain the results I want. Will I ever make it to Heavy standard? Here’s what it takes for the Heavy standard:

  • 200 lbs deadlift
  • 8m standing power throw
  • 30 extension push-ups
  • 2:10 250m sprint-drag-carry
  • 5 leg tucks
  • 18:00 2-mile run

I think that getting the deadlift will be easy. My workouts will have me at 200 lbs deadlifts within the week, so doing a three-lift repetition for the test when I do 5 lift repetitions will be easy. I already can meet the standing power throw, and getting to 30 push-ups shouldn’t be problematic. The 2:10 sprint-drag-carry is a goal I’m already very close to, and with some more High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), I should be able to meet that standard. I’m only 1 leg tuck away from meeting the 5 leg tucks standard, and I think I will be able to get there and beyond soon enough. The most challenging of the six events for me will be the 2-mile run in 18 minutes. I have short legs, and running has never been my forte. However, I’ve actually run as fast as 16:47 in my two-mile runs in the past, but not after a smoke session like the ACFT.

The ACFT, unlike the older Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) is an endurance event that tests not only our physical capabilities and strength, but also our ability to balance our effort between the six events. If I smoke myself on the deadlifts to get a high score, that could detrimentally effect my ability to complete the sprint-drag-carry and the 2-mile run later in the test.

So, how does my daughter come into play with my experience this past friday with the ACFT? It’s because her words echoed to me throughout the entire text period. Every time I had some sort of doubt in myself or my abilities, I heard her saying, “You’re stronger than you think you are. You’ve got this.” Every time I heard those words, I pushed harder. I didn’t want to let her down, and I also needed to take her words to heart. It’s easy to slow down on a run when you’re feeling tired, but her words made me analyze how I was feeling. Am I out of breath? No; just breathing hard. Are my legs smoked? A little, but they aren’t sore or hurting. Can I push a little harder? Probably; let’s do this!

I challenge anyone reading this to consider that you are stronger than you think you are. There is more inside you than you likely are willing to admit, or want to admit. It’s easy to slow down or to stop, but if you slow down and aren’t breathing hard or aren’t exerting yourself during exercise, are you realling going to get the results you’re after? My dad always used to say if you’re going to do something, do it right the first time. That can apply to exercise: put in the work, and make it good, solid work. You will never see the results you’re after unless you push yourself, and the strength within you is greater than you think.

Direction is More Important Than Velocity

My wife and I this past weekend at the Renaissance Festival. There was lots of good food there, and we ate more of it than we should have (but that’s the name of the game when it comes to special events).

In other words, making progress is more important than quick progress. Think about it; if you want to go to the store, it’s more important for you to turn towards the store and drive slowly than it is to drive quickly if you’re headed in the wrong direction. Making progress with your health and fitness is no different.

People always want the most results in the least amount of time. I get it. We’re all busy, and we are all impatient. We want to see the weight loss, we want to see the muscle gains, we want to have it all, and we want it now!

However, I’m fairly certain that you didn’t get overweight or unfit very quickly; it took time. In my case, it took me 20 years to get to 320 lbs. How could I expect to lose 150 lbs quickly? Fortunately, I didn’t have any expectations for either the amount of weight I could lose or the period of time it would take. I just wanted to be healthy; weight loss was a bonus. I never imagined I could lose 130 lbs in one year, but that’s how it turned out, and I think it’s because my focus was on overall health and not on the scale.

When you focus on overall health and consider all the data points, outliers can be easily dismissed. What’s an outlier in overall health? A rise in the scale for a day or three. Some bloating. Maybe feeling tired or worn down even after a full night’s rest. When taken as one part of a whole, you still see progress happening. Case in point: when I’m being strict with my diet because I want to lose weight, I find that I never lose inches off my waist and pounds on the scale at the same time. It’s like a pendulum, and it’s either one or the other for me.

