My life as a runner has ground to a halt over the last few weeks. While on vacation in July, I noticed some nagging pain just above my ankle after one of my outings. I stretched the area afterwards, but otherwise kept to my normal “every other day” schedule. The pain escalated as I continued to labor under the tropical sun, eventually getting to a point where I couldn’t walk pain-free.
I took the weekend off. The pain subsided. Declaring myself cured, I hit the pavement again and everything seemed to be going well. Until I crossed a street and hit the curb with my sound foot. And there it was again, a jolt of pain signaling that I had tweaked the original injury.
Swearing under my breath, I slowed down until the discomfort subsided slightly, and then continued. Telling myself that working through discomfort is a key part of running, I sped up, willing myself to close strong. But after finishing and standing still for a few minutes, I realized that the pain was now worse than it had been before I shut everything down for the weekend. This wasn’t going away.
* * *
Doing what any responsible person would under the circumstances, I began perusing the internet to diagnose myself. I concluded, quickly, that I have achilles tendonitis. The solution? Ice, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, and no running.
And that leads me to the heart of this week’s essay: the joys of exercise that isn’t running.
* * *
We have an elliptical machine in our house. The first sign that using it must be a miserable experience comes from its name: the elliptical machine.
The machine you run on in a gym isn’t called a “running machine;” it’s a treadmill. The machine you bicycle on in a gym isn’t called a “cycling machine;” it’s a stationary bike. The machine you use to ascend imaginary buildings in a gym isn’t called a “stair machine;” it’s a stairmaster.
To put it simply, all of these devices either replicate normal human activity – running (on a treadmill); cycling (on a stationary bike) – or allow you to become an all-powerful superhuman – a “stairmaster” – albeit in a very limited domain. But then, sitting outside of this happy, traditional fitness universe is the elliptical machine.
We call it an elliptical machine because we can’t make it sound like anything that’s biomechanically normal. Moving your legs in an elliptical motion, sans impact, has the benefit of not destroying your joints on pavement, but it’s in no way a regular anatomical feat. You don’t hear stories about the ancient Ellipsis tribe, covering the savannah as they pursue their prey, their feet never leaving the ground while simultaneously moving their legs in wobbly circles in some kind of bizarre forward moonwalk. And that’s because moving your body in this fashion can only be done by using some kind of bizarre technology – a machine – that forces you to do so. It’s fundamentally unnatural.
Still, when you’re suffering from achilles tendonitis, subjecting yourself to this monstrosity seems better than doing nothing for 4-8 weeks, gaining weight, and losing all the benefits of the work you’ve done up to that point. And so, I now clamber aboard our elliptical machine virtually every morning.
I hate it.
* * *
Long-time readers know that I enjoy running because it allows me to unplug, to disengage. I intentionally don’t clock distance or time when I’m on the road. I just plot routes and finish them. The way I make running a sustainable activity requires me to shut off my competitive streak – “How fast?” “How far?” “What are you training for?” – and simply do it for the sake of doing it.
But put me on an elliptical machine and the whole equation changes. First, I’m no longer outdoors. Instead, I’m trapped in a tiny room consisting of the mechanical behemoth I have to ride, some other fitness equipment, a TV, and a litter box for our cats to perform their daily necessaries. (Nothing highlights the awfulness of an elliptical machine like a box full of cat excrement.)
Second, once I’m using a machine – especially one whose sole purpose is to force your body to do things it doesn’t normally do – I can only measure what I’m doing in terms of a time and a (calculated) distance. Instead of unplugging, I’m now a slave to the digital sitting less than a foot in front of my face.
(Also, I find the whole concept of distance on an elliptical bizarre. Yesterday, I spent 45 minutes on the thing and covered 2.82 miles, as if there’s actually an analog for doing something that’s neither biking nor walking. Is the machine telling me that if I could somehow take it out onto the street and cover actual distance, this is how far I’d go? How did the people who design this figure out that algorithm? Did someone make a “mobile” elliptical and test it? Is there some kind of international elliptical distance standard I’m unaware of that allows for comparisons between different elliptical machines? (I think not, as different ellipticals have differently shaped ellipses.) Or, as I suspect, does each manufacturer simply make it all up so people like me think they’re doing more than they actually are?)
Third, there’s simply no way that I can subject myself to this horrific experience without some form of distraction. On the elliptical, there’s only the wall in front of me, a digital readout, and the machine’s noise. In a (largely unsuccessful) effort to block it all out, I therefore don headphones and blast obnoxiously loud (and fast) music into my ears to make the experience slightly less horrific. (For those of you asking, “Why not turn on the TV?”, I have two answers: (1) unless the TV is directly in front of you (which mine isn’t), you end up with your body in one direction and your head in another for 30-45 minutes, which doesn’t feel so great; and (2) I can’t focus on the images and what’s being said while both sweating profusely and panting.)
In short, the elliptical machine violates every principle of exercise that I hold dear. I’d sledgehammer the thing if I didn’t disembark from it every day with my shirt soaked through, providing me the only objective evidence that I’ve actually done something with my life for the preceding 30-45 minutes.
On the bright side, my achilles feels better every day. And when I resume running, I’ll appreciate it a lot more thanks to this monstrosity.