The truth being that I turned 51 this year. That’s five decades on the planet, four of them spent running and a good three of those spent running hard with purpose, direction and fire in my heart. This is going to sound cheesy, but I don’t feel old. In fact I feel younger and stronger than I did fifteen years ago. I am not running as fast, but as an elite athlete I never expected to run faster than I did at my prime. Those days of running are behind me, and that’s ok. When that door closed, a whole other world of doors opened. I am exploring them one by one. I will share those stories in the days ahead, but first, I need to share this one. This is my Truth about getting older as a female runner.
First, I believe it’s important for people, as they age, to understand the cultural context in which their experience is unfolding. Our feelings about an event are also based on our perceptions that we have gained along the way. Youth and beauty have story attached to them, and the how many stories about the multifaceted and connected paths of menstruation, pregnancy, birthing, perimenopause and menopause have run alongside our reality? (If you are struggling here, look no further than the glossy magazine covers at the grocery store check out.) If we lived in a society that fully embraced female aging (or any aging for that matter) and all the associated changes, I truly believe women wouldn’t ‘fight’ it so hard nor find it as stressful. If we lived in a society with less petty comparison and shallow judgement and with allowance for natural beauty to unfold without bias, it certainly would be emotionally easier to get older, although Photoshop might go out of business. Everywhere I turn I see this fight: of women mindlessly pushing back against aging gracefully with cosmetic surgery, ridiculous diets, non-surgical body treatments, and a whole host of anti-wrinkle beauty products pushed on us by emotional marketing campaigns that convince us we aren’t enough just as we are. We can’t control what products and advertising campaigns are out there, but we can control our own responses, so I truly believe that the perimenopause years (anywhere starting after 35) should be approached soulfully, with a deep respect and commitment to our own self-care and self-awareness. I also believe that mindfulness practice in exercise, strength training and following a nutritious diet help throughout this time immensely. Most of us are also at the most stressful periods of our lives with busy family, teenagers (more hormones!), and career, and mindfulness and compassion can be our grounding.
I could never have dreamed up saying these words at 35, as I was recovering from having my first baby and heading into another Olympic Campaign in 2002, for Athens ’04. It is only because I have lived and learned and experimented and failed and succeeded and searched and researched and asked a lot of questions of both myself and many other women over the age of 40 that I can even write this.
Yes, You are Getting Older and Entering a New Phase of Life
At 40, twenty two years into a life as a competitive athlete, I was still running like a 39 year old, winning races outright and sleeping well at night. I won the Masters at Freihoffer’s 5k for Women that year, raced as an elite at Ironman Canada and ran 2:48 in the Elite Masters category at the New York City Marathon. I was tapering off the life as a full time professional and elite athlete—my last Worlds was at 39- and after that I focussed on my now busy family of two small children and a growing coaching business. It was impossible to put the mindset of the athletic lifestyle behind me however, and the desire to work out and be fast was still strong, as was the desire to race. At this point however, the laser focus on National Team goals and winning prize money was waning and I found myself looking for an intention to release the high performance mindset while still focussing on personal excellence. And then, at 42, I suffered a huge injury because that intention wasn’t yet strong enough in practice - I wasn’t paying attention to my body and it was a wakeup call that my tendons, joints and connective tissue weren’t as resilient as they used to be and my training couldn’t be supported by the severely insufficient amount of sleep and recovery I was now getting as a busy mum of two, and coach.
Warning: this next bit details the Very Real Aspects of AGING: your reading vision may start to fail, among other symptoms of physical decay.
That year, I was out of run training for over 6 months, and also noticed that, as I lay in bed at night with son reading, my life long clear vision was starting to get blurry. I got my first pair of readers, and it turns out that was only the beginning of the physical and emotional changes to come! From then on I started to notice that things I had taken for granted most of my life were in flux. PMS changes, moodiness, hot flashes, night sweats, sleeplessness and insomnia crept in and most noticeably, was the fact that I was taking longer to recover from workouts and definitely from races. There were times when exhaustion from lack of sleep threw me into intense feelings of hopelessness from an inability to cope. My high performance mindset that yelled: “Giving up is not an option!" "wasn’t being entirely helpful during this time. More positive thinking can not make up for the inner work that needs to be done.