As I continue my health journey, I keep looking at all the data points: how do I feel? How do my clothes fit? What’s my 2-mile run time? What is the max weight I can squat, bench, or lift? How many pull-ups am I able to do? What’s my weight? What’s my resting heart rate? Most of them will align, and one or two will not meet expectations, but it’s easy to get past that and stay motivated when everything else is looking good.

This past Monday, my runtime was horrible even though my weightlifting went exceptionally well. My weight was also a little higher than I’d like due to indulging in some non-Paleo food and drink this weekend at the Renaissance Festival, but that was expected and I knew it was coming. Taken together with all the other health data points, I decided I was still doing well, still on-track, and it kept me motivated. If anything, seeing setbacks like a higher weight or slower runtime pushes me to do better; to eat better, to push harder, to run faster.

The one thing I never allow myself to do is to try to cheat for better results. I never starve myself, I never overdo my exercise sessions, and I don’t take any pills, powders, patches, and I’ve never had any medical procedures to aid in my health journey. As the old advertisement used to say, I do things the old fashioned way; I earn them.

Don’t set time goals when it comes to your health. Set a direction and don’t let anything stop you. If things are moving slower than you’d like, don’t get discouraged. Keep going. Keep making that progress. Eventually, your hard work will be rewarded and you will start to see the results you’re looking for.

It is not always sunshine and daisies

The biggest number of messages I receive from people deal with motivation, or the lack of it. Everyone understands that the calories you expend must be greater than the calories you eat. People, for the most part, also understand the difference between the quality of calories: 100 calories of a Three Musketeers bar will be different than 100 calories of raw apples. Not as many people understand that diet has a larger impact on weight than exercise, but I’m doing my best to change that, and it’s not what we’re talking about this time. Right now, we are talking about motivation.

People ask me, “How do you stay so motivated?” The truth is that it’s not so much that I’m always motivated; sometimes, it’s more that I set a goal and I don’t want to fail. I tell a lot of people my goals, and that puts pressure on me to not let anyone down. Some people would feel that telling others would add too much anxiety; I get it. We’re all different. Other times, I do rely on my own motivation and my own desire to reach a goal, whether it’s a weight goal or a time on a run or a road march. Either way, that’s what I do.

But what do I do on the days when the motivation tank is empty? Well, it’s at those low points that I rely on dedication to get the work done. There are plenty of times when I don’t feel like exercising, or I just want to relax. What I do, however, is I make exercise compulsory to my daily routine and I make it a priority. I do not accept skipping a workout for any reason except for injury. Muscle pain from the last workout? Too bad; suck it up and get out there. Feeling tired? Oh well; you should have gotten more sleep, E.J. It’s too hot out? Oh well; you’re going to sweat.

In the past four years since I started exercising, the only times I have not exercised were when I had an injury or when I was on a vacation and it wasn’t practical. Otherwise, I’ve been running and/or weightlifting the entire time.

But I know that it’s hard to get to the point I’m at now. It was hard for me, too. But the burning desire in me to make progress, to get fit, and to get back into the military fueled my drive to consistent fitness. Not everyone has that. So, here are some things I suggest:

  • Have a workout partner. Exercising with someone else makes it more difficult to skip a workout. If you don’t have someone local to you, there are plenty of virtual apps or even Facebook or Facetime to keep you accountable.
  • Make a realistic plan and make it your priority. Do not allow yourself to skip for any reason. If something comes up, make plans around your workout (and your recovery/shower/etc). I’ve never had an issue with planning around my workouts. Ever.
  • Set realistic goals. Losing 10 lbs/month is not realistic. Even when I was losing 10-12 lbs/month for a year, I never set that as a goal. My goal was to eat right. Period. The weight loss was bonus. It’s easier to accomplish goals when they are realistic which in turn motivates you to keep going.
  • Don’t overdo it. Working out 5-6 times a week, especially for someone not used to it, will cause a lot of pain and possible injury. The more discomfort you feel, the less likely you are to keep with it.
  • Be honest with yourself and make health and fitness your priority. When you do this, motivation comes more easily. But, if you see it as an evil or something you don’t like or want to do but must do it, your chances of success are decreased.
  • Commit to the lifestyle change forever, not temporarily. Embrace the foods you can eat and stay healthy and avoid those that, while delicious, are killing you. If you decide to make a permanent lifestyle change, it makes it easier to stick with it rather than thinking, “Only two more months or 30 more lbs until I can eat cheesecake again!”

