The Starting Line - A Journey Back to Fitness for National Fitness Month
The Starting Line
A lifetime ago, I was a collegiate distance runner toeing the starting line of the 1500m at the NCAA Regional Outdoor Track Meet in Austin, Texas. Armed with a 3:45 personal best and flanked by a large contingent of family members cheering me on, I was ready for the starting gun to fire. Turns out, that starting line was actually a finish line of sorts - the last hurrah of my life as a (semi) elite athlete. (Side note: if you really want to delve into the depths of my life as a former runner, and have ample time on your hands, check out my sporadically written (and even more sporadically read) Runner’s Blog!)
This past week, I toed a different starting line – my first run in well over a year. Unfortunately, my transition from runner to couch potato wasn’t completely by choice. What started as a slight twinge of pain in my left knee way back in the Spring of 2018 quickly evolved into a debilitating imbalance that steadily affected every facet of my life. On top of that, the repetitive production hours (and motions) exacerbated my knee issues. Staying fit at first became difficult, and eventually an afterthought. “I don’t have time to workout.” became my default excuse, paired neatly with “My knee hurts when I try to exercise.” And so the frustration and stress built until I hit a breaking point at the end of last year.
Just when everything was about to fall apart, I had a moment of clarity – my health and happiness are too important to put on the back burner. With that small shift in perspective, I reshaped my priorities and focused on getting back to the active, energetic person I once was.
That realization happened in January, and now it’s May. Believe it or not, it took me that long just to get to the point where I could toe that starting line again. But if there’s one thing that competitive distance running has taught me, it’s that most goals worth achieving require patience. The term I embrace: delayed gratification. It’s a mantra of sorts that shapes more than just my fitness life – it’s also the driving force behind building a food startup. But with fitness, business, and life, there’s always a starting line, and that first step is always the hardest to take.
I took my first step back to fitness at 5:42pm on Tuesday, May 7th. And as I continue to take steps forward, I hope to share with you the lessons I’ve learned from coaches, teammates, and my own experience that helped me to that starting line in Austin. It all comes down to setting the right Goals. Persistence then forms Habits.Those habits build Grit. It’s that simple, there are no secrets, but it can take time, focus, and energy to master.
The number of goals I’ve set in my life that never came to fruition is strikingly high. Take these for example:
Run a Marathon
Get my Pilot’s License
Move to Hawaii and Scuba Dive for Saltwater Fish
While all are still on the mental back burner, none are very realistic in the short term. Here’s why: effective goals must be both achievable in a defined timeline and have measurable outcomes. And in my experience, these goals must also have short-term, medium-term, and long term milestones to both inspire and track progress. So let me take another stab at my fitness goals:
Overall Goal: Complete a 10-mile long run.
o Short-Term: Run 30 miles total in May, 50 in June, 75 in July.
o Short-Term: Create a daily yoga habit to improve flexibility.
o Medium-Term: Run an 8 mile long run in June.
o Medium-Term: Be able to touch my toes by the end of June!
o Long-Term: Complete my 10-mile long run by my birthday, July 27th
Believe it or not, I’ve had this same goal many times over the past several years as I’ve fallen in and out of fitness. I know the hill I’m about to climb quite well, and each time my goals seem easy on paper, then quickly become formidable after my first few weeks pounding the pavement. But here’s what I’ve failed to do in the past – create milestones along the way to my overall goal of running a 10-mile long run. I’ve broken up the goal into bite-sized pieces that I can check off every week if I’m progressing towards my goal. I aim to run 3 times a week, for an average of 3-4 miles at a time. At that pace, 30 miles in May should be achievable. I’ll slowly increase frequency and mileage when June arrives.
I’ve also added a secondary goal that has a daily habit built in – practicing yoga. Living in the shadow of my former runner self makes it hard for me to avoid comparing my current fitness level with that of my college days. It took me a long time to finally accept that I’ll never be at that level again, but my competitive self can’t help but pour over the data from my GPS watch as I click off each mile. However, if there’s one thing in my life at which I’ve consistently been inadequate, it’s in the flexibility department. No joke – touching anything below my shins when stretching has been nearly impossible. So I’ve added a much more inspiring journey towards flexibility through daily yoga to coincide with my path back to being a runner! It’s only been about a month and I’m already seeing huge improvements! Toes, here I come!
Also, don’t forget about the most important step when making goals– make yourself accountable for your goal. Post it on your wall to remind yourself each morning of what you’re striving for. Share it with your friends, family, or significant other who would be more than happy to encourage you along the way. Or better yet, join a community of like-minded enthusiasts, either online or in town, that can provide that extra boost of inspiration on those days where motivation is low and the couch is looking extra comfy. Both Joe & Clint know full well that I’m trying to become a runner, and also have to witness some less-than-perfect downward dog attempts after production runs – sorry guys! (Picture intentionally not included)
Awesome! Goals are set! You’re first day is complete, or maybe you’re your first week went without a hitch! Way to go! You’re on your way to transforming a daily task from an option into a habit. Building momentum towards your goal by “checking the box” each and every day/week is the best way to get yourself into the groove, so to speak. The key - something is better than nothing. Not feeling the 30-minute run you have scheduled? Try 10 minutes. Who knows, a mile in you may be feeling great and those extra 20 minutes may seem achievable! Or maybe those 10 minutes are really tough, and that’s all you can do. Good for you! You got after it AND you listened to your body as it was telling you to take a break. The most important thing is you checked the box for the day and made an active effort to work towards your goal.
One thing to keep in mind – watch out for that 3rd week. While the first week is exciting and the second week still feels productive, starting up again on week three can derail even the best laid intentions. Fittingly, January 12th, is the most common date to give up on resolutions. Give yourself extra motivation that third week by tying your habits to incentives. For example, if you check your “daily habit” box, allow yourself to watch one episode on Netflix. Or even more exciting, tie those daily habits into a weekly goal – e.g. I ran every day this week, therefore I get a 3-scoop rainbow sherbet waffle cone from Baskin Robbins! Woohoo!
If you’re looking for one factor that differentiates between those who can achieve their goals and those who may procrastinate or abandon their goals, the most likely culprit is grit. I fell in love with this concept after listening to multiple Freakonomics podcasts highlighting the research of psychologist Angela Duckworth, who defines grit as “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” Hard to believe a distance runner would resonate with something like this, right? And the best part – anyone can learn to be grittier! There’s just one key prerequisite that we’ve already achieved by building our habits, and that’s passion for the act itself, not just the end result. Let me break that down in terms of my goals with fitness. I’ve created a long term goal to complete a 10-mile long-run. The reason I believe I can achieve this goal is that I’ve developed a passion for running over the years. Instead of seeing my daily task of running as a chore, it’s become my favorite 30-40 minutes of my day, despite the pain, sweat, and struggle. Not passionate about what you’re doing just yet? Don’t worry, it will develop over time, as long as you keep checking that daily task off your list!
I wish you the best of luck with your fitness goals in May and beyond, and will keep you in the loop on how my return to running goes! Fingers crossed, my knee will hold up. In the meantime, better hit the trails before it jumps back up to 80+ degrees this weekend!