Somewhere during this time, with the support of several empathic and insightful individuals in my life - and the works of Pema Chodron, Brene Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert and Thich Nhat Hanh – I phased out resisting and phased in acceptance and ‘knowing’. I began to see the changes as teachers, and as events to be embraced. I began to understand the way we can be hostile, instead of loving, to ourselves, and how that is manifest in the world around us, and especially in media. I started to track my periods and tailor my training, using the 7 day phase before periods as my recovery weeks. It was pretty obvious that I was tired, sluggish and unable to hit usual effort during those weeks, and the gentleness and honesty it took to make that change set in motion a new kindness to myself, and I gave myself permission to be whatever I was at the moment. How often do we keep making the same mistakes, berating ourselves and suffering repeatedly, when all we need to do is STOP what is causing the suffering?
This planning ahead and accepting, really helped me craft my training into something that worked for me instead of something that I was trying to make work. I rarely trained with groups during this phase, fully became self-coached and then I put my workout and race goals onto the back seat behind motherhood and coaching from ages 46-49. This really took the pressure off from ‘trying’ so hard to make my body do something that it couldn’t or wouldn’t do, and it allowed me to experiment with other ways to train around a much looser schedule. In some ways, I was experimenting with letting myself off the hook for ‘high performing’ all the time. It took a lot of growth to move from running to prove, to running for joy. (Actually, this was Phase 2 of ‘Running for Joy’, as I had already implemented a new Joy mindset during the height of my professional career, when the pressure to perform and achieve was out of balance with my innate desire to move).
I was getting older, and wiser, and instead of turning up the volume of the “Positive Self Talk” channel when I was feeling down, (which was highly necessary as a career tactic during the middle miles of the Ironman marathon), I started to ask myself where these inner voices were coming from, why they were coming, and what did it mean about me and my journey. This self-awareness began to seep into a new kind of gentleness with myself, a new kind of gratitude about what I had accomplished, and more permission to leave the high performance persona behind and transcend once more.
Like a lot of athletes, I simply love training, so it was difficult and different to stop running every day, but after 4 years of trial and error and pretty intuitive winging it (I think after 30 years of training and being a coach my winging it is powerfully intelligent) it became obvious to me that I had years of stamina and endurance, very strong motivation and emotional resilience and I needed mindfulness and physical strength, not endless endurance and more time on my feet.
While I had done yoga intensively from 2002-2004 during my Olympic campaign, I started mobility and strength training again at 46, which I continue still. Both have enormous benefits outside the obvious one of preserving muscle mass, mobility and strength for basic life tasks. I actually ‘feel’ better when I do strength, and it is documented that lifting helps perimenopause and menopausal women, as it supports hormonal changes and a sense of well-being. I will write another article on my adventures with strength – from basic core, to learning to swing the kettlebell, heavy deadlifts, practicing movements has been an enriching challenge and education – as that was one of the doors that opened up when I shelved the racing flats.
Because I am no longer going for PR efforts, my performance expectations are difference, yet my intrinsic joy and desire are the same if not higher. I am more interested in the quality of my run and ride days, and the wonderful soul filling benefits acquired by the actual practice of training well, than I am with getting as many workouts in as possible as physiological markers and confidence for future performance. While this was a necessary way to train while I was in my 20’s and I love that I did it that way, as I know the brilliant honesty is that to develop as a young athlete you just need to work hard. The hard work shapes who you are as an athlete—both physically and mentally.
I will never again run 32:46 for 10k, and while I love occasionally chasing age group goals, and love running fast even more, I am not hooked into times and pace like I used to be. That is a book that is complete. This has allowed me to stop a lot of the practices that have the potential to cause injuries—mainly overtraining, under resting, not being mindful and the plain stress of performance. Strength training has made me a stronger more injury free runner. It helps my posture, my form, my speed, and my mind. I can run less mileage but run stronger longer. The physical strength has also given me confidence; I am learning a new skill, it is a commitment and intrinsically motivating.
For all you schedule lovers out there, this is a “Coles Notes” of what my training looked like at 35 and again at age 51. These days, it is basically a non-schedule, anchored by 3 weekly strength sessions. It is highly subject to change at any time:
Age 35 In Season Training
Run 7 x a week (including 2 brick workouts, one track session, one long run over 90 minutes, a hard tempo)
Ride 4-5 x a week (including 2 speed and one ride up to 4 hours for 70.3 training)
Swim 3 x a week (including one open water session)
Strength minimal with basic core and mobility
Total = 20+ hours a week, not including visits to chiro/physio and massage)
Age 51 Summer Training
Strength 3 x a week (about 45-60 min/session)
Run 2-3 x a week (1 session where I run faster tempo for range of motion)
Ride road bike 2 x a week (usually 75 minutes)
Total = 7 hours, give or take a couple depending on my energy , and not including stops at the coffee shop and the 10+ hours I spend walking Cruz, the Mini Aussie every week.
The # 1 thing that is completely different than my high performance training days:
I can miss any workout at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, because I have earned the right for that too.
