I’m Maria, and at a grand total of 27 years, I believe I can split my life into 2 very distinct parts: before exercise discovery and after exercise discovery.
Before exercise discovery
Growing up I was always active in a “playing out” kind of way. I would go on bike rides and swim with friends, play tag for hours and make up endless dance routines with my cousins. However, as I grew into a young teen, unconsciously my life became much less active. I totally and utterly fulfilled the teen girl stereotype of movies, sleepovers, listening to music and gossiping about boys. While I was happy with this, my body didn’t react too well and I started to gain weight. I then became a 13-year-old, who was self-conscious and massively jealous of the slim physique of my friends. Not once did it occur to me to turn to exercise, but as the years went on, luckily for me, my excess weight slipped away and as it did my confidence grew – so still no reason to turn to exercise.
I started at the University of Birmingham in 2008, where I was randomly allocated some flatmates, who still today remain some of my favourite people. The only downside to this fabulous bunch – they were all very athletic and each had a sport they loved and/or excelled in! This resulted in lots of lonely Wednesday afternoons/evenings (Universities official sports team time), where my friends would train & socialise with their sports teams. This was the first time the idea of getting into exercise crossed my mind – but where would I start?
Without my knowledge, I’d opted for attending a big, competitive sporting uni. This meant (from my point of view at the time) that it didn’t really provide access to sports for people like me. If I’m honest, the one thing stopping me from starting exercise was:
“What will everyone say? Surely they’ll just laugh – I’m not the athletic one!”
So, three years at university went by and I achieved a lot of things; a 2:1 degree, the ability to quote pretty much the whole of friends and a pretty speedy strawpedo PB – but still no exercise.
The half turning point came when, as a graduate, I returned from 5 months of travelling to start a ‘desk’ job. My face chubbier and my waistline expanded after 5 months of pad-thai and beer, I decided my youthful metabolism must have broken and I would have to start to exercise. I joined a gym and for about a year would force myself to the gym once or twice a week – moving mindlessly from each piece of cardio equipment to the next, with no exercise aspirations other than not gaining weight. I attended the odd boot camp and spin class – but largely my exercise was unstructured and unmotivating.
ENTER – my ex-boyfriend, let’s call him Steve. Steve was a personal trainer. I’m not sure we had a huge amount in common (apologies if you’re reading this – I’m sure you’d agree), but he introduced me to a different side of exercise. He taught me not to fear the weights room, and he showed me the importance of a varied workout regime. This was the start of my love of exercise.
After exercise discovery (AED)
It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly I started to see changes in my body. Steve made me a programme and I started taking note of what foods would feed my body, rather than rely on my student cooking repertoire that had stuck with me. I was feeling good and the ‘squishy’ parts of my body started to firm up. However, shortly after this, I moved to London and Steve and I ended.
A new city, a single life and new friends – I can’t say that I stayed faithful to my food and exercise regime. I would eat what I wanted, drink far too much, too often and basically neglected my body.
After some time, I managed to establish something called balance. I would go out with friends and eat what I wanted in restaurants, I would drink when I wanted to – but I would also fit the gym into my morning routine and prep my food the night before (albeit, not always). However, as I repeated my same old gym routine, I started looking around for something more. I dreamed of competing in races like some of my cousins and my brother (marathon runners, cyclists & iron men *insert eye roll emoji*), but I was most definitely terrified – I couldn’t even run a 5K! Or could I?
On an inspiration high from watching the UK Ironman race in Bolton (my hometown – for my sins!), I decided that a triathlon was something I had to get involved in. I was long past the idea that any team sports could work for me, due to my lack of hand/eye coordination – but commitment and competitiveness was something I could do. I’d done the odd jog, I’d done a few spin classes and I had loads of swimming badges. How hard could it be?
I entered my first sprint triathlon in early 2016 and started training straight away by teaching myself to swim (properly) with a structured breathing pattern. I would watch YouTube videos in the evening and go to the pool in the morning to practise. I struggled – I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it and a desire to succeed didn’t seem enough. I bought a bike and started to brave it on London roads. In May, I competed in my first triathlon and I completed it. However, other than crossing the finishing line and a brief moment of bliss on the bike – I hated it! I recall glaring at my brother during the swim (who was cheering me on at the side), who I blamed for me being here. I spent the rest of the day sulking at what I saw was a failure.
Luckily for me, my competitive nature meant this wasn’t the end of my triathlon experience. I got an email at work a few weeks later that offered a free entry to the Cambridge triathlon in July. Without thinking about it, I immediately entered and put it to the back of my mind for a week or two. Reality came creeping up on me as I checked the race details and saw three words that filled me with dread – “open water swim”. Petrified, but not totally deterred, I ordered a wetsuit and took a trip to Tooting Lido. Determined to make this triathlon a more positive experience (and because it was in front of work colleagues), I attended an open water swimming class at London Docklands. I trained hard, often twice a day. I completed the Cambridge sprint triathlon, and spent the entire race with a huge smile on my face – I wiped 20 minutes off my previous time and loved every second.
This experience taught me to face my fears head-on. You can achieve anything you set your mind to and the only thing stopping you is you. Sign up for the race. Since this experience, I’ve completed 3 half marathons, a 750km cycle the length of Ireland (check out Claire Donnelly’s blog) and can squat and deadlift more than my bodyweight.
My friends that only know AED Maria can’t believe that exercise hasn’t always been the huge part of my life that it is now. I gym before work most mornings (hello 5:20am alarm), this sets me up for the day and the alarm gets easier as you adjust! After a tough day at work, a run can sort me out (as can a glass of wine!) and help me get my head straight. Exercise has become my escapism and my sanity check.
The exercise endorphins I get when I pass a new milestone no matter how big or small; a new 5km PB, trying out a new exercise class or cycling a new route on a sunny day, cannot be beaten. My advice to anyone waiting for the turning point is to stop waiting (don’t wait for a Steve!) and go for it today. Anyone that sarcastically or negatively comments on the ‘new you’, was never worth knowing as the ‘old you’ anyway! Good luck!!
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