Exercise has always been an outlet for me. Whether heading to yoga after a long day at the office or jogging outdoors to unplug from my hyper-connected life, physical activity has always been my go-to method of winding down and re-centering. But while the benefits of exercise—staying in shape, de-stressing—are preached by many scientists and health professionals, it’s a “prescription” that can be easily abused. Which is exactly what happened to me.
It started at a young age, when countless coaches taught me the well-known phrase: “Walk it off.” Twisted ankle during dance rehearsal? No biggie. Swollen knees from stumbling on a fast break? Worse things have happened. While it seemed like I was simply listening to my leaders, working through the pain was actually my first taste of wanting control—and thinking I had it. I quickly got addicted to the feeling of pushing my body past limits, and it became an emotional outlet.
Whenever I was mad or upset, I knew I could take it out on the basketball court by stealing the ball whenever I had a chance and fouling just a tad too hard. When I was sad, it was the same. Whether I was dancing, running, or playing sports, being active took my mind to a different place. No matter the issue, I went home after workouts feeling like the sweat had washed my problems away.
Of course, these emotional gains came at a physical price, which I brushed off. Bruises, aches, and pains were temporary, I thought. But I was wrong. The upside? I learned a hell of a lot about self-care in the process, and am finally treating my body the ways it needs, and deserves.
A year ago, I found myself in a tough place: My relationship was on the rocks, I was applying for a new job while trying to complete a project for my current employer that I wasn’t equipped to handle, and family life was tumultuous. And, in a true testament to the adage “when it rains, it pours,” it was all happening at once.
Though I don’t often let life get me too down, I was feeling beaten and emotionally exhausted. And on top of that, I didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to. This isn't to say I wasn’t surrounded by incredible friends—I was—it was more that being open has never been a skill of mine. Instead of confronting my issues head on, I turned to the one thing I knew would make me feel better, and the one thing I thought I could control: exercise.
Taking It Too Far
With the New Year right around the corner, I hit the ground running—literally. I signed up for three half marathons, quit my job and accepted a new position at my first real startup, and severed ties with the man I thought I would marry. I thought filling my schedule with training runs and 14-hour workdays would push everything else from my mind.
But unfortunately for me (and anyone else who suffers from internal problem hoarding), it quickly became apparent that burying emotions isn’t the most effective way of dealing with them. Despite running 30 to 40 miles a week and flying across the country for various startup conferences, the pain I was experiencing began bubbling to the surface. Instead of feeling an endorphin rush post-run, I was unable to turn my mind away from feelings of heartbreak, frustration, and sadness. My knees and ankles swelled after every run, I was plagued with headaches, and it seemed like a dull ache had permanently taken up residence in my body.
Instead of taking these pains as a sign that I needed to confront my issues, I started exercising more and pushing my body harder. My history of sports-related injuries (we’re talking a dislocated kneecap, torn muscles in my ankle, and a stress fracture in my foot, to name just a few) should’ve been ample warning as to what would happen next. But I charged on, adding two miles to tempo runs “just because,” and opting for advanced moves in yoga instead of relaxing in child’s pose when my body called out for a break.
By the time the DC Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon arrived in March, my body was already so tired and torn I could barely push through seven-mile training runs. I was averaging four hours of sleep a night, had been on the road for three weeks without a break, and was teetering on the edge of an emotional breakdown. The copious amount of Advil I was taking to subdue the pain in my joints was not equipped to address any of those problems.
I’d also gained weight (likely due to my lack of sleep and insatiable appetite from two-a-day workouts), and was so frustrated with myself that I didn’t even want to look in the mirror. Though my body was stronger in many ways, I was also at my weakest. And as someone who prides herself on the fact that she rarely cries, I was close to tears almost every day.
But instead of just crying, I ran.
Every race was a struggle. In DC I ran the first eight miles way too fast and spent the last three miles cursing and jogging at an elderly walker’s pace. During the Brooklyn Half Marathon, I ran like I had a peg leg, trying to ignore the burning sensations in my lower back and right thigh. I spent the next two days working from my couch, as just walking to the kitchen in my studio apartment felt like an almost insurmountable chore.
The Breaking Point
By the third race, my body was a mess. I stopped running three weeks prior because every time my right foot struck the ground I’d experience such searing pain it made me nauseous. I also wasn’t eating enough because I wanted to lose weight before a wedding (not the healthiest mindset, I know). And I was running said race in San Francisco, a location that brought back a flood of memories I wasn’t ready to deal with.
The city practically haunted me. Every restaurant reminded me of the last time I was there, in someone’s arms discussing a future I’d never been more excited about. Every street reminded me of the last time I’d turned that corner, hand-in-hand with someone I wanted forever by my side. I spent a week battling these emotions in silence, reminding myself that it would be over soon and I could go home.
And then race day arrived.
I masked my discomfort with smiles and laughs the morning of, but at mile eight I began to crack. The pain was so brutal I started to see spots, but I refused to let myself stop. I pushed through to the end, losing my ability to walk as I crossed the finish line. My brother sought medical attention, but I wasn’t done trying to convince people I was OK, insisting I only needed Advil, an Irish coffee, and a decadent brunch.
When I returned to New York, I thought things would look up: There were no races in sight, I was home in my safe space, and a vacation to Nicaragua was in my near future. I patiently waited for my body to recover on its own, foolishly thinking it would. But I couldn’t ignore the stabbing pains in my leg and lower back—and I shouldn’t have, considering my easy commute—not to mention simply sitting down—had become almost unbearable.
I finally went to a doctor, and learned what I was dreading the most: I wouldn’t be able to exercise for the next three to six months. I had developed a curve in my spine due to my lower back compensating for previous knee and feet injuries, and as a result my sciatic nerve was being perpetually pinched. My doctor also informed me my body would never be the same, and recommended that I stop running—indefinitely.
Coping with Loss
Because of my stubbornness and inability to listen my body, it’s possible I’ll never get to achieve one of the most coveted items on my bucket list: completing a marathon. It’s also more than possible that the damage I’ve done to my body is irreversible—and I’m only 26.
Instead of being grateful for my ability to run every day, I took it for granted. I acted as if I was in charge, and turned a deaf ear to the screams that were my body begging me to stop. I may not have been abusing drugs or alcohol, but I was abusing exercise, and the results were just as crippling.
So what have I learned? That I seriously need to work on myself—both mentally and physically. So why did I write this? To hopefully convince everyone else that pushing your body past its limits isn’t worth it. And to stop before it’s too late.
Exercise isn’t a solution. It may give endorphins and be a great way to burn off steam, but it shouldn’t be a punishment, escape, or Band-Aid. Instead, it should help fuel my goals and be a compliment to whatever I’m trying to achieve.
For me, coming to this understanding is about changing perspective. I used to use exercise as an easy way out. I believed that if I ran enough, I would eventually get the body I always wanted, which would help me meet the next great guy, and ultimately make me happier. But guess what? I didn’t get any of those things, and I strayed further from happiness than I ever had.
I may still be single, and I may not be 100 percent satisfied with my body, but I am happier. And if there’s anything I learned from this, it’s that you need to make yourself a priority. Your happiness depends on you, and there’s rarely an easy answer for how to achieve it. So take the harder road, face your fears, and listen to your body—and your heart. I assure you it’s a lot more fun than three half marathons with an injured spine.
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