athletes · fitness · training

Am I (Are You) an Athlete?

jackie-joyner-kersee-jumping-rtr12e5g_13925_600x450When I first wanted to be a writer, I used to read lots about writing. I read more about writing than I actually wrote. Something I read that stuck with me more than anything was that if you want to be a writer, start thinking of yourself as a writer. Call yourself a writer. Organize your schedule as a writer would. Write.

It took awhile, but eventually, instead of thinking in terms of wanting to be a writer, I started to think of myself as a writer. And I behaved as a writer. That is, I started to write.

I wonder if we can say the same for athletes? If you start to think of yourself as an athlete, will you then behave as one?

As I’ve said before, I don’t consider myself an athlete. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as an athlete in any way, shape, or form. I played no sports. I’m fortunate that the other kids liked me for other reasons or I would always have been picked last for a team. I couldn’t hit a ball, throw a ball, or run fast. My best sport was the broad jump. I enjoyed roller skating and tap dancing more than baseball (not that I was all that great at tap dancing either, but I didn’t compete).

The one thing I excelled at was swimming. And I did swim for much of my childhood, even competed. But I didn’t stay with it long enough to consider it an athletic pursuit.

When I think of athletes, I think of Olympians, elite cyclists, champions in various sports. I think of people whose lives are dedicated to their sport and who have reached a certain level of achievement. In some sense, I understand that there is more to being an athlete than competing and winning. But even still, I have difficulty thinking of myself as someone to whom the descriptor “athlete” could ever, in all fairness to those who really are athletes, apply.

What makes a person an athlete? Does it make sense for me to think of myself in those terms.

In Samantha’s recent post on athletic values, she comments that athletes care about competing and winning. This is in opposition to those who would pursue fitness for a particular aesthetic. I think the rest of the post suggests that it’s not necessarily competing and winning, but the emphasis on performance, that distinguishes the athlete from the fitness enthusiast who is pursuing a particular aesthetic.

At least a couple of times Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes, she puts the question to her reader: “Are you an athlete?”

When talking about how much a person should work out, she says: If you have ambitions beyond glowing health; if essentially you are an athlete –which does not mean that you must compete, only that you ache to be a little faster or better at your chosen activity–you will have to push your body somewhat.

I aspire to run faster, lift heavier, and hold my yoga asanas with more strength and better form. On the “aching to be faster or better” criterion, that makes me an athlete. I don’t need to want to compete and win. This is a good thing because competing and winning are not my main goals.

When discussing who should think about sports nutrition, Reynolds says: Ask Yourself: Am I an athlete? Be honest. If you’re not working out for more than an hour a day or at an achingly strenuous intensity, then, really, you’re not.

In my regular routine, not interrupted by travel or injury, I either run or spend time on the elliptical machine every day for 30-40 minutes plus I do either yoga or strength training for a minimum of 60 minutes each day. It’s the perfect balance, for me, of cardio and strength training, doing activities that I enjoy. (side note: I don’t exactly enjoy the elliptical, especially now that I am doing tough intervals, but it’s not a bad way to spend half an hour. It makes me feel a sense of accomplishment and in the recovery intervals I am able to read. I consider the reading time a bonus).

I’m sure to many, thinking of yourself as an athlete is simply a practical thing. If you are engaged in activity as an athlete, with particular goals for improvement, then you need to feed yourself appropriately (sports nutrition!) and train appropriately (intervals!). I could try to explain my resistance to calling myself an athlete in terms of my aversion to both of these things. As I said, sports nutrition is a risky path for me. And even though I am doing intervals, they are hard.

If Gretchen Reynolds’ take on the latest research is accurate, you can’t achieve better performance–faster, stronger, better–without intervals. And if you are active at the level of athlete, then you do need to pay attention to what you’re eating. In particular (she says) you need to eat more carbs than the non-athlete.

But I don’t think that’s what I’m resisting. Instead, I’m not distinguishing between athletes and elite athletes. Just as all writers are not Pulitzer Prize winners or even full-time authors, not all athletes are Olympians or professionals. If it’s about quantity of activity and having performance goals instead of aesthetic goals, then there’s no question that I’m an athlete.

