This morning I was moving along a winding trail on Mt Wellington, my office for the morning. I found myself reflecting on a coaching consultation I had hosted yesterday with a mother in her mid-50s. For the purpose of this conversation I will refer to her as Sarah.
Four years ago, Sarah’s two children had flown-the-nest and now her inner-city townhouse where she lived with her husband felt gapingly large. She now enjoys intermittent exercising and travel adventures with her husband, and finds strong purpose in her teaching work in women’s health issues. Trained in Swedish and Thai massage, and with a strong self-compassion routine, in our consult she still sat across the table from me and said, ‘I know I should try to get fitter, loose some of this…’, she slaps her thighs and next her upper arms, strong and quite lean from her swimming workouts, ‘I practice self-compassion and gratitude. But I am just not as dedicated to exercise & wellbeing as someone like you.’
I have come to learn that whenever someone says, ‘I am…’, this is an identity that they have attached themselves too. In a positive application of this, Sarah had exclaimed early in our conversation, ‘I love my role as a teacher. I am good at teaching.’ So, here she holds the identity, values and beliefs of ‘Teacher’, and this enables her to action her teaching with excellence.
However, there are many instances where the identities we hold are unhelpful. For instances, Sarah slapping her thighs and biceps suggested that she has formed the identity of ‘lazy’. This means that somewhere, deep down, she believes she is fat and lazy, and then as a byproduct of this, she actually values her laziness and weight. Identifying as lazy and overweight has become an excuse to not action fitness, to avoid better health routines & to not set her alarm earlier so she can climb out of bed to pull on her bathers. In many ways, it is an identity that she is hiding behind.
I know this may sound extreme – that Sarah could actually value her fatness and laziness? Yes, I truly believe this and Sarah is not alone. We all hold multiple identities, some helpful and some hindering. If we hold onto our unhelpful identities, never challenging ourselves to break free from them, we will only be reinforcing the unhelpful actions associated with them.
Highlighting this to Sarah was the first step in moving her forward. I then asked her, ‘If you had all the time, money and support in the world, how do you see your optimal life?’ Sarah paused for a while, closed her eyes, and let out a big sigh.
‘I don’t know how to not be a mother anymore. When I was a mother I had routines and I also wanted to be a great role model for my children. I found it easier to take myself swimming earlier in the morning, to make us all a healthy lunch, and spend more time outdoors with the kids in the evening. But now that they have grown up and left home, I know that I am no longer a mother and I am now lazy. I guess if I had all the time, money and support in the world I would just like to be more self-compassionate and maybe to even try some trail running so I can join my friends when they go out on the weekends? I want to feel like I have more invigoration for my work again, and to travel more too. My husband is so supportive and gives me all the support I need, so I feel like I am letting him down the longer I feel like this.’
In response to Sarah’s comments, I asked, ‘Do you still see and talk to your children?’
‘Oh yes,’ she replied and her eyes begun to sparkle, ‘At least twice a week we chat on the phone to share news and what we have been up to. And next week we are off to London to visit Lizzie.’
‘Why do you call Lizzie and what made you want to visit her in London?’
Sarah looked back at me perplexed. ‘Because I want to keep an eye on her, I miss her, love her and want to make sure she doesn’t need me. London is such a long way…’
Sarah then paused, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath in, and opened then again to look me directly in the eyes. ‘I am still a mother, aren’t I?’
I didn’t need to reply. A mother will always be a mother. Just because Sarah’s children have grown up doesn’t mean that she needs to lose this identity nor the positive actions that she adopted as a mother. She can still support them and also be a positive role model through exercise, nutrition and her self-compassion, sharing these when she speaks to them on the phone or meets up with them on her holidays..
Sarah later left the room with a twinkle in her eye, a spring in her step, and goal to join her friends at a trail running event in 3-months’ time.
In conclusion, it is important to begin to hear those inner voices that say to you, ‘I am…’. Try to understand the identities that are helpful, as well as the ones that hinder. Begin to identify with old identities that no longer serve you, but to also rekindle those that need to remain, that can hold you strong, such as Sarah’s identity of 'A Mother'. Finally, ponder on the difference between self-compassion and self-acceptance. Too frequently I work with clients who take baths, change their diets, have massages and exercise – all in the name of self-compassion. But here I challenge us all, ‘is this for self-compassion, or to make me feel better about myself, to mask an unhelpful identity that still grasps me?’ I truly believe that there is not just a difference between self-compassion, but also a sequential order at play. Self-acceptance must proceed self-compassion. In Sarah’s case, self-compassion was a mask hiding a woman who was not yet able to accept were she was at and where she truly desired to be.
