When I completed my first marathon, I thought: I’m going to get a tattoo to honor this. Completing a full marathon was a ‘Bucket List’ item I had set for myself and accomplished in my early twenties. I never did get that tattoo and I’m glad I didn’t – not because I think it was a bad idea, but because at that moment I saw myself as a runner and nothing else. I would ALWAYS be a runner. Flash forward ten years to now…. and I haven’t run more than a few miles consecutively in years. Using your hobby or sport as a way to create your identity can place you in a silo – and what happens if you are no longer able to compete or participate in that activity? I can tell you first-hand that it can be a very painful and scary experience, but also extremely liberating.
Growing up I was a multi-sport athlete. Team sports was a huge influence for me – most of my friendships were cultivated from teams or knowing athletes at other schools. I wasn’t exceptional enough to play in college, so I lost that part of my life. For many young athletes that can be gut-wrenching; something that you spent thousands of hours on is no longer part of your daily routine.
After moving to MT for college and leaving behind team athletics, I transitioned to distance running. I had run cross country in school, so it was something I was still familiar with and even reached out to one of my coaches for some running ‘programs’ so I could complete a half marathon. After finishing a half and several shorter races like 5k and 10ks, I set my sights on the marathon. I read books like Once A Runner, The Long Run, and Bowerman and The Men of Oregon. Setting individual goals for myself and smashing them became a lifestyle shift for me. Fitness and running became my identity. More than that, I began building self-confidence in the way I looked and how I regarded myself. I completed my second marathon without ever running more than 8 miles in training. I was experiencing excruciating IT band pain and was going through physical therapy to help combat it. I had signed up for the Walt Disney World Marathon with the Leukemia and Lymphoma society to raise money, and there was no way I was going to back out of it. I trained on an exercise bike and swam to keep my conditioning up. In January 2012 I completed 26.2 miles based solely on pushing myself mentally. After mile 9 I remember telling myself – it doesn’t matter how fast you go, you just have to finish. It may sound cliché, but I knew if I could finish that race, I could do anything. Unfortunately the pain became worse, and my PT recommended focusing more on strength training for a while to help bring up some imbalances in my legs caused by running long distances on flat surfaces. I had been weightlifting since I was about 16, and still trained in the gym 2 or 3 times a week for cross training, but wasn’t giving enough priority to squatting or deadlifting. I was so entrenched in being a ‘runner’ I was afraid to be anything else.
As I started to spend more time with the weights and less time running, I realized how much I loved training for muscle. I loved that I could put in work and see physical results. When I was first starting out in the weight room at 16, I was called too muscular by a lot of the girls I knew. When shopping for a prom dress, I was told by a shop owner that my shoulders were ‘really broad’.. and I hated these moments. When someone complimented my shoulders now, I took it with immense pride. Proving that I could compete as a natural bodybuilding athlete became my new passion – I became a Certified Personal Trainer with NGA, NCCPT, and TRX certifications. I read tons of books on nutrition and bought bodybuilding manuals. I trained myself for all of my shows and while not every show was perfect, I learned more about my body and how to train it. I learned how to push and used the mental toughness I earned from running marathons to my advantage in the gym. I could diet myself down to low body fat and never cheated on a show prep diet once in 7 years. I turned myself into a robot of self discipline. However, the competitor lifestyle had some downsides too.
Only liking your body for a few weeks out of the year is mentally draining and dangerous. If you don’t already suffer from body-dysmorphia or disordered eating, it can be very easy to develop it as a competitor. You commonly hear things like “you have to bulk and be uncomfortable to see success”… why do we keep promoting something that urges you to be uncomfortable with yourself and lose self confidence for most of the year? Name another sport that preaches that. Just two weeks into my last diet, I was already having extreme doubts and picking my physique apart. I’m a seasoned competitor with years of experience and 12+ shows under my belt. As much as you think it’s something that you get used to, you don’t. It’s also one of the few sports that I see comments like ” I want to thank my spouse/significant other for putting up with me during prep”. Elite athletes in other sports also have to devote their time to their craft, but bodybuilding seems to demand an unmatched level of lifestyle change – the time spent in the gym, the food you can eat, the events you may miss out on, the mental toll it places on you. Even if you do continue to go to family/friend functions and bring your own food, it is a constant barrage of “why don’t you just eat ‘xyz’ or ‘you can have one bite’. While people outside of competing may mean well, it’s often exhausting trying to explain why you cannot eat something or simply don’t want to.
For years I was afraid to move into powerlifting. The thought of failing a lift in front of people was far scarier than stepping onstage. I finally decided to give it a shot in a virtual Garage Gym Powerlifting competition while everything was being shut down due to COVID. Powerlifting is such a different style of training and it’s forcing me to focus even more on form and skill development, rather than my physique. Doing this for a few months has created a significant change in my body, and one that I am very happy with. Because training for strength is a very different stimuli than training for bodybuilding and hypertrophy, I’ve seen more muscle built in a short amount of time. I weigh more now than I usually did during an ‘offseason’ from bodybuilding while also having a leaner composition. Taking the focus off of how I look has eased a lot of the body dysmorphia I suffered from. I still have days where I struggle with it, but now my priorities are shifted to how much can I lift, rather than how much change can I see in the mirror this year?
If I had been stubborn with my training and remained a runner, I know that I would not have become the person I am today. I’ve become more disciplined, more confident, and more knowledgeable about fitness and nutrition. My journey from running to bodybuilding to powerlifting has been incredibly positive for me, but I have seen other athletes make the shift in the opposite direction or from bodybuilding to sports like Strongman, Crossfit, obstacle races, or bodyweight only exercises and felt a better relationship with their mental and physical strength. The true lesson to be learned is to not put yourself in a silo of training and define yourself by it. You may be limiting yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights” – Pauline Kezer