The Most Lasting Gifts from Sport
Racing around the world since the age of 18 as a professional runner and triathlete has taught me quite a few things about life—lessons in goal setting, health, taking on challenges, dealing with setbacks, developing emotional fortitude, and coping in unexpected situation to name a few. Many of the practices I gained in my professional athletic career became so ingrained into my daily life, I will never let them go, long after I race for my last paycheque.
Having a healthy and strong physical body has been a wonderful gift but is only a partial glimpse of the person that has been shaped by sport. I grew up racing in a world without internet, Wi-Fi or Facebook. We did our workouts, wrote them down and moved on. You didn't worry what you looked like or what to say about your training. You focussed and did it. If you were the wordy sort, like I was, you journaled about running for hours, in loopy cursive writing, and used running to make meaning out of life.
Sometimes I feel lucky to have grown up in a sport at a time when there were no computers or gadgets, and the Timex sport watch was pretty much the only coveted piece of equipment available. Using the watch, the only measure of my fitness was whether I covered the course faster than the week before.
I learned as much as I could from Runner’s World, the folks at the local run store, and I was lucky to have some good coaches in high school and university. The rest was trial and error. What is now called ‘High Intensity Interval Training’ in the gyms, was something we did every day. We called it running hard. If it was uncomfortable, then it was good training.
While I amassed quite a collection of Provincial, National and World Championship medals in my time as a professional athlete, those items are tucked away in boxes (shoe boxes make great medal storage), and the best parts of my career are certainly the less tangible but vital parts of the person I am today.
Training as an elite athlete is a daily or twice daily occurrence so my physical well being is very important. While the intense self focus can sometimes become overwhelming, the discipline of being physically active can become a positive force that you don’t want to give up. That’s why training programs and race goals are very helpful for beginner and age group athletes. It gives them a reason to be motivated, to be active: after a while being active feels so good it becomes a reason enough.
Along with the physical training is the fuelling for all that calorie burning. Healthy athletes learn to eat, to train, and spend enormous amounts of time eating. The habits of eating well and feeling great, becomes a way of life as well. Lucky for us in Victoria, eating, fresh, whole, healthy and local is easy.
Sleep. You read about it all the time. To this day I have a healthy respect for the benefits of consistent solid sleep. To digress, if there is one aspect of high performance training I do not miss, it’s the stress about not getting enough rest. There was a time early in my parenthood years, when I was still training full time, and trying to fit it around looking after first one then two babies. My children were not good sleepers, despite my reading a gazillion books on sleep training. (I guess I caved when I read the part about letting them cry for 45 minutes). Not getting enough sleep before hard training and races caused me more anxiety and stress than at any other time in my career.
I drink water and lots of it. Our house is usually littered with my random half full glasses of water on shelves and tables. I choose plain old water first, from the tap and drink water all day long, taking sport bottles in the car every time I leave the house. My kids drink water too. Nobody needs sport drinks unless they are training for an endurance event.
Those are the positive physical side effects that running has had on my life. However, by far the greatest impact that sport has had, has been my understanding of the human mind, and the psychology of sport. One my greatest achievements was not a single medal, but was when my belief that I could achieve my goals became greater than my doubt that I would not. The intensity and pressure of sport can both chew you up and spit you out, disillusioned and jaded, or you learn to focus on what matters, and learn really strong coping and reframing skills. Reframing in sport is when you look at a problem in a way that works for you. A simple example is when you show up for a triathlon and it’s raining and cold. You can both give up and go home, which ultimately means you don’t get to do what you really love, or, you can decide that racing in the rain is a chance to be great. The rain becomes your friend, not your enemy. Racing gave me daily opportunities to practice positive mental strategies and reframing. It’s wasn’t always about coping and being tough (though sometimes it was, like when my pedal came off twice in a race, or I crashed out of a triathlon in Mexico). This practice helps me deal with all of life’s unexpected situations.
These days I try to pass these skills onto others and allow them to discover for themselves that the greatest gifts of being active are much greater than what you do.
Merry Christmas, may you have a wonderful Holiday Season and cherish the gifts you have!
Some athletes look to the off season with relief, fantasizing about the chance to leave the bike in the garage for a while, a break from the early morning swim workouts and a slacker schedule in which to catch up with (their not so nutso about sport) friends. Others look at the off season with a mix of dread and anxiety. The off season stretches ahead like one long rainy day; with no planned workouts, no races and a lack of structure. They worry about gaining weight, losing fitness, and losing their minds.
