Non-food rewards

I spent a lot of time this morning thinking about non-food rewards. All dog trainers know our mantra: “what gets rewarded gets repeated” and its corollary: “the dog decides what’s a reward and what isn’t.” Let me give an example. My dog adores chicken livers but he spits out apple chunks. The chicken livers are a reward; the apple chunks are not. For me, apples are a reward–but not for Rush. He gets to decide, if he’s the one getting rewarded. Dog trainers also spend time developing rewards that aren’t food. Rush loves to play tug with me; Dancer likes to have her hips massaged while she hides her head between my thighs. But Dancer doesn’t like tug that much–although she does like to be chased while she runs around with the tug toy in her mouth. The dog decides what’s rewarding.

I am trying these days to develop reward systems for myself, because humans (like dogs) also experience the same training effect: “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” Chocolate, for many of us, is a reward because chocolate releases a whole sequence of chemical responses. Same with caffeine. Sugar–well, sugar has massive effects on the brain. But… I’m trying to lose weight, run faster and more often, and develop other healthy habits. How do I reward myself in such a way that I want to repeat healthy behaviors? Non-food rewards are essential. So I’ve been trying out various behavioral rewards. I have a lemon creme body wash I use only when I run; I love it, but it’s pricey. I get a pedicure in the last few days before a race, as a reward for all the training (and because short toenails are way more comfortable during races). I bought a nice bathing suit to swim my laps in. I buy socks with cute designs to wear running. For a while, I tried paying myself a dollar for every mile run, but that was not (it turned out) an effective reward. It was just too abstract.

The power of your thoughts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of thought. There’s been some research showing that the mind is more of a limit, athletically, than the body. People who believe they can go faster do, in fact, go faster. (How do you measure that? You put the person on a treadmill that lies.) (One example of such research can be found here. Here is another one.)

As a consequence of my reading on this, I’ve been experimenting with what I think while I’m running. When I run and think “light long float along” (it has a rhythm that works for me), I am about 10% faster than when I “just run.” I seriously felt like an idiot humming my little mantra to myself–it’s so new-age-bullshit I can barely stand it–but there the evidence was in my Garmin splits. Now when I start to get tired, I start thinking about floating and just touching down occasionally to propel myself along. It seems to be working.

For years now, I’ve been saying “oooohhh! this will be a challenge!” when I encounter an agility course of a certain kind (you know, the kind where you hear other people say “this is hard”). I say to myself “it’s a chance to test my training.” Lately though, I say “this will be fun!” and, intriguingly, I’m enjoying agility a lot more and feeling a lot less frustrated when things don’t go quite the way I wanted them to. Apparently, my brain–and I expect everyone’s brain feels differently about this–wants to have fun more than it wants to Q. This is good to know.

This isn’t about agility, either. Well, mostly not.

I haven’t written much about dog agility in recent months. Yes, I’m still competing with Rush, but our last trial was early July, and I spent July doing trail running, and I just completed a sprint triathlon last weekend–and next weekend is our next trial. I’ve been training contacts and weave entries and we’ll see what we get. I’m trial chair, so it mostly won’t be about me.

The triathlon was much more fun than I expected. The night before I had my usual stomach fluttering dreads. I was worried about the heat, the distance, the bike ride, flat tires, everything. That’s normal for me. I get the flutters every time, no matter what. In agility, I get the flutters in a more minor way after twelve years of competition, but I still get them. I don’t sleep well when I have an event in the morning.

This triathlon was the Girlfriends Triathlon, a women-only event in Vancouver (Washington). A half-mile down-current swim in the mighty Columbia River at Frenchman’s Bar (Park); a 11.5 mile bike ride on the local road at Frenchman’s Bar, and a 5K run on the bike path. The water temperature was 69 degrees (F); the air temp at 9:14 AM, when I started, was 71 degrees. It got hotter and hotter as we progressed through the triathlon, and the run was utterly without shade.

Why? Racing (yes, there’s a question mark as part of their name) was the event organizer. (They had signs up saying “what’s your why?” and it seemed most people weren’t answering “for fun.” I don’t know if my answer would be “for fun” but I didn’t see “because I can’t resist an accessible challenge” either.) Anyway, they are good at what they do! The race was well-organized, they’d planned for the heat, everything was thought out–they had mats so you didn’t have to run through sand coming up from the river, for example). As we all finished, they handed you a medal (a huge heavy thing) and a wet towel fresh out of a bucket of ice water. That’s planning.

I loved the down-current swim. Fast! My half-mile time was 17:09. The flat bike ride was 42:18, and the run was 32:36. I wasted a lot of time in the first transition–4:14–and less in the second (1:43), but my total was 1:37:59.9, I was 3/10 in my age group (60-64 women) and 79/143 overall. Not too shabby.

Trail running….

I was thinking about my last few posts, all of which reference “challenges” and then I started thinking about what I define as a challenge. I want to learn new things, but as I get older and older and older, there are things that just aren’t worth my time. I’m not going to go back to school and get another degree at this point, for example–although I might take some courses if that’s the best way to learn something new.

