Life Without Elite Sport: Finding Peace with Exercise
When I was considering retirement from elite sport, one of the things I looked forward to the most was not having to push my body continually, given that over the last decade I’d done more exercise than most people do in a lifetime! But, free from the constraints of official training, it can actually be really challenging to forge a new, healthy relationship with exercise and activity.
When you step away from sport, your relationship with exercise will change drastically—suddenly training will be optional and there won’t be someone holding you accountable for going to the gym, or giving you feedback on your performance. This can seem like a relief but stopping exercise completely upon retirement can be a really bad idea for elite performers. Not only is it detrimental for your highly tuned physiological systems to stop abruptly (I’m sure there’s some science behind this, hence the general recommendation to ‘de-train’ gradually), but you’re also highly likely to be in the habit of processing emotions through movement.
I didn’t realise, until after I retired, that I was using time in the pool not only for physical development, but also for ‘head space’. My training sessions had offered quiet, submerged time, away from technology, conversation and noise. This was key for processing thoughts and emotions, planning and reflecting, finding solutions to problems and brainstorming ideas. Whatever the setup of your sport, there’s a good chance that you too expressed yourself, both physically and mentally, through movement. Taking this away completely can be extraordinarily damaging to mental wellbeing and general happiness, especially during a time when there is already a high degree of change and uncertainty.
That being said, it can be really hard to re-engage with your own sport once you’ve made the decision to stop. If you’ve retired due to an injury, then it may even be impossible. For months after stepping away from swimming I found it really difficult to go to the pool, and going to the gym (which held a lot of memories of camaraderie, energy and team unity), made me want to cry. However, I also recognised that the one of the significant differences between the good days and the bad days of my transition were down to me doing some kind of exercise. Whether it was a release of feel-good hormones, familiarity with pushing my body, or space to express and process my emotions, I don’t know—but I knew that not doing anything physical quickly led to anxiety, restlessness and self-doubt. Ironically when you’re in this kind of head space, exercise can be the last thing you want to do…
If you still love engaging with your sport, at a Masters level or even as an ‘amateur’, then good on you. The Masters scene usually offers a great social environment, and there’s the opportunity to try new events, compete at a high level, and retain much of the familiarity of your sporting career. For those not quite ready to jump back into the sport they’ve just retired from, I recommend experimenting with different forms of movement. If you’re a sprinter by trade, try going out on a long bike ride. If you do an individual sport, try joining a local team. If you’re technically adept on land, try jumping in the pool; if you an aquatic being then try something that involves running. You’ll need to park your expectations for immediate proficiency, though a natural aptitude for proprioceptive skill acquisition means you’ll probably progress and develop faster than average.
For the days that are genuinely too busy to be swanning around on a bike or going to the gym, I found creating a 20 minute ‘home workout’ really useful. There are loads of videos and sessions you can follow online if you’re into that kind of thing, or just build your own from exercises that you’ve done before and know you can perform with just a yoga mat in your living room. I tend to do a combo of pilates, abs and some simple body weight exercises. The point of this isn’t to build massive guns or burn hundreds of calories, it’s just to retain a bit of familiarity and movement for those days where we feel we have zero free time.
Having something you can work through at home is also good for the inevitable days where motivation and willpower are lowered. When I’m feeling low or anxious, the last thing I want to do is go through the process of prepping for a bike ride (route planning, tyre pumping, drink filling, Lycra cladding), or driving down to the local pool for an unenthusiastic swim. A simple session that you can do at home takes away any stress around logistics, and is often the instigator to shifting you towards a more positive frame of mind.
Having something planned in with other people, such as a club or team training session is also good for these low-motivation days—instead of going along for the physical gains, it’s easier to persuade yourself to go for social interaction and enjoyment. As an added bonus, we tend to feel more accountable and less likely to bail if others are expecting us to show up!
Try and find events to enter, even if they’re just fun runs, sportives or team relays. Your days in elite sport will have left you goal-oriented, and having even small objectives throughout the year can give you something to strive towards. Be wary, however, of your expectations—you’re accustomed to being in the top 1% of performers so make sure you’re not harsh on yourself if you don’t finish in the top ten! Last year I entered RideLondon, a 100 mile cycling event in and around London. I wasn’t anywhere near the front, but the sense of achievement in completing such a long race was still significant. Again, variety was the key for me here. I was more than comfortable racing or competing in things that were new to me (and I enjoyed the familiar feeling of nerves, adrenaline and competitive spirit), but the thought of jumping in the pool and doing a swimming race still scares me a year on…
One of the key things to remember is that you’re conditioned to think of exercise as ‘training’, and that it will take a while for this mindset to change. It’s not an easy shift to make—you will have identified for a long time as someone who is able to push themselves harder than the norm, and adapt your body into a highly tuned physical specimen. Whatever you’re doing now probably doesn’t require such physical demands, but acknowledging that you’re no longer being judged on power/speed/agility/coordination isn’t a mindset shift that will happen overnight.
Have a think about what you personally get from exercise, aside from the medals and records. If you’re someone who gets a buzz from pushing yourself then try and incorporate a session or two of hard graft, even if it’s not in the same sport you did before. If you were in it for the social aspect and interaction with others is important, then join a new team, or a masters club. If you like solitude and breathing space then find a couple of activities that give you just that. If you like excitement and adrenaline then try rock climbing or mountain biking. The point is that you can now take the pressure off having to exercise in a certain way, and enjoy the freedom of experimenting with a multitude of new things.
Whether it’s just one sport, or a number of activities throughout the week, keeping a routine that allows physical expression is really important for your body and your mind. Just remember that you don’t always have to push yourself to the limit, and you definitely don’t have to feel guilty if you find that your weekly total now equates to what you used to do daily…