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Ask a Swole Woman: What Should I Actually Be Doing When I’m Lifting Weights Alone?

Dear Swole Woman,

Hi there! So I do Crossfit classes three to four times a week and have access to open gym time for lifting weights the rest of the time. I like the mix of cardio and weightlifting the classes give me, but I want to dedicate my open gym time strictly to lifting. The problem is, I often feel like I go in the gym, do one or two movements for an hour and then go home. I’m not sure what, exactly, I should be doing to maximize my solo open gym time—should I be creating open gym programming for myself? Just track the movements I do & the improvement I see? I know the first step is apparently buying a sexy moleskine to take notes in (at least that’s what I see my fellow gym people doing), but what on earth do I put in it?

I love this column, thanks so much for writing it!

– Perplexed About Practicing

Lifting movements are one of the core components of Crossfit, but given that Crossfit workouts are often done with the goal of completing your reps at a high intensity, open gym sessions would be a good time to slooooow down and lay that groundwork.

I never get tired of talking about how magical strength training can feel—you don’t have to do that many reps, you get to focus on quality and not quantity, you get to rest for a minute between sets, and the sessions are generally over in 30-45 minutes. In a world where we are always pushed to break a sweat and go as hard as possible and leave the gym dizzy and with sore abs for the next five days, strength training is a beautiful and focused (if intense) reprieve from all that.

Having at least a strength base (that is, taking the time to build your ability and technique in basic strength movements) may have a significant payoff in “functional fitness” overall, as Crossfit terms it, according to experts. One of the core tenets of Crossfit is that the structure of workouts always varies—if you wanted to get better or even competitive at Crossfit, putting time and care into how you train in the more intense strength-oriented stuff may really help you.

I’m not a coach, but if your goal is to improve at lifting, I’d highly recommend a starter strength training program. Beginning programs are generally three training days per week. Worth noting that most coaches recommend maximizing rest outside of the three lifting days, because it’s necessary for recovery and building strength. You might not make a ton of progress strength-wise if you try to keep up other intense activities on top of a strength program. That being said, I think at least using that time and shooting for that frequency of training to focus on developing the core movements, including squat, bench, deadlift, rows, and overhead presses (or if you want to pursue Olympic weightlifting, snatches and cleans and jerks) might really help your overall progress. There are lots of simple starter programs you can follow that involve only three movements per workout, which is not a whole lot more than what you’re doing now. But rather than focus on pushing yourself to do a lot of reps, you focus on rep quality.

“Quality” is a little bit of a nebulous term, but generally it means favoring doing slightly less weight (though still heavy enough that you are tired after only a few reps) so that you can do the movement correctly. “Correctly” is also a little bit of a nebulous term, and entire books have been written about how to do proper squats or deadlifts or presses, but it doesn’t take much to learn basically good form. I can’t cover it all here, but I highly recommend checking out videos online of proper form, and then also filming yourself during your open gym time so you can see how you’re doing. If you’re not sure how to read your own form, posting those videos online as form checks can get you feedback if you feel like you’re stalled on how to get better.

The way this will pay off is that how good (or bad) your form is can actually present a roadblock to getting stronger. If you don’t take the time to do these movements correctly, there is a higher risk of injury, and you won’t be using your body’s muscles together in concert the way that they are literally made to be used. If you put in the time to take it slow and focus on quality, it will lay the groundwork for you to get better and stronger at your sport. (As an aside, particularly if you keep up your Crossfit classes at the same frequency as you’re doing them now, make sure to eat enough and get your sleep and take at least some rest days. Muscles are not made of dreams deprivation, they are made of food and self-care.)

As for what goes in that notebook—mine is personally a mess, but I write down what I intend to do, including which movements, for how many reps and sets and how much weight, and then what I actually did, sometimes with notes on whether I failed a rep, how the movement or weight felt, or whether I punked on form at all so I remember what to watch out for next time. You can also write down how the workout felt overall, which can help you notice trends. It’s like a little diary!

I also sometimes take a few pages to write out notes from my coach or the whole mental setup of cues I’m trying to remember before going into a movement, e.g., when I’m deadlifting I want to square my feet at a particular position related to the bar, flex my lats, hamstrings, and glutes, press my stomach toward my legs to help set my back straight, get my body weight back behind the bar, set my gaze slightly to the left to adjust for my slightly crooked spine, and then push the ground away. All these cues have piled up over years of iteration and are particular to my challenges with doing this lift, but as you practice and notice what you struggle with, you’ll get a similar sort of workflow going, and the goal is to get to a point where it comes second nature. It’s impossible to do it all perfectly every time, but that is part of what I love about lifting; it’s all iterative, and there is not really a perfect or even universal standard to hold yourself to. Many of the best lifters have eminently weird form and still do it better than the rest of us, and that is the beauty of it.

