by Dr. Nikita Fensham MBChB (UCT) PgDip (IOPN)

As we roll into the second quarter of 2021 and the odd race is starting to pop up in various locations around the world, many athletes are getting excited again about the prospect of testing their personal limits.

My motivation to specialize in the area of sports medicine was born out of personally experiencing and witnessing how sport changes lives. There is something immensely inspiring about pushing our mental and physical boundaries, which translates into how we conduct our daily lives at work, at home, and with our friends and family.

However, there is also a “pathological” side of sport where we pursue performance goals at the sacrifice of health. Although this may be tolerated in the short-term, continuously going to the well ultimately results in an unhealthy athlete in both body and mind. And because I have been in this place, my career ambition is to prevent other athletes from doing the same.

Over a few blog posts, I hope to explore various elements of this paradigm to help you be more mindful of your athletic pursuits, and keep you on a path of healthy performance.

What's Your Why?

Before you embark on a journey to achieving a sporting goal, it is incredibly helpful to ask yourself your “why”. What are you trying to achieve? Beyond the numbers, what meaning does that provide for you? Because when you achieve it, will you be happy? And if you don’t, how will you feel about yourself?

This doesn’t have to have a profound or philosophical answer, but I fear that all too many of us blindly pursue “meaningless” goals in pursuit of a happiness we think it will result in.. and then doesn’t.

A Focus on Wellbeing

Dr. Martin Seligman, best known for his theory on positive psychology, introduced the PERMA model, which outlines five components he believed contribute to wellbeing:

  • Positive emotion: this describes emotions such as joy, love, and gratitude that are experienced in daily life. So whether that’s being grateful for the sun rising on your run that may not be going so well, or smiling at the wonderful barista who makes your coffee after your ride, find moments in your daily life that uplift you.
  • Engagement: mindfulness is quite the buzzword but it is probably something that athletes can really identify with and probably experience without true awareness. Another way of describing this is being in “flow” where one is completely absorbed in the activity at hand without other thoughts invading. I am sure we have all experienced this before during a training session or race where suddenly everything feels easy. But this can also be experienced in nature or savoring a good meal.
  • Relationships: we can all attest to how great it feels to be loved and supported by others. This doesn’t mean you need a crowd of friends, but just having social connections with your training group, family, work mates, or local café owners. Even taking a class outside of your comfort zone (I recently signed up for one in alcohol ink art!) can lead to connections that you never imagined you would have.
  • Meaning: your purpose in life will be different to your neighbour, but having a sense of something greater than yourself provides you with an anchor when things don’t go as planned in life. This may be a religion or faith, serving your community, volunteering for a cause, or even your career. For me, hitting my own health issues has inspired my pursuit of creating a career to help others.
  • Achievement/accomplishment: this is probably the one that Type A triathletes will tick off most readily, but it’s important to focus on the journey here as opposed to the finish line. Setting goals is important but being proud of the small wins along the way is what truly gives one motivation.

So I encourage you to reflect on your current circumstance and see where you could make small changes that target these elements.

Taking Stock, Taking Charge

In the current environment of Zoom, sometimes we need to zoom out and take stock. And when there’s something you find that is probably leading you down a path of pursuing unhealthy performance, perhaps step back.

Social media, Instagram “influencers”, Strava kudos tend to push us towards doing more. And sometimes you need to be brave and buck the trend… to do less and be more.

P.S. The MX community are truly wonderful. Please reach out if you need a helping hand. I’m paying it forward for the incredible support I have received.

(Header photo by AJ Alao on Unsplash)