Well friends, I am sitting here recovering from my second surgery in the past few months, and I struggle with a cacophony of emotions. Deafening thoughts and feelings banging around in my mind, unable to be calmed by the rhythmic pounding of my feet against the earth with the cadence of my heartbeat pumping in my ears.
When healthy, I literally run from stillness. My closet bursts with running shoes, tennis shoes, walking shoes, workout shoes – to busy myself into avoiding stillness.
When the outlet of physical activity is impossible, and I am alone for hours, going nowhere, with nobody, and caring for no one, I find that healing is as much of a mental feat as a physical one.
The mind begins to wander and play tricks and create fantastical scenarios of “what ifs?” My insecurities and inadequacies are maximized, while my strengths are temporarily and physically furloughed.
How does an athlete successfully cope with time off? Where does the energy once channeled into physical exertion get reappropriated?
When our minds are geared towards constantly optimizing our bodies, nutrition, hydration and performance – how do we balance those changed needs while in the idleness of recovery?
With 4-6 weeks of inactivity looming before me, my fears bob to the surface readily.
Will I lose my muscle and strength?
How long will it take me to get back to a 5-mile run distance?
How soon can I begin training for a marathon?
When will I be able to reach my max squat weight again? Deadlift?
Will I still be competitive on my tennis team when I return?
What do I do with my time for the next 6 weeks?
How do I stay focused but balanced?
My biggest fear – which I’m ashamed to admit – which is even more reason to be brutally honest and admit it – will I get fat? Will I gain back the weight I’ve lost?
I am becoming more and more aware that there is no end destination to health and fitness. My entire life I’ve subscribed to a belief that if I was a certain “size”, a certain “weight”, if I could run at certain pace, run a certain distance, if I could achieve mastery of a certain physical skill, that would qualify me as “healthy” or “fit”. And since I never fit my own subjective “ideal” – I’ve always labeled myself as inadequate.
This is both disturbing and heartbreaking. It’s sad to think about how many achievements and celebrations I have missed out on because I was striving for the arbitrary end-result of something. Case in point, when I lost 30 lbs over the last year, I was still striving for an elusive ideal weight. I kept changing the rules – pushing the number on the scale down as the goal achievement. The moment of glorious satisfaction I thought would arrive at certain scale number and fitting into a size 6, never came.
Now, between the downtime of my first surgery in May, multiple vacations this summer, and starting new hormone therapy for my perimenopause (YES!!! I’m 42 and in perimenopause) I’ve put 10 pounds back on (last time I checked!). Which reinforces my self-induced never-ending cycle of inadequacy.
Confronted with my current immobility, I am consumed by this feeling. Filled with lists of unanswerable questions.
What if, faced with the inability to put on my shoes and running from my feelings of shame and deficiency, I use this opportunity of stillness to lean into them?
When I give myself time, space, and quiet – I come to settle on some important realizations. Inevitably leading me to set new goals.
- Health and fitness are not absolutes. Being physically fit is not black and white and does not fit into a static mold. There is no ideal that works for everyone and there is no “right” way. We are seeing many examples now through the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, that oftentimes the quest for physical and competitive excellence, leads to a breakdown in mental and emotional well-being. Sometimes hours of training puts stress on relationships and family. GOAL: Prioritize my health and fitness as a trifecta of physical, mental, and emotional strength and well-being. This means finding balance and self-acceptance while digging deep to motivate and push myself to be the very best I can be.
- Bodies change. Our physical needs evolve. Our life circumstances and priorities shift. Our stress levels cycle. What is right for me today, is only right for me today. My needs, desires, capabilities, body, and circumstances might change tomorrow, next week, or next year. I need to develop a better connection with my body to understand what it needs in any given situation. Now – right now – recovering from a medical procedure, my body needs rest and healthy fuel. That is all it needs. That is all I can give it. Next month, when I am emerging from recovery and re-entering the world of fitness, my body will need something different. I mentioned I have entered the dreaded world of perimenopause at a relatively young age. My body needs different things than it did 5 years ago. My body responds to training and external stressors differently now than before. I have a choice to either ignore the reality of what is happening to my body, or embrace the changes and through trial and error figure out a new way to eat, train, sleep, and recover. GOAL: I will work to recognize what unique needs my body has on any given day or moment and respond gracefully, without judgement or force. By developing a trust with myself, I will optimize my performance while minimizing fatigue, stress, and strain.