Your challenges will also change year in and year out, and lifts can feel a little complex, so writing it all out every once in a while helps me. You can draw pictures. You can doodle. There are no rules, it is just a notebook. But as far as making your time in the gym productive, basically making notes on what you intended to do and what you actually did is generally the idea. A nice thing about following a set program like what I described above is that you will know at least what to write down to begin with, what your intention is, and then filling in what you actually do will be your goal. This way also you don’t have to try and remember you did last time. Remembering doesn’t sound like it will be that hard given all the beautiful simplicity I was talking about before, but I get a particular kind of blissful blank mind when I lift, and when I add in the two days of rest I take before I am meant to go back and do another workout, there is no way I’ll remember the weights I did, or more importantly how they felt or whether I did them right, so it’s extremely useful to have those notes.

Strength is for everyone, but it’s especially for women. Ask a Swole Woman is a column for people who are tired of trying to always be less, eat less, do less, and make it look perfect and effort-free. Have a question for me about strength training or anything related? If you’re ready to give your body what it needs, to test your grit, and become more than you ever have been, email AASW@self.com.


Casey Johnston is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: @caseyjohnston.


Letters to AASW are edited for length and context, and the content of each AASW column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.

My Husband and I Ran Our First Marathon Together and It Was the Best Experience

If someone told 20-year-old me that I’d one day run a marathon with my husband, I’d say they were delusional.

My husband played sports most of his life and ran the 100- and 200-meter sprints in high school. I, on the other hand, tried out for my junior high track team and was “promoted” to assistant manager, replacing my gym shorts with a clipboard. I didn’t run again until adulthood.

My dad died while I was in my 20s, and I used distance running as a form of therapy. It’s since been 12 years, a couple of triathlons, and a few half marathons later, and running has become my all-time favorite hobby. I’m incredibly slow and still mostly unathletic, which is why I’d been too scared to run a marathon. But when New Balance reached out to see if I’d be interested in a spot on their team for the TCS New York City Marathon, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

I knew that if I were going to train and accomplish this goal, I’d need one person by my side: my husband, Nate.

So we set out to run our first-ever marathon as a couple.

Training began in July. In New Orleans. Lovely. We slugged through the painfully humid runs together, and while it would seem like the most terrible activity in the world, we actually enjoyed training as a pair. I received the tutelage of John Honerkamp, founder and CEO of J.R. Honerkamp Consulting & Coaching, whose online training program was a huge support for Nate and me. Basically, we’d get a daily email that consisted of our running distance, along with a helpful tip, and his personal expertise was an email or phone call away.

During this time, there were a few surprising things about training as a pair that I liked.

First, the long-distance running forced us to stay in on weekends, when we’d otherwise be out socializing. There were a lot of sober movie nights.

I also loved that it gave us a mutual goal: Ours was to finish the race and run the entire time, without focusing on speed. We planned to start together, but since Nate’s naturally faster than I am, we’d break off to run at our own comfortable pace and catch up in a tent, post-race.

Finally, I loved that leading up to the race was exciting and scary and gave us something new and healthy to focus on and talk about. We planned meals, shared playlists, stretched while watching our favorite shows, and traded tips on everything from where to find the city’s best public bathrooms on our run route to superior chafing balms. Romantic, right?

On marathon day, we got to the site four hours early and spent the morning huddled together in a corner. We were more nervous than on our wedding day.

We read the paper, stretched, and calmed each other’s nerves. When it was time to line up, Nate and I started the race together and held hands while walking to the starting line. How cheesy is that? Yep, it was definitely more nerve-racking than going down the aisle.

When the starting cannon went off and we began the race, it felt exhilarating. I expected Nate to zoom ahead of me (understandably), but we ran together at a relaxed pace for the first 5 miles, which helped to shake out the nerves and was the ideal way to start our first marathon together.

The next 17 miles were a blur of exhausted exhilaration, and I loved every minute.

Even though I wasn’t running with Nate, I thought about him often. In a circumstance that could be competitive for some people, I wanted nothing more than for him to have the best run of his life.

It wasn’t until the very end that I felt tired. I had received so many great tips during my training, and my favorite was to dedicate specific miles to loved ones as you struggle. For me, this didn’t come until mile 24, which I silently dedicated to my mom. I thought about how she always has a positive attitude no matter what the circumstance entails, and I vowed to do the same at that moment. Big grins and high-fives got me through. I dedicated 25 to my dad. I know that he would have loved to have been there to cheer me on and that my drive and persistence comes from him.