I feel so grateful for all my earlier days of competition: the intensity, the anxiety, and the discomfort, both physical and mental. I have had both incredible success and incredible disappointment in my life, and both have taught me the calm that comes with choosing the middle ground. I learned not only to cope with the sharpness of competition, but to embrace it and move through it with joy, and that I was tough enough to cope with whatever happened. It is because of those heavy days and all the days that came after through my transition away from high performance that I can now train with the freedom I have now, and turn to supporting others along their own path. I turned 51 this year and respect my body and what it can do, but age really is only a number, and no predictor for how you want to take on the adventure of life. Attitude is age less.
We can always choose to perceive things differently. You can focus on what's wrong in your life, or you can focus on what's right. – Marianne Williamson
My body, my racing, and many things in my life have changed over the last decade. I retired organically, letting my age and my family commitments create my priorities, and while it is still far from complete, it is actually perfect.
Run For Joy!
Resources that have supported my path:
Pema Chodron: “Taking the Leap”; “Start where you Are”; “The Places that Scare You”
Thich Nhat Hanh: “The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation”
Elizabeth Gilbert: “Big Magic”
Brene Brown: “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who you are”
And my favourite mental training book of all time, and one that I think all athletes should read at least once:
Terry Orlick: “In Pursuit of Excellence”
Lucy Smith is a 19 Time Canadian Champion in distance running, triathlon and duathlon, and won 2 Silver World Championship medals. Now a coach, speaker, mentor and writer, Lucy has two children, a Run Club for girls, and is passionate about educating others to find their own power through sport.
125 Yard Cheddar Beer Bread
I cook a lot. I cook because I like to eat well, and this seems to be the best way to achieve that. I also cook because I like to make other people happy and most people like to eat. The third reason I cook, is that cooking is hands on, mindful and creative. I love the act of chopping veggies, smashing a garlic clove, and creating a meal. While I have a lot of recipe books left over from my pre internet world, I try not to follow recipes because cooking is one area of my life where I don’t have to follow the rules. Generally I follow rules - things like wearing a seatbelt, a bike helmet and not breaking the speed limit. I also attempt to be civilized, most of the time, which is following a sort of social rule. So unless I am baking cakes- where switching baking soda for baking powder leads to an awful cake - I go with the flow and follow my heart.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Highland Pacific Golf Course for a Lululemon Ambassador get together. It was a chance to catch up with other lemons, and for for those of us who don’t play golf, Warren Reeves, (AKA Golf Pro) taught us how to grip, chip, and drive a ball. The goal of the evening was three fold in my view: rookies were invited to try to ping the power tower 125 yards across the driving range because the lake was too far away, to laugh a lot, and to eat.
I brought home made beer bread. It was warm and fresh and it was a hit so here is the recipe. I made it up, but because I wasn’t sure if I should add all beer or beer and water. I googled and found inspiration for the bread on the BBC Food page, in a recipe by the Hairy Bikers, “two northern blokes with a passion for cooking and food.” Their recipe had too many ingredients for me, so here’s my super simple:
125 Yard Cheddar Beer Bread Recipe
1 packet instant yeast
A can Phillips Blue Buck beer, at room temperature (please note, Phillips has paid me no money for the writing of this article, I just happened to have Blue Buck in the fridge that day. In the future I may try a Driftwood Fat Tug IPA. The stronger the beer the stronger the flavour, but I don’t recommend using a lager.)
2 cups plain flour + more for kneading and adding
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 Tablespoon salt
1 cup grated strong cheddar
Put the flours, salt, and instant yeast into a large bowl and mix together. Add the beer and the cheese and with a large wooden spoon, mix it all together until it is a good mass. Dump the dough onto a floured surface and knead it for a few moments, adding more flour if it’s sticky, until it’s a smooth lump of dough. Clean out the dough bowl, oil it with a bit of olive oil, and put the dough back in the bowl, rolling it around to cover with a light coat of oil. Cover it with a cloth, put it somewhere warm and out of reach of the dog, and go for a run, a ride or vacuum the house for an hour or 2.
Come back and punch down the dough, which should have doubled in size by now. Knead it again and shape it into a big loaf, or 2 smaller loaves or you can even braid it! Dough is fun; unlike cake batter you can’t really wreck it. Put the loaves on a baking sheet and let sit while the oven heats up to 350F.
Bake the bread for 30 minutes, or until golden brown on top. You can also tap on the bottom of the loaf, and it if sounds hollow, it’s probably done.
Slice the bread and serve it to your friends.