I do, however, like to find just-barely-accessible challenges. In that spirit, I signed up for the five-race Portland Trail series in Forest Park. The series is run entirely on Forest Park trails–which I wanted to learn more about but have been intimidated by–and it also meant a long hard run once a week for the five consecutive weeks. I always plan to do long hard runs, but really, I kind of wimp out. But I know myself well enough to know that if I pay money for something… I’ll show up.

The challenges of trail running turned out to be both more and less than I thought. More challenging? Staying on my feet. I fell hard and got bruised the first two weeks. You really have to watch where your feet are when you’re running trails. Roots leap up from the base of trees and attempt to catch hold of your shoes. That one moment where you glance up at the gorgeous woods surrounding you… can mean you’re lying in the dirt the next moment. More challenging? Running downhill on steep downhills. I was sure that would be easy, based on my running on the Mt. Tabor trails. I guess those aren’t as steep, or maybe it’s that I go slower when it’s not a race. Downhill is hard.

Less challenging? Showing up. Finishing. The Portland Trail series is well run and the people running it are nice. They welcomed me, the oldest runner most of the weeks, and actively encouraged me. When I said my goal was not to be the last person, they cheered me to my first finish with “you’re not last! you’re not last!”

I’ve learned a lot about trail running in the four races. Watching for roots and low spots is part of it. Learning to go back and forth between a fast walk and a slow run on the uphills is another skill. It turns out that I can walk uphill pretty quickly. Running downhill? It takes a rhythm and a bit of a spring. It helps to know that you can “paperboy” downhill to avoid the high impact on the knees of a straight downhill run. (“Paperboy” is bicycling slang for going back and forth across a hill–as if you’re delivering newspapers–to make an uphill ride easier.) I’ve gotten a lot stronger over the four weeks, too.

To everything, there is a season

I’ve written before about the cognitive dissonance I’m going through lately about whether to take agility seriously. Or running. Or biking. I thought about “focus seasons,” during which I could do just one and take that one thing seriously. Each one in turn. I thought about dropping one activity entirely.

And I decided.

In fact, I decided to take none of them seriously, at least for a while. I’m signing up for things that look like they’ll be a good challenge and a pleasure to do, and then I’m doing them. I’m giving myself permission to not do my best.

I’m maintaining my weight right now (although, like most Americans, I’d still like to lose ten more pounds) instead of counting and measuring. I’m allowing myself to end the day with fewer than 12000 steps (a goal which has had me “Cinderella fitbitting” for some years now). I’m not running every day. (I am still making sure I do something every day.) A few weeks ago, I scratched out of one day of a trial–that morning, when I woke up feeling tired and sore. (Then, I went back to sleep for three more hours, so… right decision.)

Right now, I’m at week four of a five-week trail race series. So far, I’m first, last, and only in my age group, and enjoying it a lot. I’m learning some of the Forest Park trails, and I’m much less intimidated by them. My pace is “slow but steady.” I don’t have another agility trial until the end of August–because I’ve learned, over the years, that hot August trials are just not that much fun for the dog or for me. I’m running and swimming most days and cycling some other days. This all feels pretty good. And relaxing.

Human rewards: challenge vs. fun

Back when I was a high school chemistry teacher, my students would fairly often come in and ask if we were going to “have fun” that day. I’m pretty sure I never answered “yes.” I’m not a big believer in the idea that education should be “fun.” I expect it to be challenging, exciting, rewarding, enjoyable… but not “fun.” That may be a distinction without a difference, but to me “fun” is a matter of moments, and moments that don’t much matter at that.

When people tell me they do agility just for “fun,” I’ll be honest: I cringe a bit. I love doing agility (most of the time, anyway) but I’m also pretty serious about it. I put time, effort, money, hard work into being good at agility. Sometimes I don’t meet my own standards, which is discouraging, but I’m fully present when I compete, and I want to do well.

All of that said, I do find agility rewarding. I find running rewarding, although sometimes running is very hard work indeed.

For me, creating a challenge and then meeting it and then trying to do better next time creates a reward cycle. Karen Pryor–whose book Don’t Shoot the Dog is a classic of modern dog training, puts it this way: “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” We reward our dogs for behaviors we want them to learn and repeat. Sit, lie down, run through a tunnel, stop at the bottom of the a-frame.

As humans, too, like other trained mammals, we repeat behaviors that have been rewarded in the past. Enjoy a bite of chocolate? That taste is its own reward, and we’ll eat chocolate again. Find brussels sprouts bitter? We don’t like them and don’t want to eat them. Run a 5K race and the volunteer puts a honking big medal around your neck? You’re more likely to run another one. Or maybe you run to try and run faster in the next race. Or farther. Or to see those numbers on the scale go down. Or to see that Q on the results sheet. Or to see that your dog placed ahead of your friend’s dog for the first time. The cliche of human rewards is “whatever floats your boat.” Humans are better than dogs at anticipating rewards; we all know people who’ve worked for years to get that huge ribbon and title that we call a MACH (or CATCH or CATE).

