Athletes come in all shapes, sizes, personalities and ethnicities. The variety of people participating in the sport is amazing. However, one thing that unites us all is the drive and determination to seek progress.
It is that drive that gets us up in the morning for a 6am long run or drags us out to the track at 8pm for a gruelling session. As a result, it is generally perceived that the more driven and motivated an athlete is, the more they will succeed.
While it is undeniable that hard work does reap rewards and should be encouraged, there is a point where dedication turns to obsession. The desire to achieve can quickly become all consuming and suddenly the athlete is a slave to perfectionism in their training.
The rise of social media
This is particularly common in (but not exclusive to) younger athletes. Particularly with the rise of social media, it is very easy to become exposed to the training and lifestyle of other athletes – both professionals or simply friends & rivals. This can lead to athletes feeling the need to out do their peers and has resulted in large numbers taking the sport more and more seriously at younger ages.
Runners will often automatically look to increase their training load in the hope of seeking success. This is not necessarily always an issue, however it is all too common for that athlete to see some improvement off the back of their increased efforts and decide to increase it slightly more. Just one extra mile on the weekly long run… and another…. And another…
Unfortunately, this is neither healthy or sustainable.
With the rise in publicity of RED-S, stories from the likes of Bobby Clay showcase the devastating potential consequences of overtraining and under-fuelling for young athletes. Putting the body under so much stress whilst it is growing and developing can often lead to health problems or injuries that may affect an athlete’s future in the sport.
It’s a trap!
Personally, I have fallen into this trap many times. Normally triggered by an important event approaching or the sudden improvement of one of my friends or rivals, I would heavily increase the distance of all my weekly runs, add in some extra cross training and strength work and adopt a completely perfectionist attitude towards my training. If I was slightly slower than I thought I should be on a rep, I would be distraught.
Inevitably, this was never particularly successful. I would get very worked up and anxious about every run (from sessions to easy runs) and by the time the big race came around, I would feel completely burnt out.
It took away the fun of training, as I was so focused on trying to perform well that I couldn’t relax and enjoy spending time with my teammates. It also led to various injuries and health problems that always had adverse effects on my running (although, naturally, I decided to ignore them).
Doing more is often a lot easier than doing less
For myself and many others, doing more is often a lot easier than doing less. I can’t deny the smug feeling I get when I have ran much more mileage than anyone else in my training group or the pride I feel from aching legs after an (unnecessarily) long run. However, I have been very fortunate to have had two excellent coaches who have been able to notice this trait of mine and work to hold me back.
A conversation I had with my old coach really sticks out to me whenever I think about this topic. She told me that if I wanted, I could absolutely flog myself and have a huge improvement to become a very successful junior athlete…. And then end up with a few broken bones, poor health, an exhausted mind and potentially, never run again. Or, I could be patient.
Hold something back. Progress gradually, work consistently and be able to compete throughout my life.
Of course, I would love to see myself smashing records and winning age group championships during my teenage years. However, I have realised that I love running too much to risk losing it through long term health and injury problems.
So I will continue striving for improvement but trying to break away from that perfectionist mindset and reminding myself to be patient. After all, good things come to those who wait.
Ellie is an aspiring young athlete, currently competing in the under 17 age group for Blackheath and Bromley Harriers. She specialises in cross country and steeplechase despite her height (or lack thereof).
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