What I Wish I Had Known as a Collegiate Athlete

My journey in health and fitness started at a really young age.  I can still remember what I was wearing on those first few runs with my dad and sister.  My sister had joined the Middle School track team, and was running the 800 Meters.  My dad thought she should go on at least a couple of runs in order to train for the event.  Of course, I wanted to come along, so the three of us went out and did a loop together.  I know it now as the mile and a half loop.  I don’t remember being tired or thinking it was hard, I just remember thinking about how cool I was that I was running with my dad.  After all, even at the age of four or five I had seen him leave for a run in the evening.  I’d mix up a glass of gatorade for him and watch for him to get home.  Then I’d sit next to him and think something along the lines of, “Wow, he’s really sweaty!”

Then in middle school, it was my turn to join the track team.  Again, I have vivid memories of my first race.  Unfortunately, all those years of people telling me I was fast had me thinking I was a sprinter.  I think I was second to last in my 100 Meter race.  And I cried.

After that tragic day, I decided I should join the rest of my friends on the field hockey team.  I had heard that the conditioning portion of the practices were really, really tough, so I thought I better show up at the end of the summer prepared for the worst.  So I started running 3 miles every weekday morning at 7:30 a.m. around the cemetery down the street from my house.  I still kind of shock myself at how disciplined I was with my training regimen.  I just got up and got it done every morning.  Needless to say, the conditioning portion of field hockey practice turned out to be a bit of a joke for me.  I was more than prepared.  During that first summer of running, I ran a one mile road race.  I remember loving that experience, and finished in 6:28 for my first timed mile ever.  I didn’t have anything to compare it to until the following track season where I took second in our one and only track meet of the season with a 6:08 this time.  After that, I was hooked.  Track was my “thing,” and I loved it.

I remember going to the library and checking out Runner’s World magazine and just pouring over it even in eighth or ninth grade trying to engage myself in this really “cool” new community that I was quickly becoming a part of.  Finally, my dad said he’d just pay for me to have a subscription if I liked it so much (read: my dad is awesome).  As I got older, I loved to read any fitness magazine I could get my hands on.  I loved being an athlete.  I loved seeing my body develop in high school as I ran more and more.  I loved being competitive.  Heck, I just loved winning!

Enter the college years.  I had been recruited by a small, NAIA school to run cross country and track.  I was beyond excited to actually be part of a team as I had run cross country somewhat independently in high school and was typically the only girl distance runner on the track team.  Unfortunately, my collegiate career didn’t end up quite the way I had hoped.  I couldn’t really tell you why at the time, but looking back now it seems crystal clear for several reasons.

1.  I was overtraining.  This was really no one’s fault but my own.  I had really excellent coaches who did not believe in pushing their athletes to their literal breaking points (i.e. stress fractures, etc.).  They put together excellent programs and then tweaked them to each runner’s abilities.  None of this ridiculous “Here’s our star.  Let’s write a really fantastic training program for her, and then just have all the other girls do the same thing so they can help push her a little bit.”  My coaches saw a bigger picture than that, thank goodness!

However, now I think back to those days, and I had all of the classic symptoms of overtraining: constant, nagging injuries (imagine not being able to squat down for four years or jump off of anything because your shins are always hurting); fatigue; not much improvement most seasons over my best times; even weight gain.  As much as I loved this sport, I was pushing myself too hard.  My competitive streak told me that I had to do all the same training as my teammates, even if it was truly too much for me.  However, popping Motrin before practice just to make it through without hurting too badly is not healthy!  I had a stress fracture, and a near stress fracture.  After my freshman track season, I limped for at least a month before going to physical therapy.  I was just so worried that if I took a day off when I felt a nagging twinge or pain, that I would get out of shape while my teammates were getting in better shape.  Silly me…I should have listened to my body so that it would listen to my mind come race day.  Sigh…

2.  Running was my definition of true exercise.  Oh boy…how far I’ve come on this one.  In college, I couldn’t really call anything “exercise” in my mind, if I wasn’t running or if it didn’t supplement my running.  If I didn’t run, I couldn’t say that I had worked out that day.  I was sure that running was the only true exercise, and nothing else could give you quite the same workout.  This was probably one of the reasons that I was constantly injured.  I was always stressing my body in the exact same way.  Not to mention the fact that my body was completely adapted to running, even hard, high intensity speed workouts.  I have since learned that weight training that includes a good bit of plyometric and cardio intervals are where I really see results in my appearance because they are hard for me!  I’m not naturally strong, so I am really challenged by strength training.