And maybe, as it was when I was an aspiring writer, the qualifier “aspiring” was part of the problem.

What about you? If you fit these various criteria for being an athlete, are you comfortable with the label?

[photo: Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee soars past spectators during the long jump at the 2000 U.S. trials.

15 thoughts on “Am I (Are You) an Athlete?

  1. I am an athlete because I say I am an athlete. My self identity does not require Gretchen Reynolds’ (or anyone else’s) approval. Similarly, my considering myself to be an athlete does not require me to follow anyone else’s rules for how an athlete should/must behave–only my own rules.

  2. Excellent post, Tracy! I understand that were you to find yourself in a room with Kafka, Joyce and Woolf, you might be hesitant to introduce yourself as a writer. I do not have the time, the ability nor the inclination to conduct myself in all regards as an “elite athlete”. Accordingly, I am not an elite athlete, nor do I aspire to be one. One, it is not possible. Two, I don’t want to. Do I work out, like you though, for well over an hour most days? Yes. Do I work out like an elite athlete though? Not even remotely. Am I somewhat strict about my diet? Yes. Do I take supplements like creatine, for instance, to boost performance? Yes, but no illegal steroid use, which most elite athletes do take. Is sports nutrition something I take into account when deciding what to eat on a daily basis? Yes. Do I push myself like an elite athlete? Absolutely not. I’m too old, and I don’t want to get hurt
    (although I’ve injured myself numerous times already; just part of the game really, even if you don’t train like an elite athlete). Do I think in terms of performance? Yes, although for me in many regards and for medical reasons, I have a bit of a balancing act to perform. I have to keep the weight or body fat percentage down, sometimes at the expense of performance in weight training anyway. I think of this goal, or balancing act though, as part of my “performance plan” (although it is admittedly both frustrating and humbling at times).
    Like you, I don’t generally at least think of myself as an athlete, much less an elite athlete. Like you, I reserve this label for people that really can and do conduct themselves in every regard as an elite athlete, even if they do not compete at the highest levels (and even if they do not take steroids). I don’t need to label myself as an athlete, however, to live as I live. You spoke in an earlier post about not concentrating on true end goals on a daily basis, but upon smaller more achievable goals on a daily basis. In a similar vein, perhaps it is not as much about the label, as it is about the answers you give to yourself about smaller questions, like the ones I answered above? I think that by answering these types of smaller questions, you have a better chance of finding yourself and accurately defining who you are, what you’re doing and where you want to go. The use of labels often obscures the truth of all these things, I think at least, for a lot of different reasons. That said, if labelling yourself as an athlete assists you in maintaining a very healthy lifestyle, go for it! Whatever turns your crank, as the saying goes. Live and let live (as long as the person doing it doesn’t become intolerant and arrogant, and doesn’t begin to compare themselves to Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens!).

  3. I think of myself as an athlete and have done for sometime. To mark the distinction between me and the Olympic types I say “adult onset athlete” or “weekend athlete” or “recreational athlete”, all ways of marking the idea that while I share many of their values it’s not a full time gig for me. I guess I first started to think that way through cycling–having a coach, being on a team, and racing certainly put me in athlete territory, Crossfit calls its members ‘athletes’ and i like that. What I like best is the focus on performance over looks as a measure of fitness. I think that’s a healthy message for lots of people, even those who never want to race or compete. What this says to me is that we need more language in the area of fitness so that those who are reluctant to think of themselves as athletes can share in that value, caring about function, about bodily competence instead of caring about visible abs, etc.

  4. Perhaps oddly, I do consider myself a runner, but not an athlete. I love running and have been doing it consistently for 19 years. But I don’t enjoy racing–I’ve entered a handful of races over the last decade mostly because so many of my friends were racing that I thought it might be fun (though I love running with friends–and meeting new people in group runs–I don’t enjoy the racing itself). I’ve also been a part of a couple of different running groups, and there’ve been times when a majority of my closest friends were runners. So I think I often “identify” with other runners (even though I’m a bit odd amonst them in my dislike of racing).

