Athletics and identity: My own reflections

I’m not certain of my reason for writing this, but I thought someone might resonate with some aspect of it.

A lot of people who have known me a while know me as “a runner,” and until recently I would have defined myself that way. I have run for 11 years, and it has been a big part of my life. I experienced increasing success over time and started setting my sights high, aiming to achieve an international qualifying time in the 5000m/10000m.

 

The interesting thing was that competitive distance running never felt to be congruent with who I felt I was, somehow. As a child, I was a fast sprinter – I never thought I would be any good at endurance. I used to love sports. I then flipped the other way and spent my early teens hating exercise and refusing to really do much. After that, I flipped round again and started running long distances as a way of getting fit and challenging myself. I also started lifting weights, working on my core and generally trying to strengthen every aspect of my body, which I found amazingly satisfying.

When I first started competing, I relished the challenge, and focused only on my own progress. What I discovered about myself is that I love to push hard and find my limits. However the better I got at running, the more I focused on how I compared to others, which I suppose is a natural progression. I started aiming to place highly in league events or national rankings. And despite seeing my progress increase continually, I felt more and more dissatisfied with it in some sense.

It’s well known that the better you get at something, the slower progress becomes. As my progress slowed, I began to train more. I had reached a point where I could handle a lot of volume and intensity, so this was fine to begin with. But after a few years of training hard all the time, the over-training effect finally caught up with me and this led to a burnout starting about 18 months ago, maybe more. It wasn’t that my overall mileage was high; it was that every run was done fast, and every track session at full pelt, which I later learned was not sustainable, particularly on top of strength and plyometric stuff.

Not only did I become physically burnt out, but also mentally. I begun to question why I was competing. I stopped enjoying running itself, and I even resented it. I had also developed various injuries that wouldn’t shift, so I decided to back right off and swap some running days for turbo training and more strength work. I very quickly realised that actually I loved doing high-intensity turbo sessions. I love the challenge, and I don’t measure distance or performance as such; it is the pure satisfaction of putting in 100% effort and knowing that I am pushing my limits.

So having realised this, about a year ago I decided to halt my “running” training altogether and just do whatever I fancied. I figured as I still didn’t feel any physically better running after reducing my miles, I should focus on other areas and take more time out. I had always lifted weights and built up a reasonable level of strength, so I started focusing much more on this. I realised how much I enjoyed not just heavy lifts, but body-weight training. I started paying much more attention to my core strength and mobility too. In addition, I got back into more regular high-intensity plyometric-style training, which I have always absolutely loved.

As for running, I started just doing whatever I felt like doing. That seemed to be a mixture of sprinting, relaxed runs and random high-intensity sessions.

I haven’t competed for over a year, and I am amazed to say I don’t miss it one bit. I thought that I might lose motivation to train, but quite the contrary has happened. I am training more than ever, but the balance is much more sustainable and holistic, so nothing is done to excess. I carefully manage my strength training and cardio around one another, so they don’t contradict one another. I have progressed in my flexibility, mobility and core strength, which I hope will keep my body healthier in the long-term. My strength has increased dramatically, so I am now working on much heavier lifts, and different pull-up and push-up variations.

 

And quite weirdly, I am now running faster than I was when I was training mainly for running (?!). My sprinting has improved due to specific sprint training and plyometrics, but my tempo runs over distances such as 3-5 miles have gotten a lot faster too. This is off a maximum of running 20 miles per week. It just goes to show how staying within my limits and training more holistically does a lot more for my body than hammering out miles.

I suppose the biggest confusion for me all along has been this question of: “am I still an athlete if I don’t compete?” My goals have changed; for the time being, I am no longer interested in rankings or beating other people, but simply making improvements on the areas in which I focus my attention. I want to be able to box-jump as high as possible. I want to master the one-handed push-up. I want to be able to do all of the pull-up variations. I want to run fast, flip and jump over stuff, which is what I enjoyed doing as a child!

Physically, I feel more athletic than I ever have. I am stronger in every way possible. I can now do things I never thought myself capable of. Also I feel, just as importantly, that I have transformed mentally. I am more resilient in the face of adversities, I am more committed and diligent in my training, and I am more constructive about the way I evaluate how things have gone. Mentally I am more “athletic”.

I have also learned to appreciate what my body can do, rather than being bothered about comparing myself to others. I may not have achieved my qualifying times yet, but I can now take huge satisfaction in how fast I can still run over short and long distances. I have learned to be pleased with what I can do in the moment.

To quote Professor Jordan Peterson, of whom I am a big fan: “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”

So does the fact that I’m not competing at the moment mean I am no longer an athlete?

 

As time goes on I am realising that the answer is “no.” While competing enriches many athletes’ lives, and carries great meaning, it didn’t enrich mine. I have realised that I don’t need external recognition to prove myself to myself. I don’t post my training on social media, and I don’t discuss it in depth with anyone other than my boyfriend and the odd friend who enjoys similar pursuits. [Not to say there is anything wrong with these things, I think people should do whatever they want] I train simply for my own satisfaction, and there is something incredibly empowering about that.

Then what does it mean to be an athlete? In my view, a lot of my PT clients behave like athletes. It doesn’t matter what they are trying to achieve or what fitness level they are at – they give it their all, strive for continual progress and don’t give up in the face of adversity. They make big changes over time and small changes each day and week. They face challenges and get back on the wagon if they fall off. Upon reflection, I think it means different things for different people, so to answer that on everyone’s behalves would be wrong. But for me, I believe that what I do and how I do it is indicative of whether I am an athlete or not, not whether I compete.

 

 

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