Looking for some workout inspiration? Welcome to our new column, ‘This is what strong looks like’.
This week, LaToya Shauntay Snell, an athlete, ultra runner and chef, explains how her fitness journey taught her to embrace her real self - and find her inner strength.
What does strong mean to you?
Being strong means a mixture of being able to be vulnerable, being honest with yourself, and being able to tap into the hardest of layers, even when you don’t think it’s possible. It’s the ability to turn the impossible into a possibility. Even if something isn’t physically attainable, strength is knowing that you’re daring enough to try.
What inspired you to start training?
My fitness journey began in May 2013. I weighed over 255 pounds, and I had literally gotten to a point where I had lost most of my mobility. I couldn’t really walk and I was suffering from sciatica and headaches. So I started running with the goal of preserving my life. That is still the most important thing to me – I want to be here for myself, my family and my friends.
In the beginning it started off as a weight loss journey, and the goal was to lose 100 pounds in a year. But once I’d lost the weight I realised I wasn’t doing it to preserve my life anymore – I was losing it to please other people, who wanted me to be smaller. I wasn’t happy with how much weight I’d lost, so I gained a little of it back.
In 2013 I started training for a half marathon, even though I didn’t know the first thing about running a marathon. Then one day when I was out at 6am, aimlessly training, a group of seven women came up to me and asked if I had a running group. I was really sceptical because I wasn’t used to people just coming up to me, especially as a person of colour, although that happens more often now.
But that running group, called Black Girls Run, is what kept me training. It’s not typical to see a group of people of colour training together on a track in Brooklyn, especially not women, but that’s what we did.
It was so powerful to see these strangers become people who I now consider to be family. Running a marathon was originally just a bucket list item for me, but Black Girls Run made me fall in love with the sport. They got me to sign up for a 10km after the half marathon, and I’ve never looked back.
What was it like on your first ever day at the gym?
When I first started going to the gym it was intimidating – I think a lot of people can relate to that.
I was especially intimidated by the strength training area, and I knew that if I went at certain times, it would be exceptionally crowded. When I first started training I wouldn’t do a workout if there were too many people around me. A lot of people would say that I’m an extrovert, as I’m very vibrant and love talking to people, but sometimes people like me fake being comfortable in a situation. So I used to avoid peak hours at the gym, and go at 5am when no one else was really there.
Eventually I realised that I love picking up heavy weights, and I knew that there would always be people who would stare at me, simply because I am a woman in the weights section. I would pick up 30-40 pound weights and men would make comments like, ‘oh, don’t lift that, that’s too heavy for you’. As a plus-size woman in the gym, people automatically assume that I’m there for weight loss. But no! I am not there for weight loss, and I am not looking for your help.
So at the beginning I had to really learn to stand my ground, and I think going to the gym helped me find my voice. There were so many times when I had to learn to tell people to back off.
Of course, I also had to learn not to be embarrassed to ask for help when I needed it. For example, I wanted to make sure I was doing push-ups properly, and breathing correctly while I did them. It’s important to make sure you don’t injure yourself in the gym.
It took me about three months to warm up to going to the gym, and then I started to realise that I wearing far too many layers during my workouts. By the time I hit month five, I was confident going to the gym wearing a sports bra, and I didn’t care who looked at me. It was just a matter of making myself comfortable there and finding the motivation to go.
What’s your advice to other women who feel intimidated at the gym?
Take your time. I always tell people to take baby steps – maybe that first step is simply the mental process of getting out of the house and deliberately going to the gym. If it takes you a week to practise putting on your gym clothes and getting to the gym, then take a week. This is especially true for those who have gym anxiety.
How do you motivate yourself to go to the gym?
Motivation comes from a deliberate practice, which means you have to be consistent. Even if you have a bad day and decide not to go, that doesn’t cancel out everything you’ve done to get to that point. Your first step is to mentally prepare yourself to go to the gym. On your first day there, don’t feel compelled to work out. You can walk around and explore the area, or learn about the equipment and decide what interests you (and what doesn’t!).
Motivation is not about the days when you feel strong and think wow, I want to wake up early just to make sure I get this run in. Motivation is defined by the days when you don’t want to run, when what you’ve been doing for a while feels like a chore.
You have to know the difference between your body being tired and your mind being tired. Don’t push past the hurt – if your body is telling you it needs a break, then respect that and rest. But if it’s in your mind, and you’re having a moment where you don’t feel like you want to work out, then maybe you’re pushing yourself too far. Sometimes I’ll do too much running, so I’ll take a week off and switch up my routine. If I lose the joy of working out, then I won’t be able to keep myself motivated.
I also recommend recruiting accountability buddies. I have people who I can talk to when I feel like I need more motivation, or I can ask them to come with me so I know that I will definitely go.
And through your fitness journey, what’s been your best moment so far?
There have been so many! I want to say the best moment was realising that I can actually run a half marathon, which I did on 22 March 2014.
I remember going through every emotion possible, from the happy stage, to ‘I need this to be over’ and back to ‘I think I can do this’ again. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I didn’t think it was possible, because I had so many demons that I was running from.
I was so scared that I wasn’t capable of doing it, that I wasn’t the right size, and that I didn’t look like all the other runners out there. But then I was looking around and I realised that runners don’t have a ‘look’. And that was one of my most defining moments.
What should we remember when we’re looking at other people’s fitness regimes on social media?
When I look at other people’s fitness regimes I actually feel inspired. I tend to follow people who inspire me, and most of them don’t have the same body shape or type as me.
So when I think about social media, there’s a gift and there’s a curse with it, because I can also see why it gives so many people hang ups.
What would be your advice for women who are looking to get strong?
My advice would be to have a decent handle on your mental health so that it can match your physical health. It can be hard to get that balancing act right. I had a moment where I realised that I wasn’t pacing myself properly or giving myself enough time to be around other people. Now I have over 100 medals on my wall, but none of those would matter if I didn’t have people in my life to make it worth it.
Remember that there’s a difference between being strong and feeling strength. I’d rather feel strong any day of the week.
Stylist Strong is a fitness brand specialising in strength training specifically tailored for women. Our classes are designed to build both physical and mental strength in a smart and informed way.
So, whether you’re a beginner or already have strength-training experience, Stylist Strong has a class to suit you. Come and try our strength-based classes at our own purpose-built studio at The AllBright Mayfair.
All images: W. Eric Snell, Sr. of E. Snell Design
Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter