The Power of Fitness Identity

I don’t remember the exact moment where I decided to call myself a runner, but I know it wasn’t automatic or easy. Even after my first marathon, which went so poorly, I was hesitant to tell people, “I’m a runner.” I was more likely to say, “Oh yeah, I run sometimes.” Or, “I’ve run a marathon but I was pretty slow.”

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For a long time, I felt like since I wasn’t logging 6 – 8 minute miles, I couldn’t call myself a runner. Even now, five years after really starting to run, my favorite pace is between 9:30 and 10 minutes per mile. That’s where I enjoy running the most. Sometimes, my comfortable pace is a little faster, between 8:30 and 9 minutes if I’m training, but ultimately, I’m really a 6 miles per hour kind of girl.

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So yeah, I felt (and sometimes still feel) slow compared to lots of runners out there. And the reality is, I AM slow compared to them – but that doesn’t mean I’m not a runner. When I finally owned it, I found that I enjoyed incorporating it into my sense of self. Instead of rolling my eyes at 26.2 stickers on cars, I now say to Alex “we could be friends with them!” When I’m walking outside and see people running, I want to get my shoes on and join them. I finally tell people, “I’m a runner.”

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I also have become a yogi and a weight lifter, and I enjoy the community around those activities as well. (Although I hesitate to really call myself a “yogi,” since I’m still so so so new at the practice, but I do own the fact that I do it regularly and feel immersed in it.)

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So there’s power in these identities. There’s communities to be found. And I encourage you to find out what they love doing and do it a lot so you can own it. But there’s another side to this that I only realized in the last few months, and I want to share it because I think it’s important.

I’ve had a rough couple of months in terms of motivation, and one thing that fell to the way side particularly was running. I didn’t feel like running. Lacing up my shoes didn’t excite me. I chose spin class or weight lifting or yoga instead. I went on a lot of walks.

But instead of just enjoying a break and letting myself settle, I spent a lot of time saying to myself, “BUT I’M A RUNNER. I HAVE TO RUN.” I spent a lot of time talking myself into running, not enjoying most of the runs, and feeling emotionally tired from all the internal chatter. But I was really attached to this idea of being a runner, which meant I had to run or I’d be lying! I’d have to hand in my runner card!

Except, wait, what? There’s no running police. No one is going to stop me during a walk and say, “Excuse me ma’am, you’re moving too slowly. You’re a runner and therefore need to pick up the pace.” No one is spying on me at the gym (at least I hope not!) reporting whether or not I was running. I had built up being a runner in my head so much that I had forgotten why I was excited about it in the first place – because I actually enjoyed running.

And I wasn’t enjoying it. And finally I asked myself why I was holding on to something, a word really, for an activity that I didn’t actually feel like doing? So I let go, and did stuff I enjoyed instead. I still had a lot of moments where I thought, “I should go for a run,” and then sat there for 10 minutes dreading it before I decided to do something else. It was annoying and hard and frustrating and also liberating.

Our identities, fitness or otherwise, should help us expand and embrace things we love, not limit us to only participating in the world in certain ways.  Like I said, there’s power and potential in owning a part of ourselves and I think it’s important. But getting attached to one way of being is never helpful, and I think the fact that it happened in my fitness life was evidence that perhaps I should be paying attention to where I’m holding on too tightly in other aspects of my life as well.

Incidentally, I’m running regularly again and picking a half marathon to train for, so it seems like the break did me good. I said to Alex the other day, “I forgot how fun running is!” I guess I’m a runner after all.

I thought I’d share my thoughts on this in case anyone else has ever said to themselves, “I KNOW I’M A RUNNER, BUT I DON’T WANNA!”

And if it’s just me, well maybe we shouldn’t be running buddies.

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4 thoughts on “The Power of Fitness Identity

  1. Well said! I hesitate to call myself a triathlete or even admit that I finished a half ironman. I was in the last 1/3 of finishers and somehow that gave me a sense of shame. For going 70.3 miles in 7:24. And I feel like less of a runner lately because I had freaking major surgery and was not cleared to run. Got my go ahead today and you bet your sneakers I’m lacing up as soon as the freeze is above zero around here.

    I also like thinking about where else this applies-friendships come to mind. I have been freed lately admitting that some friendships have run their course. “But we’re friends!” Not if hanging out has become a chore. It’s OK to let go of an identity-a new interest, friend, or whatever is just around the corner.

    • I can totally relate to your sense of shame; my first marathon went so badly, I dealt with a lot of shame for a long time. But a 70.3 is a HUGE accomplishment and no matter the time, you are totally a triathlete. And congrats on being able to get back on the road.

      And I totally agree with you – it definitely applies to friendships too and it’s something I struggle with sometimes in that regard. “I have to fix this relationship because we’ve had it for so long!” doesn’t always make sense if letting it go would be better for both of you. Sometimes that’s a messy, unclear line, but other times it’s just hard to do.

  2. Well said Liz!! It’s still hard for me to think of myself as a runner, even after all this time! And it’s definitely not always my first choice of activity. Thanks for putting out there that its acceptable to have a collection of labels! Variety is spice of life after all 🙂 Ps I’m like a 5 mile per hour type of girl…but my legs ARE like 3 feel shorter than yours! ;p heh heh. Good luck on your next event!!

    • Hahahaha, you’re so funny Lindsey. Yeah, it took me SO long to say I’m a runner, and I still hesitate, especially when I’m talking to people that are a lot faster/more frequent runners than I am.

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