4 Ways To Be A More Resilient Athlete

By Mara Abbott
2016 Olympian, CTS Athlete, and CTS Contributing Editor

Last week, I told my mom she was my athletic role model.  If I had gotten a bigger eye roll in reply, she probably would have reversed her LASIK.  The way she tells it, she was a complete klutz growing up, didn’t have the strength of other kids, and was always afraid to try new things.  I must point out that she couldn’t be that bad – it takes a special physical talent to survive more than forty years of following my dad on his harebrained adventures.  Nonetheless, she demurs – a very modest woman, my mama.

Perhaps being an “athlete” is not simply a static identity measured in specific accomplishments. Rather, it is a process, a lifetime of honing behaviors and attitudes.  I have been involved with competitive sports since I can remember and my greatest passion in life is pursuing the edges of my limits.  This turns out to be a fraught pursuit, for my greatest fear is to actually confront them.  Thus, it would be to my great credit – to all of ours, really – to work to emulate the adaptable, intelligent, resilient relationship to fitness and movement that I see in my mother.

Become a student of your unique body

My mom has now struggled with back pain for over a decade, after early arthritis caused her vertebrae to shift, which compressed nerves.  In search of solutions, she has made all-in, long-term commitments to at least four different treatment programs over the last decade, and had to pick herself up and continue moving forward when they didn’t work out. Back pain, it turns out, is notoriously difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat definitively, yet my mom approaches the challenge with steadfast determination rather than reactive helplessness.

She has discovered through careful practice which movements feel good and which to avoid, teaching herself anatomy so she understand the logic behind her observations and can prevent future unnecessary pain.  She has become her own advocate in pursuing treatment options, doing research and arriving for appointments with careful lists of questions.

Not even the greatest doctors can ever know what it feels like to be inside of your individual skin.  Taking ownership of that intimate relationship is our own responsibility – and our great privilege.

Commit to the mundane with diligence and patience

Mom now spends an hour each day working on her back.  That’s not an hour running in the sunshine or descending the tight turns of a favorite canyon.  It is an hour laying prone, making subtle and repetitive movements to lengthen the space between her vertebrae.  The therapies of new Abbott family doctor/hero, Norman, genuinely ease my mom’s pain – but only if she practices them with daily dedication.  It took her six months of commitment to his exercises to see results (as he warned it would), but her patience and faith have now allowed her to do things that a few years ago she thought would never be possible again.

How often do you forgo a recovery meal or skip warm-up and cool-down in the name of efficiency?  Obviously, there is self-interest and direct reward in following good habits, but our commitment to rehab and preventive care is often set at ‘disaster-avoidance’ rather than ‘experience-optimization’. Whether your aim is a performance level or a level of vitality, sometimes we allow ourselves to believe we aren’t capable of the commitment required to get there, and that’s not always true.

Don’t give up on what you love

My mom can’t hike every day like she used to (go ahead and join my side of the “athletic” debate).  She can’t cross-country ski as far or carry a heavy load to go backpacking.  She has to be careful when she travels, because she can feel a bad bed for weeks.  It would certainly be simpler to say those activities can’t be a part of her life anymore.  Yet these are the things she loves, so she has modified her expectations.

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I have a knee-jerk tendency to be an all-or-nothing person.  If I can’t do something at the highest level, or the way I intended, I sometimes assume that means that I can’t do it at all.  Yet my mom still hikes, just not every day, and she is careful with distance.  She and my dad find quiet places they can car-camp with great day hikes, to avoid packing in tents and gear.  She has spent years – literally, years – researching the best sleeping mats.  Sometimes she knowingly overshoots her limits because she doesn’t want to miss out on an experience, but she accepts there will be a payback period for that choice and knows how to activate the resources that will get her back on track (see above: know your own body).

The fact running might evolve to hiking, daily might become weekly, and winning might give way to competing for fun, does not mean we are necessarily deprived of experience.  Only one person can decide that not getting a first choice (or second, or third…) is equal to getting nothing at all.

Turn limits into an opportunity for expansion

The adage “when one door closes, another opens” usually makes me want to kick whoever said it in the shins, so I will only say this: I think my mom’s athletic horizons have expanded as a result of her journey with back pain.  The one part about her non-athlete definition that was perhaps correct was her fear of new activities, a since-childhood certainty that she wasn’t built for such pursuits.  Yet once the daily hike was off the table, she got herself a new hybrid bike.  She has always commuted by bike, but only on certain routes, and not very far.  Yet now she has taken her own valid parameters (few cars, straightforward roads and paths, not at night) and found loops she loves to ride.  I am a notoriously slow bike commuter, but it still bears saying that when bike together, she is the one pushing the pace.

She has started swimming on occasion, too, which is remarkable because when I was growing up she was afraid to put her face in the water.  Despite my pro-swim propaganda, it still isn’t her favorite, but bike lanes and pools are places I never would have found her before.  Even if she wouldn’t admit it, her abilities and willingness to try are still expanding.  There is, after all, only one person in my family who texts me when she gets a new by-bike record on the speed limit sensor near my parents’ house.

My mom says her commitment, patience, diligence and bravery are logical (perhaps) and normal for anyone in her situation (definitely not).  I’ve spent my life saturated in the culture of elite competitors, so I’m claiming the authority to say – impartially, daughter or not – just how extraordinary of an athlete she really is.  Olympics or not, there’s always something for me to shoot for.