- Food is fuel. Whenever I eat – absolutely every time I put something in my mouth – I either feel proud or guilty. And this changes constantly based on whatever diet I’m trying. When I fall into the trap of fad diets or trying the latest and greatest revolutionary research about eating – I stop listening to my body and giving it what it needs. Depending on the week, carbs are either good or bad. Calories are over consumed to build muscle or under consumed to lose fat. Fasting is employed before cardio to use up store glycogen, intermittent fasting is used to burn fat, or eating small meals 5-6 times a day is tried to stimulate the metabolism and ultimately burn more calories. One week, plant-based diet eliminates inflammation and enhances performance. The next week, eating organic lean meat is the key to getting all the essential amino acids for building strong muscles. The conflicting information is maddening. In its simplest and purest form, food is composed of macronutrients that act as energy and fuel for our bodies. If we consume more macronutrients than we burn, we store the excess fuel as fat. If we burn more macronutrients than we consume, we utilize our fat and muscle storage as fuel. The optimal rate of consumption, timing of consumption, and ratio of macronutrient consumption – is what we should all try to individually optimize based on our own bodies, needs and goals. GOAL: Listen to my body. Become tuned into its cues for what it needs as fuel for optimal performance, rather than an optimal physique.
- Food is more than fuel. By denying the reality that food tastes good and is pleasurable, we make food the enemy. Eating and cooking are primitively social activities ingrained in our unique cultures and family histories. Cooking is a form of art that has tremendous power to connect people and evoke emotion. Sharing a meal with another person or people can foster tremendous intimacy. Memories are often centered around the tastes and smells of our childhoods. To deny this vital part of our human existence out of fear of weight gain is extremely sad. We miss an entire facet of our lives meant to be celebrated and enjoyed. Now, experiencing a good meal with family or friends is different than binging on a family-sized package of Oreos on the couch. Food can become an addiction and an emotional crutch that can be abused like anything else. I’m guilty of this, more times than I care to admit. GOAL: By honoring food, celebrating it, and enjoying it with others, I will respect it more and reduce mindless eating.
- Discomfort and Pain are different. I tell my kids all the time, if they want to be athletes, they have to get used to feeling uncomfortable. If they are never uncomfortable, they are not pushing themselves to their limits. By not testing their limits, they’ll never meet their full potential. Whenever they tell me they want to throw up after a hard workout – I say “that’s great.” I try to lead by example and hold myself to the same standards. Every single time I go into the gym, my focus is how to maximize my effort with every single rep. I think through the movement, the motion, the extension, and contraction. I increase weight when I can. If there is a hill on my run, 9 out of 10 times, I take the route with the hill, instead of going around. However, I have struggled with intuition and listening to my body, because too often, I have pushed myself beyond my limit and created an unnecessary injury. I have done too much, gone too far, and overtrained, which is the polar opposite of healthy progress. Discomfort is a signal that you are working at the upper limit of your capacity and you are expanding yourself. Pain is a hard stop – telling you something is wrong and damage has occurred. There is a very fine line between the two. When I start getting into high mileage training for my 50-mile race, I am sure my perception of discomfort and pain will be blurred. I’m sure I’ll sustain injuries that could have been prevented. But it is an important distinction that I will need to figure out. By stopping myself because of discomfort I will be limiting my potential. By pushing through pain, I will be creating an injury. GOAL: Train hard enough and deep enough to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Learn to recognize when to stop before creating an injury that could detract from my long-term health and fitness goals.
- There is always something new to learn. I recently embarked on a course to become a Certified Personal Trainer. I’m a nerd that has always liked school and academics. I thought it would be fun with so much personal interest on fitness to add this certification to my tool belt. I was quite arrogant thinking that my years of running and boxing and weightlifting, while working with a variety of personal trainers and coaches, would make the 15-week course a breeze. I was wrong. The more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn. The body is an extremely complex system of systems. Everything is interdependent. Water, vitamins, supplements, hormones, food, the type of food, posture, balance, strength, endurance, respiratory functioning, brain-muscle connection, cardiovascular conditioning, the list goes on and on. If you change one variable, the entire system can change. That is why it is so incredibly vital that we tune into our own unique system and tweak the variables we can control to optimize our own desired outcomes. GOAL:Continue to research and implement improved nutrition, self-care, and training strategies that support my health and fitness goals and objectives.
Wow, look what comes up when I give myself the gift of sitting with my thoughts, instead of running away from them.
Building stillness into my training and cultivating space to address my fears head on, might just be the answer to working through them.