It’s not always easy, but nothing worthwhile is. If losing weight and getting fit were easy, everyone would do it. The fact that being fit is not common says a lot to the difficulty level it has for people in modern society. We have so many distractions, responsibilities, and things pulling us in all directions that make it difficult for us to focus and stay motivated. You need to do what works for you to keep you motivated and on-track. I’m fortunate in that I’ve found what motivates me, and what keeps me going when I’m not motivated. Find what works for you and stick to it with all your ability.

Five Years On

Me in 2015 vs 2020.

They say that if you can keep the weight off for over three years, you will likely succeed. I remember when we hit the three year mark, Sherry and I had a very muted celebration that went something like this:

Me: “Hey, Sherry, you know we hit three years with the weight loss, right?”
Sherry: “That sounds about right.”
Me: “They say that if you keep the weight off for three years, you’re more likely to be able to keep it off.”
Sherry: “That’s what I hear.”

Really exciting, right? There was no huge cheat meal, no alcoholic toasts, or anything like that. It was literally just a conversation next to our coffee maker in the kitchen.

There are a few points I’m trying to make. First, it’s that for Sherry and me, Whole30, Paleo, and exercise have worked. We dedicated ourselves to a permanent lifestyle change which has led us to far better health. Second, it’s that these milestones are important, but they are not finish lines. They are nothing more than mile markers on a long road.

This health journey is just that; a journey. I don’t know when it ends (and hopefully not for a long time!), but the entire time I’m on it, I’ll be eating well and getting my exercise in. At this point in my life, it’s not something that I just like to do; it’s something I need to do.

I enjoy feeling physically able to handle anything that life throws at me. This past weekend, for example, I needed to cut fire wood into smaller pieces. I pulled the axe out of the back of the 4Runner and chopped it all up. I joked with Sherry that I was going to be sore the next morning, but guess what? I didn’t have the slightest hint of soreness. All that weightlifting and PT I’ve been doing prepared me for the wood chopping and I was able to get it done without any pain or soreness afterward. Even my hands didn’t get blistered due to the weightlifting I do without gloves.

As for the lower weight, it is much easier climbing up the ladder to our rooftop tent, and for me to climb the stairs in our house. It goes without saying that with me being in the National Guard, I need to be able to do things like pass the Army Combat Fitness Test and to do road marches (carrying a 48 lbs pack, a rifle, and wearing a helmet) in boots. Of course, not everyone at my age needs to be able to do these things, but I do, so I keep working hard at my fitness.

Will I continue my fitness after I leave the military? Absolutely! The benefits far outweighs the time I put into exercise. Once I got into shape, exercise becomes more of a time investment than anything else, as the post-exercise pain becomes nothing more than a comfortable feeling of knowing I am staying fit. My muscles feel it, but it’s not pain. It’s a warmth; that’s the best way I can describe it.

So, it’s been over five years that we started the new lifestyle, and here we are. To say that my life has changed for the better is an understatement, and I honestly don’t recognize myself in old pictures anymore. I look and feel so much healthier now, and even my medical exams would agree with that; I have fewer health problems now than I did 10 years ago!

Just remember: weight loss happens in the kitchen and fitness happens in the gym. Don’t confuse losing weight with fitness. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet. I lost 130 lbs without a single drop of sweat without suffering or starving. I used no surgical procedures, powders, pills, or paid plans. It was just a change in my diet for a year followed by adding gradual exercise. Feel free to message or email me if you have questions, need help, or want some motivation. I’m happy to answer!