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Comments 18

  1. Pingback: Top 5 Tips for Enhancing Back Health at Any Age - Mara Abbott

  2. What a wonderful tribute to your mother and an important look at the need for both resiliency and the ability to reframe our lives as we go forward. In recent years I have gotten to bear witness to your mother’s measured approach to dealing with her back pain and her incredible tenacity. She has my extreme admiration on both counts. She also has my gratitude because she remains my favorite hiking partner and I selfishly want to continue to have her by my side on all sorts of outings. That said, I just returned from a two-hour snow hike with your amazing Mom and I’m happy to report she is in great form!!

  3. Oh Mara, you captured your mom’s incredible persona perfectly. As her oldest friend I validate her early years as a non athlete.. yet, even with that, the rest of the slices of her “pie” were always extraordinary. The deep curiosity and diligence you reflect is part of her DNA. Whether it was music, games, cooking, projects—she always soared because of her innate reflection on learning through trying, questioning, and then, doing more.
    You have reminded many of us that adaptation doesn’t take away the JOY of movement.. it merely makes it different. Many many thanks!
    (Another Elizabeth from Drexel Hill)..keep writing Love!

  4. Wonderful article & very inspiring. I also have spinal arthritis & a slipped disk resulting in a pinched nerve & loss of strength. After doing triathlons for 31 years, I’m now faced with setting new goals with different parameters. I’m still researching & searching for different therapies. I also would be interested in information about the sleeping mats and any therapies which your Mom has found to be helpful. Thank you for writing this wonderful tribute to your Mom.

  5. Love the article Mara. Such a real snapshot of what a true athlete is. Most of us reading this will never be elite athletes. We must define our own success & you’ve captured a great picture of what that looks like here. fyi- I prayed for your mom too : )

  6. Mara, Thank you for a wonderful article about resilience. Now we know where your work ethic comes from. I am an older female athlete and have discovered that I need to listen more to my body, keep the maintenance up and very methodically do all the things that my physical therapist and osteopath tell me that I should do. I have back issues and know that as you age you do need to make adjustments. I am very happy to learn that other active women have to do the same as I do.

  7. As an aging athlete, the advice I hold dear to my heart came many (many!) years ago when I wa in my late 20’s early 30’s. At that time I had the fitness of a rock star and a lovely woman took my fitness classes attended mostly by college students… she came early, warmed up in the treadmill, stretched, and then worked just as enthusiastically as the young girls… after class she warmed down thoughly, then stretched again.
    When I complimented her on this her advice that I still hear today?
    ” older machinery just needs a little more maintenance ”
    Thank You Jeannette….!

  8. Excellent article and made me curious. Only more recently have I come to understand how our bodies work and are designed and understand that everything we do is cumulative. For myself I had noticed; 1) I am not dedicating as much time to my sport of cycling. 2) The intensity of the training was certainly less after my competitive years. 3). I have never truly ate as healthy as I could and should have-so somethings good for my body have been missing. 4). My state of mind was one of limits based upon age or rather old outdated thinking of age. 5) Daily maintenance routines were not part of my day, both mentally and physically. My CTS coach years ago said, “To do something really well you have to do everything just right!”, referring to eating, sleep, training, and mentally. I didn’t get take that to heart until more recently and now I get it.

    So with that I have decided to experiment to see what can change. Diet completely transformed with no sugar and rare gluten. I no longer look at age in any manner, and look at all aspects of health differently, without limitations. I have gone back to somewhat of a training mode with good results. Am I as fast as when I was competing, not yet. I say yet because I am still making progress and the positive side, joint discomforts are gone, between cycling, stretching, resistance training in many ways healthier, stronger, and more fit than 10 years ago.

    What have I found? Once it is a habit it is easier and missed in the day. Energy is way up. All activities are easier and more fun. My cycling speed and strength is returning, yes slower, but steadily. There are a lot of 70 plus year folks competing at a level that 10-20 years ago wouldn’t have been thought of. I have found a capacity I still have and will be keeping those daily routines for the rest of my life and at 62, there are a lot of years left.

    Thanks for the article, it is inspiring and supports my process.

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  10. Loved this – beautifully written and she sounds like an amazing woman. As an ultra-runner in her 50’s dealing w disc issues, I would love to see a follow-up article sharing some of her PT routine and tips for the best sleeping pad 🙂

    1. Yes, would love to know the routines. (and go us ultrarunning women in our 50s!)

      I also am encouraged by your mom’s attitude and approaches (and stubbornness). Having numerous ongoing health issues, some having more effect of late, I find the constant need to make adjustments and the neverending search for diagnosis/solutions/improvements – while trying to remain positive though watching performance levels I love slip away without being able to find ways to hold on – challenging and often emotional. Your mom is a good example of how to deal with this. (as is my sister) Maybe an interview with her on mindset and how she handles the inevitable down times and negative thoughts/moods?

  11. Really good article. As a middle aged guy now, struggling not to to get down about past vs. current performance levels, this is sage advice!

  12. This is refreshing to read, Mara. I was speaking with my wife just yesterday and discussing how my speed of activities will likely now decrease with age and she has realized that her tennis skills may not be what they were years ago.
    But through age and wisdom we now share in more activities like backpacking, walks in the city and enjoying each other’s company more and more each day.
    A short while ago, a client of mine stated “Getting old is hard work. Getting older is not for sissies!” It is true that there is a need for greater diligence to movement, biomechanics, and working on things that I have always taken for granted. It can be tedious at times, but in the slower, more deliberate pace I notice things I may have missed before. Whether it was a intrinsic muscle movement or a flower along a path.
    Thanks for your words!

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