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!
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.