Studies show that ex-athletes are just as likely to become couch potatoes after leaving competitive sport. Writer Tara Kenny shares how she got her stride back without the confines of training and medals.
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Less than one-kilometre counts when you’re in grade 3.
Given the mere mention of a swimming carnival or soccer game struck terror into my tiny heart, I was shocked and thrilled to find myself breaking away from my peers on the school oval.
Now that I was finally good at something, I stacked my schedule with morning runs and athletics tournaments until I had racked up an impressive array of shiny ribbons and faux metal and wood trophies.
By the time primary school was over, I had secured an academic and sports scholarship for high school, where I became known for my sporty uniform of bike shorts and garish fluorescent Asics.
Under the tutelage of a severe Polish coach who had trained Olympians, I began lifting weights, sprinting up hills until I keeled over vomiting from lactic acid, and taking freezing ice baths, until before too long I was competing at a national level.
I loved running, as well as the attention and positive reinforcement that I got for excelling at it. At the same time, it was the source of much early anxiety; gains and losses are cruelly marked by the clock and there’s no blaming a wayward teammate.
The night before an important race, I would lie awake gripped by worry, and felt it deeply when I failed to make a place or hit a new personal best. Between five to seven training sessions a week, homework, and my part-time job at a juice bar, I had little time left to simply loaf around with friends after school.
Around the age of 16, I began to flake on training and avoid my coach’s disappointed phone calls. It was a slow fade between athletics and I: I would lose interest, worry that I’d never excel at anything again, then throw myself back in, only for the allure of uninterrupted teenage life to win out by the end of high school.
When I was competing, exercise was so integral to my life and identity that I was certain I’d always be a runner. And yet, for years I developed a resistance to running, which felt overly punishing and brought up feelings of shame, guilt, and sadness that I had let a once integral part of my being fade into the abyss.
Interestingly, a series of research studies examining the health and exercise habits of nearly 500 current and former student athletes and non-athletes showed that “the former jocks were just as likely to become couch potatoes” later in life.
One of the study’s researchers deduced that former athletes struggle with exercise once rigid structures and supports and the dangling carrot of competition are removed, which was certainly true for me.
It took me a couple of years to transform my meek, private desire to run a half marathon into action.
After making a New Year’s resolution to do the damn thing or stop thinking about it, early this year I downloaded a running app, found a first-timer’s training plan, and invested in some chic, all black Asics.
While my first runs back left me huffing and puffing, as my fitness returned, I remembered how much I’d once loved the satisfaction of setting and meeting mini goals, the physical freedom of pounding the pavement before a long day inside, and the mental clarity and sense of total exhaustion I experience after a long run.
As an adult, I’m able to hold the complexity that a milestone such as a half-marathon can be simultaneously deeply important to me and utterly meaningless in the greater scheme of my life and the world.
No longer harbouring hopes of making it to the Olympics, I’m free to fully appreciate the fun of clocking my own arbitrary running goals, as well as the confidence to be gained from mastery and how it seeps into other areas of my life.
While I went to bed with nerves the night before race day, the thrill of moving amid a sea of runners who had all made the same silly and serious commitment – just because they wanted to – carried me across the line.
As Haruki Murakami, master of both magical realism novels and marathon running, writes in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor.
"Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself… I’m no great runner, by any means… But that’s not the point.
"The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”