3.  Adequate sleep is crucial to recovery.  I absolutely loved college.  I loved running.  I loved my major.  I loved my friends, coaches, and professors.  There was nowhere else in the world I would rather be than at school.  That being said, I was very, very serious about everything in which I was involved–especially my grades.  My sister graduated college with a 4.0 cumulative GPA.  I wanted to do the same.  So I worked and worked and worked, and, while I really did love it, I wore myself quite thin.  If it came down to getting a good night’s rest or studying hard to ensure I knew everything that could possibly be on the exam, I never once questioned that I’d be up studying.  I was involved in two performing groups in addition to the weekend traveling of the track team.  I knew that if I just managed my time, well, perfectly, I could have it all–the grades, the voice, the times on the track.  However, I was extremely exhausted.  I could not consistently maintain a schedule of five to six hours of sleep a night while running forty or fifty miles a week without reaping the consequences.

I occasionally brag to my husband, who doesn’t sleep very well, that I wrote the book on sleeping, and particularly napping.  In fact, one time in college I had three minutes before I had to leave for track practice.  So, I set my watch to go off in three minutes, laid down on my bed, and in that amount of time, I actually woke up from a dream.  How on earth did that not tell me how extremely sleep deprived I must have been?  A dream–in three minutes!  

4.  I had really poor nutrition.  This is actually the factor that I want to hone in on the most.  My nutrition was horrendous, but I thought it was actually pretty good.  I had always been careful about eating too many sweets during the season.  In high school, I wouldn’t touch dessert during the whole season.  My motto was “garbage in, garbage out.”  However, in college, I was racing about eight months out of the year, and it just seemed too restrictive to never have a treat.  Plus, my teammates weren’t quite as obsessive about no desserts, so I thought it was okay to indulge.  Unfortunately, there were other areas of my nutrition that were much worse.  For example, one of the ways in which I made my hectic schedule work was by skipping lunch.  I realized that I could get an extra hour of practicing in (read: singing; I was a Vocal Performance major) if I skipped lunch.  That was when all of the other music majors took a full hour to do nothing but socialize.  I felt superior eating my Clif Bar quickly and then putting in a solid hour of practice.  However, this led me to be really lightheaded during my afternoon classes, and I usually had trouble focusing.  By dinner, after practice, I was starving, and I know I ate way too much for dinner and after dinner snacks to more than make up for the calories I had missed during the day.

Additionally, I snacked on really unhealthy foods that I thought were healthy.  Animal crackers and pretzels were my staple snacks, and I truly thought these were at least nutritionally neutral choices, if not actually positive choices.  The thing is, all that white flour has zero nutritional benefits to my body.  White flour is really just one step away from white sugar (the evil thing I thought I was avoiding with no or few sweets).  I was pumping my body full of empty carbohydrates.  Sometimes to keep myself awake while I was up late studying, I would also eat.  However, even if it was a bunch of raisins I was eating, I was still consuming way too many calories.  

So what happened?  I lost all that muscle tone that was so apparent in high school.  I gained a few pounds, but not a lot.  Remember, I was still working out a lot!  However, my body fat percentage increased significantly (about 5%).  Combine all of these factors together, and you’ve got an athlete who never actually reached her potential.

When it all came together.  It took me a long time to realize all of these things that had gone wrong for me in college.  One day, though, it really started to come together.  After college, I worked for a year, then got married and moved to Denver.  I hadn’t raced at all since college, so after about a year and a half of just easy running (and recovery from my myriad of injuries), I decided I would run a half-marathon.  Naturally, this meant increasing my mileage a little bit (not a lot) and adding in some speed workouts.  I decided to do one of my easiest track workouts to get me started with my speed workouts–some 200s and 400s.  Dear goodness was I nervous to start that workout, but then I got started, and you know what?  On about half the training, but with plenty of rest and some markedly improved nutrition, I was hitting the exact same times I ran in college!  The workout felt easy!  For one, my body just remembered that pace pretty well, but there was no straining to hit the times.  I stayed relaxed, didn’t even push that hard, and hit those times without a problem.  

It’s been almost exactly three years since my last race of college track, and I am amazed at the difference in my body.  My pants from college are all too big.  My body looks toned and tight again.  The number on the scale is a little bit lower (not a lot), but my body fat percentage is definitely dropping.  Even my husband has repeatedly told me in the past several weeks, how toned I look.  I finally have those abs that I knew had to be there…they were just hiding under a layer of overtraining and white flour laden fat!  My workout routine now includes a mix of swimming, cycling, running, and weight training as I prepare for my first triathlon, and I am excited about how great I feel!  If only I had known in college what I know now–listen to your body, switch up your routine, get some rest, and eat whole, unprocessed foods, and you will be truly healthy and able to train consistently and enjoyably.

Here’s to a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle!


One response to “What I Wish I Had Known as a Collegiate Athlete

  1. Oh, this got me thinking about something I’d love for you to do a post about: Stretching. How much to stretch, 5 min before and after? When I do different workouts do I need to stretch differently? And should I use the fancy stretching apparatus at the gym? (please say “no”…it’s intimidating! 🙂 )
    It would be awesome to get your opinion on what’s a good stretching routine!

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