Athletes are strong and fierce. From a young age, we learn that "pain is weakness leaving the body," and to get better we have to train harder and push ourselves to the limit. We learn to be competitors. We learn to be successful and to achieve. Yet very few ever learn how to ask for help OR what to do when it’s all over.
I used to be an athlete. I have run thirteen marathons, including three Bostons, and more half marathons than I can count on my hands and feet combined. I have done triathlon and planned on doing a full Ironman someday, but I never got the chance. My closet is full of running jackets, running hats, running gloves and running shoes. My bikes sit idle, and my swim cap and goggles are collecting dust. I have shelves and drawers of race shirts just sitting there, waiting for me to clean them out. It has been two years since I lost my sport, and I am only now beginning to tackle this.
If you are an athlete and have lost the ability to compete or participate in your sport, you know how hard it is to lose something you love. Transitioning out of a sport is much more difficult than many people realize. For me, being an athlete was my identity and my community. My friends are athletes, my vacations were races and my training often dictated the rest of my life. When I was told I could no longer run, bike, swim or train, I lost a huge piece of who I was. I barely was able to recognize myself in the mirror anymore.
I never imagined there would be a day when I couldn’t exercise. When that day came, I was not prepared. First there was anger, “what had I done to deserve this?” Then disbelief, “this can’t be real, running is who I am.” Grief, denial and avoidance were there too and came when I least expected it. Then, after many months and countless tears, acceptance came.
I still miss my life as a runner and probably always will. But at some point I had to realize that I am much more than my sport. So are you. Running and triathlon were things that I did – they are not who I am. Separating the two has been both difficult and rewarding.
Here are a few tips that I wish I would have known when I first lost my sport. I hope they help you:
1. It is not weak to ask for help!!
I could not have transitioned out of my sport without professional help. Since I could no longer run away from my emotions, I had to learn how to feel them. Not only had I lost my sport – I lost my coping mechanism. This was a double whammy. With help, I learned that even though I cannot control my emotions, I could control my response to them. I learned new coping mechanisms and that it was actually harder to ask for help than it was to ignore that I had a problem.
2.Find a new outlet.
Despite telling myself “yoga is not real exercise,” I gave it a chance (actually several chances before I finally let myself enjoy it)! Even though it hasn’t replaced running and endurance sports, it has given me something to look forward to and to keep myself healthy. I also lift weights a few times a week with a trainer (I used to think the only reason to lift was to get faster-apparently that is not true!). It doesn’t have to be yoga or lifting weights, but find something else to keep your body moving and to look forward to.
3. Do something creative.
I used to train for 10+ hours a week. When I stopped, I didn’t know what to do with my time, so I began to try new things. I took an Italian class, and even though I was awful (at one point, my instructor asked me what my husband did for a living, and I told her he was a chicken biscuit!) it was a lot of fun. I cook a lot more and try new recipes. I even write (p.s. I recently wrote an actual book: Racing Heart: check it out!).
4. Create a new routine.
Athletes have rituals even if we don’t realize it. I used to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to run. I kept a strict exercise schedule, I ran the same routes, I ate the same thing after I ran and I ran the same races every year. The first day I didn’t set my alarm to run with my running partner I cried. I didn’t know what to eat for breakfast, and when the Boston marathon came I walked around the house aimlessly for days. This is not productive or healthy. It didn’t happen all at once, but eventually I figured out a new routine – and now I even sleep in until 7:30 a.m. some days!
5. Change your perspective.
Initially, I was so focused on everything I had lost that I couldn’t see all the good that was still in my life. Having someone to talk to and help me see everything I could do was a lifesaver. I learned to focus on all that I was grateful for rather than holding on to everything I lost. I now write down what I am grateful for daily and put it in a jar in my house. When things aren’t going so well, I look through the notes I have left myself - you’d be surprised how much it helps.
I lost my sport because of a rare, genetic heart disease called ARVC. I am very lucky to be here - it is one of the causes of sudden death in athletes. My case is extreme, but many people are forced to give up the sport they love at one time or another because of injury. Losing something that is woven into the fabric of who you are is difficult and life changing. I hope you never lose what you love, but if you do, don’t be afraid to ask for help or try something new – you will be much happier for it.