For both athlete mentalities, and everything in between these extremes, understanding the purpose of the off season helps in maintaining commitment and a sense of continuity in one’s training. Viewed in the context of the full season, the off season period, or the rest phase is a necessary and important part of athlete development. The off season technically links one season to the next and theoretically provides a period of regeneration that allows the next season to be a build on the previous one. It is easier to maintain motivation and a sense of purpose throughout the off season if athletes are aware of the distinct and crucial purpose that it serves in their overall progression.
Without an off season there is no long sustained period of rest and over time, neither the body nor the mind will be able to recover from the rigors and stress of training and racing. The result is either burn out, injury or inexplicable feelings of fatigue and exhaustion, not unlike sleep deprivation. Every athlete has a varying tolerance for season duration, but very few athletes can continually perform well for periods of over ten months without some sort of off season or down time.
Since our racing season usually is slotted into spring, summer and fall racing, the winter is the natural time of year in which to take a break. A three to four week period anywhere from November through early February, when the weather is also typically at the coldest and wettest (at least in northern US and most of Canada), and also coinciding with the winter holidays is the most obvious time. Whether you love or hate the off season period, the following pointers will help you make the most of the winter downtime and allow you to make a positive bridge from this season into next.
Commit yourself to the off season and to understanding why you are taking a break. Moving from competitive phase to rest phase is probably the most radical change between all the season’s macrocycles. Preparatory to pre-competition and then to competition are relatively flowing adjustments. Going from training for and completing Hawaii Ironman to lying on the couch watching some reality TV show based on extreme sports is a huge leap. If you are one of the athletes that find it hard to stop training and working hard, embrace the idea that you are being good to yourself by taking a break and reiterate to yourself often that your body needs the rest in order to absorb all the training and racing from the season. Often our minds repeat words and stories that are habitual and not even true, so if your story line goes something like this; “I am losing all my fitness. I am gaining weight. I am getting slow”, replace with the affirmative such as, “My body is resting and becoming stronger for next season. I am a smart athlete and I train smart too”. In repeating these new true phrases, you will start to believe them and will have developed a new skill at the same time: the power to change your thought process. Understanding why we are doing what we are doing, in training as in all our work and life gives us a greater sense of purpose and ability to commit. It is good to remember that the end result of the off season is not to be fitter but to be fresh and excited to begin a new season.
During your off season, you will at first likely notice the lack of instant gratification that comes from twice daily training sessions. One of the most difficult aspects of rest, injury or pregnancy in sports, is this reduction in the almost clockwork feedback. The off season can initially come as a sense of let down or anti-climax to feelings of gratification we have received all season long from our most intense training sessions. In essence, athletes get ‘addicted’ to physical and emotional feedback: the feeling of well-being and accomplishment that accompanies working out. Removing that sensation leaves a void. Although it will seem difficult to deal with, remember that the inactivity shock will wear off and in seven to ten days or less you will have normalized to the current program of restful recovery training.
Inspiration can be a powerful motivator. If you feel committed to and inspired by what you are doing, you are more likely to have a sense of purpose in your path. In the off season, without the continual feedback from workouts and coaches, you will have to develop an intrinsic sense of motivation that is derived from being inspired by your own life. Inspiration comes from a deep place in our soul, and is truly connected to who we believe ourselves to be and what we see ourselves doing in the future.
We can find inspiration everywhere and anywhere, so intrinsic is it to life. Films and sporting events, books and music can all carry inspiration. Inspirational speakers are different than motivational speakers in that they speak to a universal human trait that is part of our very souls. Motivational speakers, while also relevant to sport and business, speak to tactics and methods of achieving that greatness. Find ways to be inspired this winter: choose movies and books about greatness, about people doing amazing things, about people who have found ways to succeed under difficult circumstances. I can well remember the first time I saw “Chariots of Fire”. The music, the imagery, the message of passion spoke to me. Write a journal about how you achieved personal bests in your last season, about the goals you reached and the ways in which you found success in small ways. Be inspired by your own life and the lives of people around you and you will build a sense of motivation that will rise out of the winter skies come time to train again.
No article on the topic of the off season would be complete without some practical advice on how to come back from your winter holiday feeling fresh and rejuvenated, and ready to train again.
Here are 5 tips for keeping in touch with your inner athlete:
Here’s to you being inspired and ready in 2016
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.