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How Not Running made me a Better Runner

I’ve always had the need and drive to be active. Since I can remember, I was always playing outside- running or engaging in any sport possible, even if it meant using a “No Parking Sign” as a basketball hoop, or two tree stubs to mark a soccer goal. While many little girls got excited for their ballet recitals... I would be anxiously awaiting my elementary school’s field day, with the goal of being the fastest girl in the running events and to see how many boys I could beat to the finish line. I was eager, competitive, and had endless energy when it came to running.

To no surprise, I continued playing sports all throughout my childhood and teenage years, and ended up focusing on soccer and lacrosse…the sports that involved the most running. Hence, running became my primary mode of exercise. It’s what I was good at, it’s what I knew. We are creatures of habit, and I am a fan of routine, so most of my exercise routine as I got older, into my teenage and college years, was running. I was entirely too focused on cardio and burning calories, for various reasons, but one major reason is that it was the trend in the early 2000s. I was stuck in this routine, and I didn’t have much reason to change.

Thankfully in the past decade or so, there is much more accessible programming, research, and media attention surrounding the idea of balance, strength training, and overall wellness. I am also grateful that my wonderful husband has (and continues to be) an incredibly positive influence on my health. To little surprise, I ended up marrying a soccer coach. Mike has encouraged and helped me incorporate more strength training into my exercise routines. And luckily, I never really have to worry about having access to a gym or weights thanks to Mike’s coaching access (unless there is a pandemic going on). This was working really well for me...I was definitely building more muscle, but I was mostly doing workouts on my own and not pushing myself as much as I possibly could. Mike works a crazy schedule. In the office 5 days a week and games and recruiting over most weekends. We love working out and being active together, and he pushes me every time we do so, but with our hectic lives and schedules, we don’t get to workout together as often as I’d like. While Mike had taught and helped me to incorporate more strength building in my workouts, I was still centering my exercise routine around cardio.

Then I was introduced to Kelley’s high intensity interval training (HIIT) class, which has truly changed the way I will exercise forever. This is huge for me. The whole point of my “story” above is that I have not changed the way I was working out for my entire life...until Kelley’s class. It came at the perfect time, because at age 29, after about 25+ years of constant running, both my knees and achilles are beginning to already feel the toll. I have been diagnosed with achilles tendinopathy, which is an overuse injury of the achilles, and what I was told by a sports injury specialist is “basically chronic achilles tendonitis”. The injury is common in runners as they age. It was also a tell-tale sign to lessen the running (also a sign to get grandma super-supported sneakers). Cue, Kelley.

I met Kelley when I started working at GW. We are colleagues and work together in the MPH@GW online program. Early in my onboarding, Kelley told me she taught a staff and faculty class and that I should come try it. I was interested, but I was comfortable with my exercise routine: jogging, 1-2 gym visits each week to lift weights, at-home ab exercises. But, Kelley kept bugging me, so I gave it a try one day. I’m in pretty good shape endurance-wise, but her class KICKED MY ASS. And one of the best things about HIIT, is that the workouts are short. Kelley’s class is 30 minutes. 20 minutes of intense work. Now, I had the opportunity to work out in the middle of the work day, with a free and easily-accessible class (thanks to GW School of Public Health), in a short amount of time, and have my evening free. This made sense...I kept going.

A year later, I am in the best strength shape of my entire life. But, it took much less time for me to begin to see results. The class was incredibly difficult in the beginning. It’s still hard! Any of us routine-goers will admit we get our butts kicked every time, but my endurance has improved. I’ve gotten stronger. By slowly pushing myself to use increased weights, or do 3-5 reps more of a difficult exercise than I did the last time, I continue to see improvement. My legs and glutes are stronger than they were when I was playing soccer (Kelley loves making us do squats, lots of squats). I feel strong, productive, and accomplished more than I ever have before when it comes to exercising.

Kelley is an incredible coach and trainer. She pushes you hard and gives a hell of a workout, but she encourages you. She tells you to rest (after you push hard). She helps you improve your form. She modifies an exercise for you if you are injured or have another need. She promotes balance. She makes it fun -music, birthday workouts, holiday or celebratory themed workouts, pictures. She’s the epitome of work hard and play hard. She loves what she does. And what is so awesome about her class and workouts is that ANYONE can do it. You do not need to be in the best shape. You do not need to be young. You do not need to be an athlete. You can follow along at your own pace, do modified exercises, do less reps. As long as you are pushing yourself, as long as you are moving, you are improving.

In sum, I wanted to share all of this for two reasons, and especially to folks that are thinking about trying a new class, but not so sure:

1) Try something different! No matter what your history and background is with exercise, you won’t know if you like something until you try it. HIIT has changed my perspective on such a large aspect of my life- being active- that I value so much.

2) Kelley Vargo is an incredible coach and trainer, so I hope you join us in engaging in the Sweat and Social Distance Community, which she created. What do you have to lose? It’s free and you can participate in the comfort of your own home. For those that get nervous about starting something in-person, what better way to introduce yourself to a new workout?

-Vivi Alves de Sa, M.S.

Vivi currently works at George Washington Univ. in the School of Public Health as a Senior Practicum Associate, mainly advising MPH students. A proud Univ. of MD and Villanova graduate, her background is in education and counseling and she has worked in all levels of education, from pre-k, grade school, community college, to the university setting with both undergrad and graduate students. She has always enjoyed fitness and movement, and is close to 100% attendance at Kelley's HIIT class.

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