Back to Fitness: Building the Mental and Physical Base

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John Andersen

Twenty years ago this August, I started my first year of veterinary school at Virginia Tech. I had finished up a degree at James Madison University and then spent the summer doing hard labor with a landscape company I had worked for every summer throughout college. Moving to Blacksburg was a big change. I felt very isolated and I didn’t know anyone in my class. Also, I knew I was starting a four-year journey to a veterinary degree, and I suppose I knew enough to know that I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  

We had a few days of orientation before classes began. Besides getting familiar with the layout of the school and meeting our new best friends for the next four years, we also had several talks by faculty members about how to prepare for and handle the workload that was about to ensue.

One professor, whose name I can’t remember, gave a talk that I remember to this day. It was about handling more and more workload each year. Below is a paraphrase from memory, but gives the gist of it:

“You are about to begin a journey of learning and growing. There is a LOT to learn these next four years, and at times it will be overwhelming. Each year will be more difficult than the prior year and each year’s classes will all be based upon a foundation of knowledge that you gained in the previous year. There is no way that we could take you as you are right now and have you complete the workload that we ask of our 3rd year students, and there is no way that we could take a second-year student and have them successfully complete their 4th year. Not only do you have to learn the material, but you have to figure out how you learn and continue to refine that process. So this year, focus on what you’re doing right now—don’t worry about next year, next year will come when you are ready.”

Probably because I was nervous about the new academic journey I was starting, I took those words to heart and now, 20 years wiser, I find myself thinking about those words as they pertain to so many other things in life. In particular, and in perfect relevance to this column, I find these words to be very relevant and specific to our individual fitness journeys.

Although I’ve always been relatively active, I never really was a runner until about 13 years ago.  I can still remember thinking of people who ran 10 miles as “crazy” or just different. That could NEVER be me. It was such a foreign concept that I could not imagine doing something like that.  The disconnect was both physical and mental. Physically, I knew that my legs could not take me for 10 miles. That was double what I had ever run, and I imposed limits on myself just because that seemed foreign or scary to me. “Nope, I could NEVER do that.” Mentally, I just couldn’t imagine enjoying such a thing! What do you think about for 10 miles?  Isn’t that boring?  Whether it was the concept of just occupying my mind or just spending silent time with myself for 2 hours, I just couldn’t imagine being there mentally.

Twelve years later, I really enjoy running long distance and 10 miles is what my friends and I do before work. Also, I have come to love, and in fact need, the meditative time. One of my weekly runs is a 4-hour trail run—no headphones, no music, just mind space.

Now back to the vet school prep talk metaphor. It has taken years to get where I am, both physically and mentally. If I tried to run 26 or 50 miles 13 years ago, my legs would probably have broken. They were simply not ready, and the changes required to handle mileage take a long time – like years. Thus, it’s a very slow process to believe, physically, that you can do much, much more than you can do today. You just gotta be patient. Like, really patient. (Years.)

The mental adaptations of what you can and can’t do also takes years to change. If you could have somehow given me 50-mile legs 13 years ago and guaranteed me that I could run 50 miles, I would have failed. Why? Because, mentally, it was too foreign a concept.  The time on feet. The hours alone. How to responsibly fit that into my busy schedule. How to push through discomfort, but not be stupid.  And, simply, how to enjoy it, to crave it, and to need it. But after years spent in the great laboratory of life my initial perceptions of “I could never do that” changed. Not in one day, not after reading the best fitness column ever, and not after watching some inspirational movie or reading an inspirational book. The change happened little by little, over years.  

So whatever your health and fitness goals are, don’t limit yourself, no matter how improbable or unlikely something seems now. Real change takes time and even the figuring out your goals and how you’re going to get there takes time.  Thirteen years ago, I decided, “Maybe I’ll run the Charlottesville 10 miler.”  I didn’t say, “Maybe I’ll run the Western States 100 miler!” Likewise, instead of, “I’m going to lose 50 pounds,” start with “I’m going to lose 15 pounds.”  Instead of “I’m going to train for a 50-mile bike ride,” start with “I’m going to start riding 3 days a week.”  Let a fitness routine enter your life and then, stay motivated and always redefine your goals.  Don’t be afraid to try new things, go longer, or get uncomfortable.  

Last, remember that there is no book, no training plan, no diet, no anything that will make your goals happen for you. Only your mind stands between you and your goals, nothing else.  

So, dream big, take baby steps, and don’t stop believing!

Editor’s Note: Congratulations to Gazette vet and fitness guru, John Andersen, for his second place finish at the Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run last weekend!  

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