When You’re Struggling to Hang on to Your Athletic Identity

by | Apr 5, 2023 | Mindset

If you listened to our podcast this week, you may have caught my couple of allusions to some big projects that I have in the works. More on that very soon, but suffice to say, I’ve added (or expanded on) another identity to my career  side of life. It’s still very much related to everything that we do here and that I do with my writing, but it’s A LOT more. And the more I go down this path, the more I’m starting to struggle with the idea of holding onto everything. It’s led to a bit of a breakdown in identity: Can you really be a serious racer while working towards a Big Scary Goal in life?

I’ve had this same issue in past years, usually when a book in the Shred Girls series was coming out or I was starting something new, like this podcast or The Business of Fitness podcast. It makes sense that the years I haven’t had books published are the ones where I’ve race an Ironman or a 100-miler and felt more secure in my identity as an athlete… because I wasn’t juggling two, three or four primary identities around.

I think this is partially because those of us in the Type A camp don’t necessarily view our athletic endeavors as ‘fun hobbies.’ They are that, yes, but they’re also an extension of our careers. I may never become a professional ultra-runner, but at the same time, I do see my racing and training as a side hustle, a way that I would introduce myself when asked ‘what it is that I do.’ Writer will always come first, but runner is usually a close second.

While that’s all well and good when I don’t have a big writing project going on, my current career plans are looming, and that makes me feel less and less like an athlete. With every step towards this new endeavor, it does feel like I’m stepping away from my athletic potential, my athletic identity.

I can see this happening to friends as well. I see it most often when friends start to have kids, and their time for training and ability to focus on training takes that first hit. Obviously, many of them find ways to navigate this new phase of life, but I do notice that despite the fact that many of them train as many (or more!) hours as I do, they rarely call themselves ‘athletes.’ Rather, when too many identities get piled on, we start to shift away from the title of Athlete and into the more self-deprecating ‘I run sometimes’ category… again, even when nothing in day to day training changes.

There’s also goal overload. Just how many big scary goals can one person have before it all gets too terrifying? Can I really be thinking about altitude and big climbs at the Leadville trail marathon when I’m also thinking about a major career milestone? Even if they’re not happening precisely simultaneously—as in, not in the same day—they are happening simultaneously in that both require a ton of focus in the next few months.

I know I’m not alone here. This is how many of us end up going all in on an athletic goal when the schedule is lighter in other areas of life, then consequently feeling overwhelmed and stressed when real life rears its head.

To that end, I’ve been thinking about how to manage those feelings and bring back said athletic identity. Because ultimately, I know that it’s not gone, I’m just low on mojo at the moment.

  1. Adding music back to intervals. This is the most practical bit—I’ve had the bad habit of leaving podcasts on for intervals lately, and I know that contributes to me not getting in the kickass athlete mindset. And putting in the real work and energy on these is the big thing that I’m lacking right now.
  2. Recognizing that 80% is a passing grade. Much as I prefer (as do most type As) to be 100% every time, I also am aware that it’s OK to be 80%, and as long as I’m doing that consistently, I’m in a good place.
  3. Reminding myself regularly that we all contain multitudes, and that even pro athletes are more than just pro athletes!
  4. Giving myself some grace. Yes, I’ve been low on trail mileage lately. Because our trails are un-run-able at the moment. As things dry up, I will make the time to get to trails more regularly.
  5. Control the controllables. Rather than thinking about what I can’t do or am not doing (trails!), I need to focus on the things that I can do, like aiming towards climbs rather than sticking to the flat.
  6. Blocking off my schedule around race day waaaaay ahead of time. This means cutting out calls and any race coverage the few days prior to the event. I’ll still be working, I’m sure, but I want to make sure that I keep it as minimal as possible, which means no podcast interviews, article interviews or in-the-moment reporting the 3 days ahead of the race.
  7. Being my own best cheerleader. Even if I’m not feeling like an ultra-athlete at the moment, the fact is, I have been putting in the miles, doing my morning strength and yoga, and being more consistent with my 2x week easy strength than I’ve been in years. Ultimately, things are not going that bad—so much of it is in the mindset, the guilt that I should be more focused, doing more, etc. But the black-and-white numbers in the spreadsheet are trending well.

Hopefully a couple of those concepts help anyone reading this who nodded along and is feeling overwhelmed by too many big scary goals. We’ve got this!


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