Position yourself here: you're introducing yourself to a new colleague at work, to a potential partner on a dating app, to friends of friends at a party, or to a new training group at the local running club. What kind of words do you use to describe yourself? Do your labels remain constant regardless of the situation you are in? Do you go through phases of identifying differently or perhaps you find it difficult to define yourself at all?
I'll go first in introducing myself as an athlete. "Athlete" has been my official job title as of last December, and thus, after thirty years of existence as a human who loves to run, I finally feel entitled to describe myself so for most of the time. Sometimes my use of the term can still feel alien and fraudulent, and other times I am also conscious of narrowing my identity down to the role of athlete rather too scrupulously. It is a pendulum that can swing to both extremes.
On the one hand, I know that I deserve to recognise myself as an athlete without experiencing the feelings of guilt or shame that characterise Imposter Syndrome. These feelings are most likely to surface when I am engaged in activities that do not align with those perceived as true to the ideals of a high performance lifestyle. This also tends to happen most when I am sidelined from competing through injury or illness or when I am not achieving the results I am targeting.
Despite being well-educated on the importance of fuelling my body enough for whatever phase of training or recovery I am in and enjoying a healthy relationship with food, I often find that the foods I am consuming still have an impact on how I view myself.
I know that enjoying food without always having its perceived unsuitability for athletic performance niggling in the back of my mind is a healthy fulfilment of all of the other components of my identity.
Since infancy, I have always lingered at the hip of my mother, grandmother, and father as they cooked, taking an instinctively keen interest in whatever wafted down to my nose from the stove. By nature, I am a highly sensory person and the pursuit of various feelings and sensations is undoubtedly what has driven each of my life choices. I love the exhilaration of a floating stride, the intensity of a thudding heartbeat, lungs straining at their cage, loaded tendons recoiling. That is why I am a runner. I love the ferrous smack of tartan track lactic as surely as I love the silken pistachio cream that oozes from a flaky morning pastry, and I love the residual tannins of an earthy Chianti as surely as I love the first drop of refrigerated tap water to my parched lips post long run. That is why I am a cook. I love the vivid resurgence of all of these sensations to be found in the texture of words and in the shape of a sentence, and that is why I am a poet.
I am all of these co-existing things and more, and yet sometimes I find myself feeling as if I am none of them properly, because I am not one of them purely.
It is a reactive relationship of feeling simultaneously too much and yet not enough, of feeling like there is only one pigeonhole that I am allowed to fit into. For some reason, I critically associate my own multiplicity with an indecisive lack of commitment which simply isn't a true or fair judgement.
It would be all too easy to let this feeling overtake me and have the all-consuming pursuit of athletic prowess rob me of all the joys that my other interests give me, under the false impression that true dedication to running requires abstinence elsewhere.
The fear of not always adhering to the stereotypical behavioural norms such as following strict dietary plans that are often unnecessarily expected of successful athletes, is always exacerbated when I am unable to fulfil other aspects of life as a professional runner. When I am under-performing in training or racing for reasons that I cannot explain or influence, I become far more prone to scrutinising the only things left in my daily practice that I can exercise control over. This can manifest itself in attempts to "clean up" my eating habits, often feeling tempted to reduce my intakes of certain foods despite knowing that under-fuelling actually presents an even greater risk to performance. In reality I know that what actually helps me to perform at my best is the fulfilment of all of the many aspects of who I am. To pour it all out onto the track, I have to have a full cup to pour from, particularly if I want to be able to give one hundred per cent repeatedly. I have to keep refilling the well with the other parts of my life that makes me feel whole even when athletics empties me. One such activity happens to be cooking and eating.
As such, I remind myself very deliberately that the value of the pleasure and sense of wellbeing that I get from food more often than not far outweighs any detriment that the nutritional value of what I'm consuming might have on my athletic performance.
Having talked to many of my friends and family about this conundrum (whether they identify as athletes or not), it is clear to see that I am not alone in experiencing these pervasively self-critical thought patterns. Being conscious of these swings in my behaviour is half the battle, and so is being able to air my concerns about them in both professional and personal spaces. I know that these are probably not thoughts that will ever just disappear for good, and that I will always have to work at separating my destructive, self-critical voice from my rational, true self. Accepting these kinds of doubts and insecurities as an albeit unwelcome part of who I am can be a difficult process, but I know that they are also a common and natural part of existence.
Remembering that I do not have to adhere to any self-imposed rules in order to be valued for who I am is a fundamental part of re-balancing my perspective when I feel myself slipping to extremes. Nobody has to always behave "like an athlete should" in order to be true to their self and to feel like the athlete that they are regardless.