Mental Navigation: The Athlete's Inner Terrain

Through the relentless pace of athletic pursuits, the true challenge often lies not in the physical strain, but in the silent battles of the mind.

Written by
Hillary Allen
·
7
min read
Summary
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Hailing from Boulder, Colorado, Hillary Allen stands out as a trailblazing ultrarunner and endurance athlete, celebrated for her global victories and record-setting performances. Beyond the trails, she's the voice behind "Out and Back: A Runner's Story of Survival Against All Odds", documenting a harrowing fall in Norway in 2017. Despite sustaining severe injuries, Hillary's determination propelled her back to her passion. She's not only an author but also a revered speaker, coach, educator, and a perpetual student of life. Like many of us, Hillary has faced the complexities of mental health and self-worth, topics she openly discusses in her story below.

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As a professional athlete, I know firsthand the challenges of balancing mental health and training. The demands of my sport can be incredibly stressful, there's a lot of pressure to perform. You're constantly being compared to other athletes, and there's always the expectation that you're going to win. This can be a lot to deal with, and it can lead to mental health problems. Through setbacks and injuries and an inability to perform, I’ve come face to face with anxiety and depression throughout my athletic career. I’ve realized how important it is to find ways to manage my mental health so that I can perform at my best and be the best version of myself. 

I know that I'm not the only athlete who's struggled with mental health. In recent years, there's been a growing awareness of mental health issues in sports. More and more athletes are speaking out about their experiences, and this is helping to break down the stigma around mental health.

There are a few key things that help me to maintain my mental health. First, I talk to a therapist. Having someone to talk to who understands the unique challenges of being a professional athlete is incredibly valuable. My therapist helps me to identify my triggers, develop coping mechanisms, and set realistic goals. 

Second, I make sure to find my ‘why’ behind exercise. This means, exercising for the purpose of training and competing, but also finding the joy in it. Exercise is essential for my mental health, because it helps me to clear my head and release endorphins, but that’s only possible with a balanced relationship around it. For me, finding the joy in getting outside lifts the burden or pressure to perform. 

Finally, I make sure to take care of myself in other ways, such as getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and spending time with loved ones. When I take care of my overall well-being, I'm better able to handle the stress of training and competition.

I've learned a lot about mental health in my own journey, but nothing more important than the following 3 points to always remember:

One, that it's okay to not be okay. Everyone experiences ups and downs in their mental health. It's important to be kind to yourself and to give yourself grace when you're struggling.

Two, that talking about your mental health is important. It can be scary to talk about your mental health, but it's important to do so. Talking to a therapist or counselor can help you to understand your mental health and to develop coping mechanisms.

And three, that there are resources available to help you. There are many organizations that offer support to athletes with mental health problems. These organizations can provide you with therapy, counseling, and other forms of assistance.

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I'm grateful for the progress that we've made in talking about mental health in sports. I hope that we can continue to break down the stigma around mental health, so that athletes feel comfortable seeking help when they need it.

For the longest time I defined my success, happiness and progress by what I was doing. Staying busy, not only was an adjective, but also became a verb, and a noun to describe my state of being. It defined me. I figured, if I didn’t slow down or if I wasn’t constantly in motion, then I wouldn’t have time to feel anything other than motivation to tackle the next project. My own application of Newton’s first law so to speak.

But what happens when we are forced to slow down? What happens when Newton’s other laws catch up to us – I’m speaking about Newton’s third law in particular. What happens when our coping mechanisms – be it ‘business’ or the state of doing – gets taken away from us?

I honestly don’t like to think about it, slowing down. Ironically, usually the times when I need to slow down the most are the times I’m forced to stop, to realize the dangerous game I’m playing. I use the word ‘dangerous’ purposefully, because an unhealthy state of mind is just as troubling as an unhealthy state of being.

I came to this harsh realization about a month ago, when I was dealing with another injury, a broken foot. This time, I was physically forced to stop, unable to bear weight in my left foot. But it felt deeper than that. All of a sudden, I felt worthless, depressed and like I had nothing to offer the world. 

While the injury was physical, what was making this challenge even more insurmountable was my mental state. The fact that my self worth was tied up in what I do rather than who I am. 

"I use the word ‘dangerous’ purposefully, because an unhealthy state of mind is just as troubling as an unhealthy state of being."

You may be asking, so what? After a period of rest, my body will heal and I’ll be back to what I was doing, happy again. Or, I’ve done this before, it won’t be that bad. But my concern lies in the observation where overnight, my self worth had flipped a 180. I was the same person I was before I had broken my foot, but somehow, the next day, as the healing process from surgery began, I felt I had no worth because I couldn’t do things in the same manner. As if my self worth was tethered to the foot itself. 

I was perplexed. The more I thought about it, the more saddened I became. Attaching my self worth to what I could do, how busy I was, and my athletic ability, is easy to do, but it has no weight, nothing I can hold onto. Attaching worth instead to the quality of my character, or who I am when I’m left to just be – that is far more valuable, and true. In fact, the irony of it all, is how long I spent working on discovering and valuing the ‘non-doing’ parts of me through numerous injury recoveries, and the writing of my memoir Out and Back. Perhaps I just needed a reminder?

“An athlete’s biggest Achilles’ heel is that our coping mechanism is wound up in the things we do athletically. Our frustrations are only compounded by lack of exercise, so we’re in trouble if we can’t get rid of them by going on a run or ride or ski. Without exercise as an outlet, the emotions and physical unrest marinate and mix together, creating even more of the same. 

This was the process I had to honor every day of my recovery, as well as every day I was healthy. There’s always something to battle, something to learn from, and some opportunity to become better. Every low has an important moment in life, to show us what we are made of and offer a chance to cultivate motivation, desire, dreams. Those moments push you through to whatever obstacle comes next. What I had to remember was this: You are more than just an athlete.”

I am more than what I do. We all are. But really, think about that for a second, because it’s more of a statement to question your mental health. How do you define your self worth without associating it with an action? What makes you, you – at your core? This was something I had begun to forget, this was something I needed to revisit.

I believe this is a very important part of mental health – how we define our self worth; especially in the low moments – not in action or varying degrees of doing, it’s distracting – but in inaction, in being, just how you are, in who you are. How we show up around struggle, setback and love or joy  – for ourselves and for those we love. 

I’ll admit, this aspect of mental health can be a bit confusing for me; it’s hard to hold onto. It’s more subtle and less actionable than I’m used to, but that doesn’t make it any less important. In fact, I believe it’s the most important aspect of mental health – how we define our self worth. Because, at the end of the day, we only have ourselves, and how we value our inner self and our worth can cultivate some of the most powerful forces that we have as humans.

"What makes you, you – at your core? This was something I had begun to forget, this was something I needed to revisit."

So, I ask you: how do you define yourself when you strip away all the action verbs? How do you accept yourself – in all the aspects of Newton’s laws – and just be? Yes, I still have trouble with it too, especially the part about resting. But I’ve realized the more self-acceptance I have, the better I am at being in motion, being at rest, and moving in new, unexpected directions – when a force is acted upon me, requiring me to stop. There’s no judgment, because at the end of the day, I’m the same me, and my worth isn’t contingent on my direction, speed or itinerary – my worth comes from me

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Author Bio

Hillary Allen

Hillary Allen is an ultra endurance athlete based out of Boulder, Colorado. She has a masters in neuroscience and physiology and firmly believes that your best athletic days are ahead of you. Check out more articles by Hillary on her website blog or follow her adventures on instagram @hillygoat_climbs.

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