And yes, some people call agility “fun.” For me, agility is way more complex than fun. It’s about challenges: challenges that are hard–can I get to that blind cross?–challenges that require analysis and experience–how can I best handle that line?–challenges that require training–leaving Rush in the weaves while I peel off and get farther down the course. I find meeting challenges inherently rewarding.

Retraining Rush’s a-frame

A few trials ago, I noticed Rush was creeping down the a-frame, one step at a time, instead of going directly into position and waiting to be released. You can see what I mean in this video, starting at 13 seconds, and lasting through 24 seconds. Yes, Rush took eleven seconds to come down the a-frame, one itsy-bitsy questioning step at a time. Step. “Is this it, can I be released here?” No. Step. “How about here?” No. “Here?” No. “What about now?” No. I could hear people laughing behind me.

What caused this? I don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that at least once, and possibly more than once, I released before he reached the one-paw-in-the-dirt-and-stopped criterion that I’ve had for a-frame performance. Rush is very smart, and likes to keep moving, and thus I think he thinks (because I know him, and yes, he’s a dog, and how can I know what a dog is thinking?) that he should be released early, because it happened once.

So now I have to work on making sure he understands that I really expect to see one paw in the dirt–and a stop–before I release him. I’m training it in the barn. I’m counting one-two before I release at trials, and I’m regretting the need for it every single time he creeps down the a-frame again.

But we are making progress. His longest creep at the last trial was only about five seconds.

It was (nine) years ago today….

I look forward to singing along with the Beatles eleven years from now… “It was twenty years ago today….” but today marks nine years since I was biopsied, diagnosed, treated, and cured of an adult bone cancer called chondrosarcoma all on the same day: June 7, 2007. The cancer was in my left knee, right at the end of the femur, and it was about the size of my fist. The reason I was having all those things done, of course, was that it was a pretty good bet, based on the MRI, that I had chondrosarcoma, but until the biopsy was done, no one was positive. I had a biopsy, followed by cleaning out the tumor, followed by a bone graft and a mending plate. The mending plate was removed in January of 2009.

The surgery went well but I was humiliated by hearing the nurses announce my weight as they transferred me to and from the bed after the surgery. It was for their safety, of course, since I couldn’t assist in lifting myself, but it took four of them to safely move me.

And of course, I had knee surgery. After the surgery, every step I took hurt. Every single step. I limped. I used a cane. I was gently informed, by several different orthopedists, that every step puts four times your weight on your knee joint.

The experience changed my outlook on my health. Before the surgery, I thought of myself as “fat but fit”. I had a lot of stamina, I could walk for hours and hours. After… not so much. It took four years of off-and-on-and-off-and-on physical therapy to walk without a limp. I found a nutritionist who told me my diet was good, but I still wasn’t losing weight, which was a problem, because my knees–both of them now–hurt all the time. I figured out for myself that, if my diet was supposedly right, and I still wasn’t losing, perhaps my metabolism was just more efficient than most peoples’ metabolisms. Okay, I needed to move more, eat less, eat more carefully. I learned to eat more carefully, and figured out what works for me. Not what works for “most people”–what works for me.

Fear of fat….

Back in the 1980’s, which is thirty years ago now, when I was trying to lose the weight I’d gained during two pregnancies, I went to Weight Watchers, which was a very different beast than it is now. Less commercialism, no food in boxes and crunchy plastic, but huge meetings full of medium-plump women and a thin leader. We had sheets of paper with check boxes to assure that we ate just so many servings and no more. Three teaspoons of “salad oil” a day was all we were allowed.

It was embedded in the culture then. Fat was evil and made you fat. Oils were fats and to be avoided. 1200 calories a day (about) and not more. You could eat lots of vegetables and I did that, but I was hungry all the time. Just plan hungry. I took off most of the weight, but I didn’t get to the goal they wanted me to, quit going, and didn’t go back until about 2008 (more on that later). I gained weight slowly over the years, eating what was supposed to be a healthy diet: lean meats, fruits, veggies, breads, etc. Just avoid fats, right?

Well, sadly, it turns out that was terrible advice, and we–as a culture and as individuals–are just waking up to that. It turns out, when you do real research, that–as just one example–people who eat full-fat milk products weigh less than people who eat the same amount of non-fat milk products. Here’s an article for you. People who eat more nuts often lose weight spontaneously, as mentioned in passing in this article.

I signed up for a nutrition program for athletes during April (described here), and among other things, the advice came down: eat more nuts and avocados and whole milk yogurt, more green vegetables, and watch out for added sugars. I was worried about the fat in the nuts and the avocados and the yogurt… as anyone who lived through the “fear of fat” stage of bad dietary advice is. But I’m not hungry, and I’m slowly losing weight (very slowly), and I feel amazingly good.