Over the last 20 years, I have grown, I have become a little more wise, and I have learned some valuable lessons I was supposed to learn. I don’t give detailed powerpoint presentations, I simply talk to people and the energy shapes itself with each group, because, in some inexplicable way, we share the same language, but I never know what that is until I stand up there, in front of the group. They call me inspiring, and I am inspired by them. I know what it’s like to start something new, to be learning, and to feel a bit afraid of a daunting goal.
Being a bit afraid is a gift. It is like the doorbell ringing - it makes us stand up and answer a call. That allows us to be brave and courageous. We can only be brave and courageous, when facing a fear. It also means that we care about something and that feeling means we are alive.
And I as I talked last week, shedding some light and giving some skills to those who had a little anxiety about racing on the weekend, we had a chuckle, because we all know, that no matter how nervous they are on race morning, they are all going to show up at the start line, in whatever level of discomfort they have, and at the end of the race, they are all going to celebrate their bravery and strength!
They are going to show up, because they worked every week for that start line. They are going to see it through.
So all I wanted to tell them was:
Accept that feeling of fear, but don’t fear what you don’t know.
Like the lines in the now famous article turned into sung poem by Mary Schmich - Wear Sunscreen
“Don't worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as
effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind
the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday”
If you are a little nervous, focus on taking care of the details, the things that will calm your mind – all the things that you can control. All the little things, like what to eat the night before, what to wear, what time you will leave your house in the morning and where you will park.
Worrying about anything else (how you will feel on race day, what the weather is going to be, whether you will run or walk fast enough, should you even start?) is worry about the future, and over that, you have no control. And, those thoughts are just thoughts – you don’t have to believe them. Let’s say your thought is that you are afraid you will do a terrible job of pacing. You can’t even know if that thought is the truth. Believing it makes you anxious. Not believing it, or believing the opposite – that you will do a good job, sounds far more helpful and peaceful to me. Try it!
I can’t tell you what to believe, but I can suggest you don’t believe everything you think!
When I was racing full time, as an elite athlete, I spent the days before the race managing a lot of pre race nerves. Over time, I developed a solid and practical plan that included acceptance of the feelings for 2-3 days prior to a big competition. I spent a lot of time reassuring myself that I had done all I could do to be ready. I had done my training to the best of my ability and I had taken care of all the details. I worked a lot on trust. My training was now in the past, so I had nothing left to do but trust I had done a good job, and was ready. After that, the anxiety was merely a product of the fact that I cared, and that the race mattered. I didn’t always get it right, but I got better at this the more I practiced. By the time I reached the end of my career, I approached every start line with huge gratitude - that line was the chance to do something I absolutely loved.
As the hours count down to race start, keep breathing, keep smiling (at least inside), and rest your body. Above all, if you are feeling a bit anxious, don’t berate yourself for feeling anxious. The race matters to you, and what matter to you, is all you can control.
Run For Joy
May 4, 2018
You train because it makes you strong, healthy and fit. You work hard to become a better and faster version of yourself and you have progressed over time. Being faster or stronger makes you feel confident and proud of yourself. As an athlete, you get to set goals and experience significant accomplishments. Crossing the finish line in your first race, after months of training was a thrill that lasted for a week. Your month is carefully organized into blocks of work hours, family time and training sessions. With training you have a balance that gives you both a sense of purpose and makes your feel energised. Being fit is fun and you feel happy doing it.
And then, out of the blue one day your foot starts to hurt while running. You have a race coming up, so you continue the run (in denial) hoping it will go away, noticing the pain worsen as you go. Later that day, you can barely even hobble on a painful foot. After two days off running, you try again, but, annoyingly, it’s worse this time, and after several visits to your doctor and physiotherapist you are forced to accept that you have a foot injury and must take time off running to let it heal. In the space of 48 hours you have gone from being a strong and happy athlete in training, to what feels like a complete stand still. Your immediate plans to train have been roadblocked by the foot injury, and your goals to compete feel thwarted. It’s so unfair! There is no afternoon long run to look forward to: the 10 miles of solitude and peace that you love at the end of your day, where you glide along in a smooth rhythm made possible by the hours of training you have performed for the last six months. The mile repeats you had set up for the following week (where you were planning to hit a training milestone) are cancelled. Your ability to race is now in jeopardy.
The question is: if you are so happy while you are training, where does the injury leave you? While you feel frustrated and possibly angry, are you also supposed to be unhappy now because your training and goals have been taken away from you?
