Coaching trail runners is one of my favorite things! Athletes reach out with fantastic goals — big adventure plans, new routes to explore, new distances to achieve, and literal mountains to climb. Their inspiration is contagious, and their commitment is undeniable.
My coaching and training philosophy has evolved over the past several years as I’ve gained more personal experience and looked back on the seasons of my life. My own running journey began in 2005 when I ran my first road 5k, followed by a half marathon. I ran my first full marathon in 2008 and gave birth to my first baby in 2011. Childbirth and marathoning are NOT the same. Both are hard but different.
My first ultramarathon was also my first trail race; my daughter (3 years old at the time) brought me chocolate almond milk at the finish line. Since then, I’ve circumnavigated PNW volcanoes, climbed mountains, and adventured through day and night to run 100 miles in one go. In addition, I homeschooled my 2nd and 4th grader last year, and we celebrated my son’s 10th birthday during COVID lockdown.
The most important thing I’ve gleaned from life experience: I am strong.
I guess I always knew, but spending time pushing my limits, overcoming challenges, exploring new terrain, and setting out on adventures that I am not always positive are possible has proven to me over and over again.
The most wonderful and most tragic life circumstances can create turmoil in our schedules and affect our training. Whether living through a pandemic, coping with changing work demands, dealing with illness, mourning a loss, celebrating an anniversary, welcoming a new child, moving to a new home, or confronting any of the myriad complications that make you human, one thing is for certain: life is ever-changing, and adaptation is necessary. First, however, you must strike a balance.
People often ask, “But how do runners find the time, energy, and longevity to sustain big goals and dreamy adventures year after year, season after season, as life changes?” The overly simplified answer: they are strong. But strength is not defined by one’s ability to climb mountains and run miles on end. Strength is a full package. It’s a delicate balance. It’s able to pivot when life throws a twist. Strength is recognizing life circumstances and reprioritizing when necessary — it can look like homeschooling in place of ultrarunning. It can look like deep-diving into a huge training block after cancer treatment. Strength is unique to each individual. My coaching and training focus on building strength and achieving balance.
On days when you think, “I feel strong,” you’ve struck a balance. I want all the women I coach to feel strong; that’s a win. Of course, your needs will change, seasons will shift, new goals will take priority. But, hopefully, you’ve built a strong foundation you can rely on to give you support as you pursue new adventures.
I think of strength as four pillars: physical strength, mental strength, personal strength, and community strength. Each of these pillars is an important piece of feeling strong.
- Physical strength: The most familiar pillar is physical strength. It’s relatively easy to measure gains in physical strength; you may track the miles you run, the weight you lift, the pace you race, the vert you gain. Focusing on your physical strength will ensure you have the power and endurance to do the things you wish to do. Working hard is important to progress, but bodies also need rest to rebuild to realize increased physical strength. So move every day and be intentional about your workouts and your rest. To maximize physical strength, you need to fluctuate the intensity of your workouts and afford yourself time for ample recovery.
- Mental strength: Nurturing your mental strength ensures that you can act according to what you believe is right, especially when faced with hardship. Trail running and environmental awareness go hand in hand. Deeply seeded love for any hobby will result in passionate opinions. Movement and rest are both critical pieces to maintaining your mental strength. Staying active keeps your brain sharp. But being overly taxed and tired, stressed, or anxious is exhausting. Recognizing when your body and brain are stressed so that you can rest and rejuvenate is critical. Mental strength allows you to back your passions with firm resolve.
- Personal strength: Athletes fluctuate through seasons — priorities shift, bodies change, volume ebbs and flows, and self-image and expectations adjust. Personal strength means having respect for all aspects of yourself now and as you change. Let’s face it, and you would be a boring person if you never changed. But waiting to respect a future version of yourself is not necessary. You are worthy of love and respect right now, today, regardless of where you are on your journey, regardless of your season. There’s one thing you can do every day, no matter what: love yourself. Accept yourself as you are now. Prioritize yourself, educate yourself, continue learning and growing. Respect yourself now and as you plan for who you will become tomorrow.
- Community strength: Perhaps the most visible pillar of strength in trail running is community strength. Community strength is the collective effort members put forth to take care of each other, protect each other, educate each other, and create positive change for all. Show up for your community when you are able, and your community will show up for you when you need support. If you’ve ever attended a trail running event, you know that community engagement is the next level. Do your part in your communities: volunteer your time and expertise, the crew a friend through a nighttime race, invite newcomers to join your endeavors, and when you need support, accept it. It’s empowering to find your people and become part of a community, and together members heighten the strength of the whole.
The past year and a half have really tested your limits. Your physical, mental, personal, and/or communal strength might not be what it once was. As a result, you may feel out of balance. Recognizing that you feel off allows you to do something about it.
The first step to (re)building strength is to show up. Show up for yourself. Recognize where you need to focus your energy and make a realistic plan. Get started and trust the process. Next, enjoy the process. Understand that finding and building your strength is life-long work. Expect to adjust and adapt along the way. Finally, engage the support of those around you and, when you are able, be available to support them in return. Participate in your communities, rally friends, and ask for the support you need.
People say that running a hundred miles is like living a lifetime in a day — the ups and downs, the trials and victories, the lessons learned. I like this analogy because it lends itself to recognizing that the strength you glean from running can be applied to your entire life, and the strength you glean from living a balanced life will serve you well in running.
You are strong. I am strong. Together, we can be the strongest version of ourselves.
Sarah Foote is a UESCA running coach and NASM certified personal trainer in Portland, OR. She advocates for women in outdoor spaces, empowering women to build strength and find balance. Details can be found at www.gobyfoote.com | follow along @gobyfoote + @teamgobyfoote