What I Learned From Being Out of Shape


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I did my first real workout in years this past weekend. It was not impressive. It was “slow” by all measures of my past performance as an elite runner. And it hurt. A lot. The workout: four times three minutes “hard” with two minutes jog for recovery in between.

On the very first repeat, my mind was screaming at me to stop. Before the true pain had even started, before my legs were on fire or my breathing was elevated, my mind was ready to quit. I felt discombobulated, unsure of what pace I was running, unsure if I could complete the repeat, let alone the workout. My breathing was off. My mechanics were out of sorts. I was out of sync. A mess.

I got through it, and I learned an invaluable lesson. Running is a skill.

We tend to think of running as simply getting fit enough to race fast. We put all of our focus on training physiological systems, convinced that if we get the formula right, PR’s will follow. Yet, my own experience in the worst shape of my life reinforced the fact that we aren’t inherently tough. We don’t know instinctively how to read our bodies. It’s learned.

We can teach people to develop the ability to handle ever-increasing amounts of pain and fatigue; to deal with that inner voice which screams at them to stop. Over time, the voice softens a bit or is delayed. But as my experience showed clearly to me, it can also increase when it’s out of practice. Whether that’s from lack of familiarity to pain and suffering or because someone might have a negative mindset going in. The training of our mental skills goes far beyond just “toughening” athletes up through hard workouts.

And perhaps more importantly, reading our body is also a skill. While in my past running life I could lock into a pace without a watch, knowing how fast I was running, how long I could likely last at this effort; now I had no idea. My ability to read the signals that my body was sending (breathing rates, mechanical changes, etc.) was severely handicapped. We need to train runners to have those skills; even more so in a time of GPS watches where it’s easy to neglect listening to your body.

In fact, a recent research study demonstrated the importance of developing such psychological skills. Athletes who were better at self-regulating (i.e., self-monitoring, reading feedback, etc.) had a decreased likelihood of injury.

Don’t get me wrong. The physiological is important. But my lack of fitness was a nice reminder that there is much more to this sport than just getting physically fit.

— Steve

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