If you love to move, then you are an athlete!
I have always held a strong belief that anyone who moves, is an athlete. Yet there is a common train of thought that somehow you need to qualify to be an athlete; that there are certain boxes to tick before you are worthy of the term. Admittedly, the definition of an athlete is “someone who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.” But proficient by whose standards? The reality is that there are no requirements, written or unwritten, to qualify as an athlete. There is no minimum mileage per week to attain, no top-end power output to achieve and no essential equipment required in order to receive an “Athlete” stamp.
So in my opinion, if you love to move, then you are an athlete.
I love to move - on foot, by bike, in water; fast or slow. That makes me an athlete. Yet sometimes, due to my own insecurities, I refer to myself as not a real athlete. But being an athlete is not dependent on performance, or strict compliance with a training plan. Being an athlete means choosing to live the lifestyle of a healthy and active being. It means training, resting, eating healthily, working with sports professionals and eventually, if you enjoy doing so, pushing your limits in racing. Being an athlete is the process of going outside, moving your body and enjoying it, regardless of your motivation. Being an athlete is a journey, not a destination. And if you are on a journey of movement, you are a real athlete.
All athletes suffer setbacks though. A DNF - Did Not Finish, with reference to a race - is a relatively common occurrence that can make an athlete feel as if they no longer deserve their title. Injury, illness, high work loads or family stressors can also occasionally prevent athletes from training. But these are normal life factors and just as nothing specifically qualifies you to be an athlete, nothing can disqualify you from being an athlete either. There is an athlete in every body, whether or not it’s currently in training. We’re all composed of the same bones, muscles and soft tissue after all, and each and every one of us has the ability and capacity to cultivate our own athleticism.
Modern society loves to place things, and people, into boxes. If you run, you’re a runner. A trail runner, or perhaps even an ultra trail runner… But the type of movement in which you engage does not change the fact that you are an athlete. Again, there are no limitations or restrictions to defining an athlete. As a coach, I always refrain from labeling athletes according to their preferred sport - a runner, a cyclist, a triathlete. Every person with whom I work is just that - a person first. After that they are an athlete, and then finally an athlete that chooses to run, ride a bike, swim or do all three.
Avoiding sport-specific labels has other benefits. As an athlete your sport specificity can, and should, change over time. Not having your identity tied to one discipline makes it easier to adapt to the idea of other types of movement, especially in the event of injury. Injured athletes are highly prone to a degree of self-inflicted “identity crisis” when they’re unable to perform their preferred activity, and being open-minded to engaging in a different exercise can prevent a lot of unnecessary stress. In fact, limiting yourself to one discipline has very few, if any, advantages. Most athletes experience improved fitness, strength, motivation and injury-prevention by engaging in cross-training several times a week, so why limit yourself to a single sport?
From a coaching perspective, recognising that every athlete is a person first is very valuable in my coach-athlete relationships. When I first engage with an athlete we need to discuss your working hours, job demands, family commitments, life challenges and support system. Only after that can we design a realistic training plan based on your goals and objectives. You might be a cyclist, but maybe you’re also a single working parent trying to recreate your social life through riding. These distinctions are valuable in influencing how we communicate and how we integrate exercise, rest, nutrition and lifestyle adjustments into your training plan. Finding a constructive balance between all aspects of your life as a person is the best way to optimise your athletic self, and moving should make you a better and happier person too.
So why is it important to view yourself as an athlete as opposed to just a person who loves to move?
Well, when you identify as an athlete you tend to behave more like an athlete. There is a sense of pride that accompanies considering yourself an athlete and subconsciously you aspire towards that being who is “proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.” This motivates you to train, rest, eat and live better. It’s also the reason why you should never “un-identify” as an athlete when you’re injured or as you grow older. These are periods where respecting, nourishing and caring for your body are of the essence. It is also at these times that you need to accept a difficult concept - you are not the same athlete that you used to be. Not one year ago, not ten years ago, not yesterday. You might never be as good as you were, or perhaps your glory is still to come. But by embracing yourself as an athlete on a journey of movement, you only need to be the best that you can be today, for tomorrow.
To conclude, I’d like to share a personal story. In 2016 I ran my first ultra trail race - the 100km Skyrun - and I was elated with a sub-21 hour finish. Four years later I returned to the event in what I considered to be (and still do) my best ever physical condition. Convinced that I would easily get in under 18hours, disappointment awaited and I had a terrible day. Just finishing was an achievement. In 2022 I returned to Skyrun for the 5th time, neither the novice ultra runner of 2016 nor the well trained athlete of 2020, and I broke my best time by over 90 minutes. Was that because I was a better athlete? A better person? Or did I simply enjoy moving more on that day, making me better able to face the challenges, embrace the mountains and experience the highs and lows that come with moving for long periods?
I’m going for the latter…
“Sharing the science, art and love of movement for a lifetime of sustainable and optimal performance.”