Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
I was in elementary school when I had my first panic attack. I stared at a book quiz in shock, suddenly forgetting everything I had just read—and loved—about the story. My young mind was overwhelmed with the fear that I had failed all expectations, and I began to cry.
It wasn’t long before that same perfectionist mentality cropped up in other areas of life—and running certainly wasn’t exempt. Before middle school cross-country races, I would frequently hide out in a bathroom stall so I could wrestle through my emotions enough to warm up for the race.
It wasn’t just race anxiety, though. Workouts were the worst. They were much more frequent, and yet they didn’t get any easier. In fact, by the time I began running for a Division I program, I was investing incredible amounts of time and energy into maintaining a routine and a mindset that prepared me for workouts. I’d earnestly pray about the workout, go to bed early, wake up early and listen to a specially curated playlist—all so I could run a few fast miles and then start worrying about the next hard workout or race.
It wasn’t the effort that scared me, though. I’ve always relished hard work. Rather, it was the expectations I’d set for myself, and the fear of not meeting them. It was low self-esteem and a belief that if I didn’t measure up and others saw my failures, I was somehow worth less.
And I lived that way for years.
But something changed on the day that I legitimately had a poor workout. My coach at the time wasn’t angry. Instead, he helped me figure out why my body might be feeling poorly. Was it sleep? Stress? Had I run too hard the day before? Once we’d figured out the probable cause, he adjusted my workout. It was as simple as that.
At first, I was angry. I was upset that I hadn’t been able to complete the workout as planned. But it didn’t take long for me to see the value in that adjustment. In running a slightly easier workout, I allowed my body to recover, which helped me have a solid workout a few days later. That choice also improved my mentality. If I had attempted the entirety of the workout that was planned, I would have been very frustrated and discouraged.
That not-so-stellar workout was the starting point in my journey to listening and loving my body. Instead of fearing the testing of its strength, I began looking forward to it. My legs had nothing to prove. I already knew how fast they could go and how strong they were. Hard workouts and races, then, were nothing more than a showcase.
Learning to love and listen to my body is something I’m still working on, but I’ve grown tremendously since those college days. There are mornings when my legs feel dead tired and they don’t want to do a workout. So, I don’t. Other times, I head out for an easy run and feel amazing. I decide to run fast because I enjoy doing so.
My body—and yours—is capable of great things. But if we let ourselves live in fear of imperfection, we miss the learning and enjoyment that comes from being in tune with the bodies we’ve been given.
Rigidity isn’t a standard to live by, and it’s not a standard to run by, either. Give yourself grace, have fun and, most importantly, remember that your body has nothing to prove.