Resetting My Mind And Body To Race

By Mary Kay Jessen

“What are you training for?”

“When are you running a marathon?”

“Have you ever done Boston?”

These questions helped affirm what I have come to realize, this season is my opportunity to focus on other aspects of life and not be consumed by the pressure to race. Still, it’s a struggle to address these constantly resurfacing questions.

For a lifelong athlete, your sport becomes your identity to yourself and those around you. What happens when the “it” factor to push forward doesn’t burn like it used to? The daily routines and structure don’t appeal as they once did. Through postponements, deferrals, and cancellations, multiple seasons of training took their toll. Opening social media to see feeds full of amazing athletes you’ve grown to love over the years now carries a different tone. Envy? Perhaps, but more importantly, the realization of true burnout.

These days I often find myself attempting to justify my empty race calendar with explanations. I’ve found that the more I open up about this, the more I realize that many of my fellow athletes are experiencing similar emotions, though it can be hard to articulate.

For years, I typically spent 6-8 hours a week training, but if I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be to take longer breaks between races and protect the delicate balance between competing in triathlon and the rest of my life.

Since Ironman Texas, I’ve spent a lot of time questioning the why behind my feelings, the why behind the training and racing, and how to move forward. Initially, I significantly scaled back my race calendar, thinking it would help ease the anxiety of lackluster enthusiasm about racing. Perhaps this was an attempt to will the excitement for training into existence.

Training and racing should be fun and enjoyable for the most part. This lifestyle is all I’ve known for years, so when a scaled-back calendar had little impact on my feelings, I began to wonder if my self-worth was too closely aligned with my accomplishments in sport. Yes, I have a wonderfully supporting family that loves and cherishes what I do in sport and beyond, but with the constant grind for years, I wondered if I’d somehow lost touch with a part of myself. So, after struggling through the first couple months of the year, I decided it was best to take another break.

Why is it so challenging to talk about wanting to step away from something you’ve been so passionately aligned with for years? Why do the feelings of guilt of letting others down that cheer for you affect how you feel about yourself as an athlete?

To reset the motivation train and get my mojo back, I started by being completely honest with my coach and close friends.

Answering the “why” is one of the most challenging things you can do as an athlete wanting to step away from sport. Fellow runners and endurance athletes are a welcoming bunch. They mean well and can be fantastic for emotional support; however, it can be complicated to broach the topic when there’s no apparent injury or circumstance preventing you from filling the race calendar.

To find my edge, I started to work on the little things again. The detail work relatively new runners and athletes address as they begin to develop. Strength, running form, and nutrition with the goal of resetting my body.

My goal is to work on strength, running form, and nutrition with the goal of resetting my body so that I am ready when I get back to racing.

No longer filled with all of the self-imposed pressure, I’ve begun to enjoy training once again. Routines seemed less daunting, and with the help of my coach, we outlined what I’m willing to work on right now while creating a better balance away from the competition. I feel more like myself than I have in a long time, and it feels good.

If you are in limbo and dealing with many of these emotions, please know that you aren’t alone. Opting for a season off from all the structure and rigidity that we endurance athletes know well will keep you in the game for a much longer time. For some, you might take a break from your team, and others might feel better sticking around and being a silent supporter or super cheerleader. Some people will choose to pause social media accounts and connect with friends who aren’t in their usual circle of athlete types. I would encourage you to reach out to training partners and friends - you may very well find that you are far less alone in your struggles than you think! Remember that there’s no right or wrong, and it may take some time to figure out what feels best for you. It may be that a short break is all you need, and it may be that a season away helps you find a new passion!