Jessica Stratton: How Mental State Plays Into Performances

"Working towards a goal is a process that occurs over time, with a specific plan that allows us to chase our dreams and enjoy the process. How can we do this if we don't know what we need to be successful, or worse, if we don't even have our long term health?"

Jessica Stratton - Old Saybrook (CT) High School, Class of 2019

University of Delaware, sophomore

Whether we consciously realize it or not, there is a lot of pressure in this sport to look, eat and train in a very specific way in order to be successful.

But most prominently, there is an indisputable desire to achieve a certain body image as a runner. The desire for a "runner's body" is elicited by everything we see in our teammates, role models and on social media. We constantly have access to everybody else.

This stigmatized body of looking as thin and strong as possible has plagued female distance running, making it appear to be the only body structure that allows us to be fast. While this may be how some of us are naturally built, our body will be most capable of running PR's if we give it what it needs and allow it to develop naturally.  

In order to cope with these body insecurities, many females seek control over their diet. There are many reasons why a runner wants to have tight control over what she eats, and as coaches you need to be aware of this because it can develop into extremely harmful habits. 

We may want to prevent our bodies from going through puberty changes, or we may actually want our bodies to change to fit the mold of a distance runner.  Or most commonly, we may just think that eating as healthy as possible will make us the fastest. 

This often turns into obsessing and restricting what we eat, which puts us down a very unsustainable path in our running careers. There are many harmful misconceptions in this sport that need to be addressed like: Eating less will make you faster; being skinnier will make you faster; you need to look like, eat like and train like your teammates and role models; and having visible abs equate to being identifiably good at running. 

When we want something so bad, we often lose the capability to rationalize what actually matters and what is only a false illusion.  We start falling into these traps, and if we lose our periods because of this, we have a much bigger issue. 

Female In Focus Series:

Health vs. Fitness

I'd like to raise another important question along these lines: How does a healthy relationship with our bodies, and a healthy relationship with our sport, play into our personal success as runners?

And on the contrary, how much does lacking trust in our bodies hinder our ability to reach our potentials? These questions are so important to address because they acknowledge female athletes as whole people, not just athletes. 

It is so important to acknowledge that our mental state, our emotions, and the way we feel about ourselves and what we are capable of are huge determinants of our performance. 

As much as training and being physically fit play a large role, if we aren't in a positive mental state then we are far from reaching our potential.

Alexi Pappas, a 2016 Olympian with the Greek National record in the 10K, makes an incredibly important point in her newly published book Bravey.  She differentiates "health" vs "fitness" and what these words mean in the context of running. 

In her words, health is a "holistic measure of the body's functionality over time," while fitness is just an "indication of athletic ability at the present moment," not a measure of sustainability. 

In line with these definitions, health encompasses our mental state, the way we feel when we are running, the way we think about all aspects of running, the way we are fueled, the way our body is functioning over time, and just simply our ability to be injury free and running happily. 

Without taking all of these things into consideration, we are not set up to reach our full potential or create a sustainable version of ourselves as runners.  If you are fit in the present moment, that's amazing, but you will only reap short term rewards.

Working towards a goal is a process that occurs over time, with a specific plan that allows us to chase our dreams and enjoy the process. How can we do this if we don't know what we need to be successful, or worse, if we don't even have our long term health?

Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and a sophomore at the University of Delaware. This is the second of a five-part series dealing with the role athletes, coaches, teammates and families have in prioritizing the health of female runners, along with understanding the social and environmental dichotomies that impact how young athletes should balance their well being. Jessica was a multiple-time CIAC State Open and CIAC Class Class S Championship qualifier and placer, and held PRs of 2:22.78 in the 800m and 5:07.42 in the 1,600m.

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