I’ve dedicated my whole life to sport, and the last 6 years to the pursuit of professional sport. Working on my physical strength has almost become a sanctuary of sorts, a place I can go to make me feel safe and taken care of. It’s where I feel like I’m making progress and working toward my goals.
My relationship with sport has changed over the years. I’ve discovered new activities I love to do, like cycling, and I’ve realized the importance of strength training in the gym in order to continue running at a high level. It’s the kind of work that everyone thinks of when they think of ‘strength training.’ It’s lifting heavy weights, loading the axial skeleton, and working on those little stabilizer muscles that are so important for good form and healthy running. (If you need more evidence that strength training is for runners, check out this podcast with Emily Carr PT, DPT).
But, this isn’t where I convince you on the benefits of strength training, or even tell you about my strength training routine, because when I speak about strength, I want to focus not on the physical, but on every other aspect of strength that leads to resilience, vulnerability and becoming, well, stronger.
It’s the other side of strength that I want to talk about, the hidden parts of it, the roots of strength, expansive and deep like the roots of a big, old oak tree. I never thought that being vulnerable made me strong, in fact, it was something I hid from. I never letothers see any real emotion besides optimism.I never let on that I was struggling.
This kind of stoicism is idealized. Somewhere along the line it’s become the norm to cultivate a life, outwardly, that’s perfect and pristine, with no real struggle or emotion. For me, this isn’t possible anymore. I experience life very intensely. I express genuine emotions, like happiness, or joy, as easily as I express sadness and anger. (Those who know me well, should giggle here, it’s an intense honesty I choose to show). You might be wondering what this has to do with strength, and maybe I’ve lost you, but my point is, that emotional strength is synonymous with physical strength, and one enables the other.
Take, for example, the other day. I had a workout to do, a tough one. I was feeling off; stressed, not happy, a bit sad. My first interval felt too hard, on a pace that would normally feel ok. Instead of giving up, getting upset or starting negative self-talk, I gave myself a moment of compassion, to feel ‘the funk.’ I told myself, give it your best and have no judgement. I continued, and I finished the workout.It wasn’t my best one, but I chose to be proud of it. This is strength.
Last week, when I felt overwhelmed and stressed, I asked for help from a friend instead of pretending like I had it all together. For me, one of the scariest things is being vulnerable with others. I don’t like to cry in front of anyone, not just because my crying face is ugly, but because I feel utterly naked. But the more I practice being vulnerable, the more liberating it is, and the less I feel held back by fear, sadness, anger or feeling out of control. In fact, I feel stronger for it.
There are many hidden aspects of strength, and all of them relate back to one thing: strength is not what you think it is, and it certainly doesn’t look the same on everyone. I think back to that oak tree, whose age lines are twisted with different colors and knots, adding to its beauty, its complexity; the imperfections add to its strength, its integrity and how it keeps fighting to live each day and lay down another year.
So the next time you think of ‘strength work’ instead of going to the gym, or a run, or heading out on your bike, think about the work you do every day, outside of sport, in your relationships, in your job, especially on the days where you feel overwhelmed or defeated; let those feelings in, make space for them—it’s ok to cry—and keep on your pursuits. Strength in vulnerability and showing up throughout the messiness of life is where the real work lies, and maybe, that’s what strength really looks like.