By Mara Abbott
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
Last week, a friend sent out a distress cry on Facebook. She had been scheduled to do a long run, but her body wasn’t having it.
“I did not expect to feel like I wasn’t going to make it through the run. I did not expect to feel like I might actually just pass out and die in the snow,” she wrote. She wanted advice on how to bounce back, and wondered what could have possibly happened to her.
I had a pretty good guess. Sometimes it takes one to know one — I was laid up that day with a stomach bug that may or may not have been linked to a few too many stressed late nights and early mornings at my computer in the last week. For athletes of any level to truly excel, we each have to learn what it means to take care of our individual bodies. That isn’t easy and it’s a constant learning process, but here are a few tips I’ve picked up during my athletic career to help the medicine go down.
View training challenges as a chance to improve.
Are you the type who has a tendency to overdo it and still feel like you’re underachieving? Maybe you have the opposite challenge, and are a bit too skilled at making excuses. Either way, evaluating our behavior honestly and without attachment is an important exercise, if we want to avoid the same pitfalls next time.
If your training isn’t going as you planned — or if, say, your work-life balance needs a bit of rejiggering — instead of panicking, see it as an opportunity for improvement. I started doing some strength and conditioning work with a new trainer in the gym last week, and we cheered each time we found an exercise I was particularly bad at — that meant we had found an easy spot to get better. This is equally true for mental challenges. If you can identify a negative mental pattern, give yourself a pat on the back! You’ve earned the chance to make big gains.
Does something hurt?
Pay attention to it. A niggle doesn’t necessarily mean that training is out of the question, but it does mean that today is not a good day to go on autopilot. This is another good time to understand your own tendencies. Do you tend to try to push through injuries until you are laid up for weeks, or are daily aches and pains an excuse to back off on your training? One tip: Your coach and longtime training partners will find it startlingly easy to help peg your type for you if you are unsure.
Give it 15 minutes
I have heard multiple trainers and coaches advocate for the 15 Minute Rule. If you aren’t sure your malaise justifies a day off, start the workout. If, within 15 minutes, you’re feeling worse, head home, take it easy, and get in touch with your coach to see if you should modify your training plan. On the other hand, if you start feeling better, carry on! Sometimes a little bit of movement is just the ticket when we are feeling out of sorts.
Think back on the last week
If you do end up feeling bad at the end of that 15 minutes, your first step should be to take an honest look back at the emotional and physical stresses in your life over the past week. My friend had already done this before she made her Facebook post.
“It must have been a combination of poor nutrition/hydration, the cold, the snow, the lack of sleep,” she wrote. “The hardest part was that it was beautiful, but I just couldn’t enjoy it at all… Today felt like a death march.” Even as she asked for help, she had already done the hard work of identifying five factors that each could have sabotaged her workout.
Often, we want to conceive of ourselves as invincible and capable of doing it all. We aren’t. Life adds up one way or another, and we each have a different break point on different days. Rather than beating up on yourself for being incapable of doing the impossible, use the opportunity to evaluate ways you can improve for next time.
One day off won’t hurt you
In the big picture, taking one day off won’t sabotage your training plan and it doesn’t mean you are less-than. Having to take weeks off after an avoidable, protracted injury or illness is far more likely to affect your ability to reach your goals — so keep the stakes in perspective as you muse the wisdom of pushing ahead.
Bonus exercise… observe your emotional reaction to taking time off
Does it scare you? Does it bring up feelings of guilt? That reaction doesn’t necessarily have bearing on your decision today, but it is something to pay attention to. If the idea of time off ignites a negative cascade of emotion, take note. If you link your self-worth with your ability to push through, you are setting yourself up for peril in the future — after all, no one wants to spend a warm Sunday in January in bed with a stomachache.