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Facing the Biggest Challenge Yet

It’s not about marathons, olympic lifts, or interval training; but it is going to take commitment, perseverance, practice and patience on my part. Right now I’m thinking about it-again, which is why I am writing about it.

Over my lifetime I have always participated in physical activities that required me to learn, grow and become more skilled in order to fit in and advance to the next level, and I love that. In my younger years it was ballet, then softball pitching and field hockey. When my children were younger and I couldn’t dance or play I coached. Most of the time I was involved in team sports which I loved. I especially loved that a group of friends and aquaintances could come together for a common goal and with consistent nurturing, team building, and hard work, get the job done. The goal was always to come together as a team;looking out for each other in good times and in bad, as a community.

Over the years I have also joined and unjoined many gyms and participated in my share of group fitness classes: aqua aerobics, Body Combat, Zumba, you name it. I would commit for awhile, take my place at the back of the class so I could not be seen in the mirrors surrounding the studio, feeling awkward and uncomfortable when it seemed to me that everyone in the class knew each other already with their casual, easy going conversations before and after class, and then decide it was just not for me. That was my pattern. I decided I did not like group classes, but my excuses were usually tied to schedule, intensity, and a whole range of other issues.

Next I tried working with a personal trainer, at a gym, but in a space off of the main gym floor. I found a new level of comfort and I could be myself without the anxiety associated with being surrounded by cliques of other people-feeling like I was the odd man out. I did not have to interact with anyone but my trainer and the occasional client or employee who might wander by.

When I tried to rejoin a gym closer to home to workout on the weekends and evenings, once again the experience left me feeling like the new kid. The lack of physical open space at the gym meant I could not find a secluded spot to do my thing. My choices were a smallish closed room with mirrors on 4 walls and mats on the floor, or treadmills and machines so close together you shared breath and in some instances -sweat. Gross.

And so I joined another gym, closer to work, which meant I could go whenever I had time, in the middle of the day, or on weekends, and guess what? Most of the time I had the place to myself. If I was not the only person in there, quite often there were fewer than 10 personal trainer/client pairs and the gym was so huge you could workout for hours and never have to make eye contact with anyone. I still miss that place.


My favorite day ever. I was the only one there.

I am now at a gym that is quite different from my other experiences. For the last 7 months I have been figuring out how to fit in. I have had good days and not so good days, good weeks and not so good weeks, and I have finally solved one more piece of the puzzle.

Last week was a great week. Until Friday. I had been looking forward to ending my week with a solid Friday workout heading into the weekend, but when I arrived and saw more than a dozen cars in the parking lot my heart started beating a bit too fast. I almost drove off without ever going inside. But then I thought to myself, “Maybe I’ll just see what it is like. I can always go for a run.”

There were people everywhere. It was organized chaos in my mind; random people doing random parts of individualized plans. Some guy I had talked to two weeks ago said hi to me and I’m sure I looked shell shocked (How does he even know my name?) I felt my focus slipping away-I could not even think. My eyes kept scanning the space, hoping for a corner, or a spot for me to retreat to, out of the way, but all I could see were pairs and groups of people chatting, having conversation, and doing their thing. Again I wanted to leave, but I decided doing something was better than doing nothing at all. It was not a good feeling. I could not focus and I kept blaming it on other things. The reality is, this was not a productive workout environment for me.

Maybe if I knew some of the group just a little bit it would have been less distracting having them do their thing within inches of me; maybe if I shared sweat for a few months with some of these people I would have felt less uncomfortable and awkward. I am sure there were other folks there that were not part of the regular community, and maybe there were even a few introverts in the mix that decided, like me, to just do the work. I know it is one of the biggest challenges I face unless I go back to 1:1 sessions. Maybe it is worse because I have something to compare it to. Maybe it is worse because this is a particularly overly stimulating time of year for introverts. I am sure it is worse because I look forward to going to the gym as a means to escape the crazy madness of work and life. When the gym adds to that craziness, it’s time to go for a run, instead.

Once I realized the issue on Friday has happened before, and it is not me and my technique and my focus, I decided to use this experience to help shape my goals.

 We all know the environment plays a crucial role in learning. We also know everyone needs to feel as if they belong. So when you do not have control over your learning environment, what are the things you can do to fit in so that you can learn and grow?

Here is what I am thinking:

1.I am an introvert: I go into survival mode when I find myself in overly stimulating situations-in a room full of people I mostly don’t know- which means I look for a quiet corner or feel the need to use headphones to shut everything out.

2. I tend to be socially awkward around strangers, so if it looks like people know each other already, I feel as if I am the only person without a friend in the room which makes me want to (see above).

3. I thrive on predictability and consistency. If I schedule time to go to the gym, I like to know who will be there so there are no surprises; I hate surprises, they throw me off my game.

4. It is really hard for me to”go with the flow” as a matter of fact, it takes so much mental energy I have no energy left to lift heavy things correctly.

5. I need to give myself permission to walk out if the environment is not productive for me. I will always have running clothes and shoes with me just in case.

6. It’s ok to be different. I want to be more outgoing and friendly and to be able to have casual conversations with other members, but it takes so much mental energy I have to make a conscious effort to do so; predictability and consistency are super helpful when it comes to making friends in new situations.

7. The plan is good until it is not. A plan is only good if you are able to carry it out. When there is no space and you have to wait to use sweaty equipment, there needs to be a plan for when the plan doesn’t work. See number 5.

8. In the end, it is only one workout. Things happen. People are allowed to go the gym, enjoy each other’s company, have fun, be loud, and do their thing.

9. My strategies will involve showing up and  giving my best effort on that particular day, trying at least 3 strategies such as: taking a break by walking outside, using headphones, and jumping on the treadmill for a couple laps to clear me head.

10. Quiet practice time is for home-not the gym-this is a shift in thinking. The gym is where you learn and have someone help you figure out how to become better.

Although my gym is not a Crossfit gym, there have been many blog posts about how Crossfit boxes can provide a positive workout environment and community building for introverts, and I am guessing that might be true if a group all happened to be working out together, consistently, for a period of time. But that is Crossfit and everyone is doing the same WOD, and/or participating in team workouts and competitions. I think the key is in people coming together as a group, with common goals. Maybe I just need to find my group.

Related Article: Why Working Out in a Group Matters.

For more great articles on introverts check out Eleanor Brown’s article Born to Be Mild  published in Crossfit Journal, 2014.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert or somewhere in between? Take Susan Caine’s Quiet Revolution test to find out..


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