So, what identities are you holding onto? What need to be rekindled and which can be gently waved goodbye?
I recently posted a social media post on the topic of stress and its impact on our ability to optimally recover from training loads. Given the flurry of interest, ongoing questions and requests for support I received afterwards, I wanted to provide an excerpt on the topic of stress from my Trail Running Guidebook. I feel that stress and its impact on our hormones is poorly understood, so I hope you find this article helpful.
I have found more and more frequently that many well-documented training theories are hard to implement with adults without triggering an overtraining complex, leading to unnecessary injury niggles, sick- ness, suppressed mood and more.
Stress: The fight-or-flight response
Stress is the body’s reaction to a physical, mental or emotional change in our normal, balanced state. In an ideal world, our body would deal with all stressors one at a time via the fight-or-flight response. Our body’s fight-or-flight response activates the nervous and hormonal systems when the stressor (the ‘tiger’) pounds towards us. The nervous and hormonal systems ensure that the heart and breathing rates accelerate; blood is relocated to the heart, lungs and muscles for movement; functioning of the gastro-intestinal tract is inhibited; and mobilisation of energy sources occurs. Then, once the danger is dealt with, we return to our steady state.
However, there are two interesting things about the human stress response:
Hormones and stress: A tight link
The stress response is controlled by both the nervous and hormonal systems of our bodies. However, I have found that one of the most interesting impacts that stress has on us, especially as athletes, is how it affects our hormonal system. To understand the significance of stress on our hormones, we need to understand the incredible role our hormones are playing at every minute of the day. They help us to:
Healthy hormone function relies on pregnenolone, our ‘master hormone’. Pregnenolone is critical for the production of:
Each of these hormones is found in both females and males. However, oestrogen and progesterone are found in substantially higher amounts in women, while testosterone and growth hormone are found in significantly higher amounts in males.
Oestrogen has more than 400 functions in the body and is the main female hormone. It shapes the uniqueness of our female bodies and emotions, makes us feel sensual, brings a glow to our skin, moisture to our eyes, fullness to the breasts and clarity to the mind. Importantly, it gives us the feeling of female energy and sensuality.
Progesterone reduces anxiety and has a calming effect on our mood. It helps us to feel happy and calm, increases sleepiness, helps to build and maintain bones, slows the digestive process and prepares a female for pregnancy.
TESTOSTERONE & GROWTH HORMONE
Testosterone and growth hormone are produced by both males and females, although to a much lesser extent in females. Without testosterone, the body’s ability to repair musculoskeletal tissue is hindered. Testosterone is the main male hormone, and assists a male to feel masculine and energised, and creates muscle bulk and strength.
When we are in a calmer state of balance, there should be ample master hormone, pregnenolone. The body should be able to make adequate amounts of our sex hormones, as well as the key stress hormone, cortisol. However, if stressors compound, such as through poor diet, exercise, insufficient sleep, lack of relaxation, and internalisation of emotional stress, we can fatigue our adrenal glands. When this occurs we effectively are entering a chronic state of stress. The need to produce vast quantities of cortisol overrides the production of our sex hormones, an occurrence that has become known as pregnenolone steal.
Living with chronic stress
Up until this point, I have inferred that stress is a negative occurrence. However, sometimes it can include positive events, making it harder to recognise the build-up of stress, the onset of pregnenolone steal and the sneaky slippery-dip into chronic stress.
Positive stressors include:
Negative stressors include:
Accumulating stressors in the context of inadequate physical and mental rest can lead to a chronically activated fight-or-flight response and can disrupt hormonal balance. Degeneration will begin to occur to our body’s tissues, increasing our risk of injury and poor wellbeing. These changes include: alterations to sleep-awakening patterns; gut irritability; suppressed appetite; weight changes; agitation accompanied by poor concentration; restlessness; muscle loss; decreasing bone density leading to stress fractures or joint issues; immune suppression; and overall fatigue. Furthermore, if you are finding yourself required to cope with too much stress then you may be at risk of long-term changes to your mind, body and playful spirit.
I cover these effects in more detail later in The Trail Running Guidebook in a chapter on Overtraining Syndrome. Further to this, the book is filled with information on the training principles I believe can enhance performance through adequate recovery.
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If you haven’t already purchased a copy of The Trail Running Guidebook, paperback and eBook formats are available from my website. hannyallston.com.au/trailrunningguidebook
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!
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