    I’m also not very fast–perhaps I could be faster if I worked on it. But running fast isn’t important to me–I run because I love how it makes me feel and because it’s the most enjoyable way for me to enjoy the outdoors (trail running is my favorite).

    I hadn’t quite thought of it this way before, but I guess I associate being an althlete with competing (whether or not one is good or fast) and perhaps also with being a part of a team.

    I don’t mind not being an “althete,” but if someone suggests that I’m not a runner because I don’t race (or that I’m a “jogger” since my pace is too slow), I would be quite offended!

    1. Totally agree on running vs. jogging. A runner is a person who runs (that is: travels using a running style gait). It is not for me to judge someone else’s reasons for running or to determine the speed at which s/he crosses the jog/run threshold. I would never accuse someone else of being a jogger unless the person had informed me that was how they perceived themselves.

      A writer is someone who writes. I don’t preface the term with “aspiring”. Either you do the deed, or you don’t.

      “Athlete” is trickier because it isn’t a direct correlate of a specific verb. But often when people who regularly participate in athletic pursuits hesitate to claim the title of “athlete” I see a judgementalism taking place akin to the running vs. jogging issue.

  5. Again, and for what it is worth, I do not really see why we need to affix ourselves with the label of “athlete” in order to exercise hard on a daily basis and to consistently eat right for what we are doing. I know alot of guys who still play hockey in men’s leagues. Does that make them athletes? I wouldn’t classify all of them as such. That said, if they want to call themselves athletes, I won’t argue with them, although admittedly, with some of them, I might snicker a little on the inside. Why? Because they play once or twice a week, drink a beer or two in the dressing room after the game, another two or three in the bar once they’ve changed along with a cheeseburger or maybe some poutine. So I mean, really – define “athlete”. I don’t know how to, or at what point to say someone is or is not an athlete. There is some judgmental-ism in the application of the term for sure. And I agree with Sam that most people should concentrate on performance over looking like a fitness model, unless their goal is to become a fitness model and it is a realistic goal for them. And I also understand from Sam and Tracy, the pressure on women to look like fitness models. So I understand women wanting the right to use the label of athlete even if they look nothing like fitness models. And at this point, it become a socio-political issue primarily in the women’s rights context, as far as I can see, and admittedly, I’m neither sufficiently knowledgeable nor am I competent to speak about these types of matters.

    1. Another answer: I’m certainly comfortable describing myself as an athletic person, even if we think ‘athlete’ itself is a stretch. Anyway, my main point is that it might be helpful for more women to think in terms of athletic values, to think like athletes about our bodies. Cheers!

  6. And I agree with Laura about this: ” But often when people who regularly participate in athletic pursuits hesitate to claim the title of “athlete” I see a judgementalism taking place akin to the running vs. jogging issue.” And that’s why I worry about women not adopting athletic values…

  7. Tracy, you might like this, “But there are good reasons why we should all—especially those of us over age 40—should think of ourselves more as athletes when we’re making decisions about our fitness plans and doing our day-to-day workouts. And yes, this goes for those of you who “just” walk for fitness, or go to Jazzercise or Zumba. It doesn’t matter what your fitness level is, whether you compete as an individual or on a team or not at all, or if you know the difference between tabata and TRX. Approaching your commitment to fitness as an athlete might just be the key to getting REAL results in the gym.

    Why? Because athletic training isn’t just about looks—it’s about performance. Obvious? Maybe. But when I started thinking about this idea and applying it to my own training, I had an “aha” moment. How many times had I done something active, something seemingly less challenging than running (for which I train regularly), and ended up sore for days? How many times had I cursed my weak—yet deceptively toned—upper body as it failed to, say, make easy work of moving a couch or hoisting my carry-on into the upper bin? The fact is, we may LOOK fit, but looks aren’t everything. What REALLY matters is that we can perform.”

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