During the very last 385 yards to the finish, I thought about Nate and the hard work we put into this race and how lucky I was to have him with me for a bucket-list accomplishment. And then I saw his face.

I hear about and have seen people get emotional during marathons, though I felt nothing but pure joy the entire race. (Well, joy with a side of shin splints.) But when I saw my husband waiting for me at the finish line, we both choked up, and gave each other a huge hug.

After meeting a group of friends for a celebration, Nate and I had our own two-person party and clinked a glass of wine at our hotel bar. We talked about the day and went over every amazing moment; weirdly, it felt a lot like rehashing our wedding day so many years ago.

Within a week of the race we already decided that we’re going to do another. Running as a couple is something I envision us doing until we’re old and gray. But for now, I’m ready to tackle #2 with my #1.


Anne Roderique-Jones is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Vogue, Marie Claire, Southern Living, Town & Country, and Condé Nast Traveler. Twitter: @AnnieMarie_ Instagram: @AnnieMarie_


I Peed Myself Running a 10K—and Still Finished the Race

It had been a full 10 years since I’d run a race of any distance. In the meantime, there’d been a wedding, two cross-country moves, a kid who was somehow pushing 5, and a few halfhearted and ultimately failed attempts at reigniting my running practice. I was excited to finally be back in the game. I’d been running regularly for over a month, and dang, if I wasn’t feeling pretty all right. Even a little puffed up. Proud.

So when my husband and I let our friends talk us into signing up for a popular 10K a town over, I figured I’d treat it as a training run leading up to a half marathon I had my eye on. I mean, 10K? I could do a 10K—especially one that was still more than a month away.

Fast-forward to race day. My husband and I parked the car and jogged to the start. I took comfort in noting that at least at this particular race, things looked and sounded about the same as they had in ’08: swirls of runners, sponsor booths, row of portable toilets, benign musical entertainment, bannered arch over the start line, and, before I knew it, the starter’s gun. We were off!

As I’d done countless times before, I went out too fast—but realized it soon enough and slowed in time to hopefully finish with roughly even splits.

There was new turf, though, and I’m not just talking about a course that was hillier than anticipated.

The waterworks began early in the second mile—an uphill stretch that would’ve been hard enough without the creeping wetness.

At first, it was just mildly disconcerting but soon progressed to…beyond that. Surrounded on all sides by hardy, all-in runners, I was all-out peeing my tights.

Also striking was the fact that I’d had no warning whatsoever, not a twinge of urgency. How did this happen? I wondered.

Faster and hillier running than I was used to? Check. Two cups of coffee pre-run rather than my usual one? Check. A skipped bathroom stop at the start? Check.

Fine, but were a couple of stupid mistakes enough to account for the fact that my so-called moisture-wicking leggings were soaked through, with pee droplets visibly catching air? Seemed likelier that pushing a baby out of my body five years ago was at the root of my dilemma. As SELF has reported, incontinence after childbirth is quite common. (Thanks, kid!) And I was only getting wetter.

But what was I to do? It didn’t feel good—warm, saturating, spreading—and it must have been noticeable to runners behind me, but I was striding through a quiet residential stretch of Holyoke, Massachusetts, nary a plastic potty in sight. I could knock on the door of a random house to ask for, what, a toilet and some dry clothes? And then resume running? Right.

I considered dropping out. Just calling it a day and walking back to the start.

But although slowing down would fix one issue—the droplets ricocheting off me into the air as I ran—getting to dry pants was hardly a hop, skip, and a jump away. And anyway, who was I kidding? I wasn’t quitting. I’d never quit a race, and I’d worked hard to get to that day.

Besides, it was just pee, I reminded myself, on repeat. Sure, it wasn’t comfortable, but then neither was the hill I was making my way up. Nor the one before it, nor the one before that. But wait—was that the 3-mile marker? Meaning I was halfway there? Well, all right!

And as I also reminded myself: No one cares. They’re focused on their own race.

It’s just pee. I’ve got this.

And I did. All the way to the finish, and with a time I would’ve celebrated even under less soggy circumstances.

In the hours and days after, I mulled over an experience that had admittedly felt pretty surreal in the unfolding.

I thought about the effects of aging and major life events. I thought about what I would have done—and will do, next time—differently.

I also had to chuckle at the surprise bonus of wetting my pants as distraction from other physical discomforts. The heavy legs. The labored breathing. The dry, stale runner’s mouth. Oh, that? Who cares! I’ve lost all control of my bladder!

But mostly, I thought about how I’d managed to keep myself in the race, and about how freaking good it felt to come out of a decade-long hiatus to rejoin a community of people whose strength—physical, mental, and beyond—sometimes shows itself in, um, surprising ways.

And also: It’s just pee.