Emotionally dealing with injury is as critical as the physical assessment and rehabilitation of the injured body part. While some injuries are small and easy to get over, some injuries are much more challenging. They can last several weeks, several months, or end your season. Almost everyone who trains will get an injury at some point, so while it is valid to practice injury prevention in your training, knowing how to deal with one is something all athletes have to face. And like most things, the longer you train, and the more injuries you get, the better you become at coping and staying sane through the injury.
Understanding the emotional side of injuries is the best way to cope. When you are injured, something is taken away from you: the ability to train, and to be out there doing what you love to do. For most athletes who love sport and are passionate about their training, injuries bring a sense of loss. Just as winning and success being happiness and gain, injuries bring about the opposite: dealing with loss is generally more difficult than winning and that makes it as important a process to deal with.
Typically athletes will respond to injuries with some or all of the stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., outlined in her work on the psychology of loss. While each athlete is unique, the common reactions are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Injuries seem unfair but moving through the injury as gracefully as possible will help you become a more resilient athlete in the long term.
Understanding the loss is important. It is important to acknowledge that sport is meaningful to you and that your disappointment is real. Allow yourself the chance to feel that. Denial of the importance of the loss to your life is a dishonour to your passion. You can’t just ‘get over it’, but you can honestly tell yourself that you are disappointed. Psychology says that in order to move beyond loss, people have to be willing to move through it. This doesn’t mean that your injury should put you into a funk for a week; you want to keep your sport in perspective. It’s just that you have to admit that you feel disappointed, and then you have to take care of yourself and get through the injury in order to get healthy again and back to training.
Injuries can be viewed as learning opportunities and gifts. Use the time to reflect on your life in sport, the cause of the injury and from that reflection you can learn to ask the right questions: how can I avoid this again? What are my intentions in sport? What do I want to get out of my athletic career? How am I going to continue and keep finding happiness here?
How acceptance of injuries makes you a better athlete:
Acceptance is a more optimistic outlook than being negative. Acceptance is about the now and not about dwelling in the past and constantly rehashing how you got injured and what you did wrong. Neither is it a yearning for what you do not have. Athletes with positive outlooks face challenges more easily and rebound from disappointment quickly. Deciding to be optimistic throughout your injury is a chance for you to reinforce skills that will help you when you resume training and competing. Accepting the injury creates space for you to learn more about your injury and how it relates to your mindset, biomechanics and overall strength. You can reflect on your training and what lead to the injury in a constructive way. When something is temporarily taken from you, it gives you an opportunity to step back and create a strong vision of why you are doing that activity. This strength of purpose and vision is invaluable to athletes: like your personal mission statement, it will carry you through tough training days, and elevate your chances of success in big events.
Reframe the injury: The strongest athletes are always reframing challenges and obstacles. A rainy day becomes a chance to excel in adverse conditions (as opposed to a wet, cold, nasty day), and an injury becomes a chance to show grace and grit, and work on other skills. Decide to do as much as possible every day to solve your problem, even if that means, icing or stretching, getting to the gym for strengthening or merely resting your foot.
Stay involved in what you love: use your down time to support others, volunteer at a race or read more about training and racing. By staying involved you are investing emotionally in something that is meaningful to you. This is a positive and purposeful way to live and will keep you from wallowing in self pity and negative self talk.
Look for the silver lining. If you can’t run for a while, then you can likely build strength, ride, swim or pool run. You will have a lot of mental and physical energy for pool workouts, strength and you can use this time to build specific strength. If you can ride, then this is an excellent time to do a block of alternate training. Not only will you be maintaining fitness, but you will be gaining strength.
Take ownership of the injury: Injuries are a chance to learn more about the body, and how training affects us. Take the opportunity to gain more knowledge about sports injuries and why your body might be prone to some injuries. Take responsibility for your healing, being actively involved in whatever rehab is involved. Taking action always feels more productive and satisfying than a passive approach. There is a good chance you will come out of the injury stronger—physically and mentally. Keep in mind that not all injuries have explanations. While most injuries are a result of training too much, the cause of some injuries will always remain a bit of a mystery.
For most athletes, injuries are part of the path. Every day we train and every competition we perform is a chance to learn something new about ourselves and the game. We stay in sport because it is abundant with such gifts of experience and self knowledge. Every challenging day, each failure, each injury, and each loss, is a chance for us to wake up and learn, because in the acceptance of these events, we realize that imperfection is the true nature of life. Learning to move gracefully and happily through the tough experiences gives us the power to embrace the fact that really great things will also happen!
Lucy Smith was an elite runner and triathlete for over 30 years. She has sustained several major injuries and come back from two pregnancy breaks in her career, all if which have given her a valuable perspective for understanding the path we all walk, and coaching excellence in others.
Running found me, seeped into my bones one year and spread into my heart.