The Myth of the Professional Athlete

Greetings, earthlings.

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about nothing where I wrote about the beauty of living a lifestyle that legitimately and purposefully supports doing nothing. To which, my Swiss-Canadian sister from another mister, Heidi Widmer , was all “Holla! Can you provide some insight to explaining the less intense sides of sport to our non-full-time-athlete-but-still-athletic comrades? You’re so wise and funny and I’d really like to hear it from you!” (Or something like that)

To which, I responded “le duh.”

See, there’s this really interesting thing about full-time endurance athletics that people on the outside tend to not expect: going easy most of the time.

Because if you go really easy most of the time, then you can go really fast some of the time. And in an 11-month training and racing cycle in which we race on weekends during only 4.5-5 months a year, the goal is to only go fast some of the time. Per modus tollens (fellow philosophy majors, you with me?), that means that we must go really easy most of the time. And with our athletic friends, that usually doesn’t sit well.

Let me paint this picture anecdotally, then scientifically, and see if we can piece the two together in some semblance of English that we can use to explain ourselves with our friends.

A couple of days ago, my editor approached me with a deal on an entry fee to ride a 100 mile mountain bike race that coming weekend. She thoughtfully considered the feat right up my endurance-y alley. I appreciated the sentiment, however that 100 mile mountain bike race landed on the final day of my recovery week, for which I was already over-hours (also, side note, I’ve never raced a mountain bike.)

I said thanks, but no thanks, and turned back to my computer.


“What?!” she replied, shocked. “You’re a professional athlete! This ride will be easy for you!” I then tried to explain the concept of a rest week, which led me into periodization and volume vs. intensity vs. recovery blocks and by the time I reached my conclusion, my audience (both body and mind) had drifted elsewhere, an occurrence many Nordies have experienced (and hopefully won’t recur in this blog).

To be fair, yes, as compared to someone who has never trained, raced or practiced an endurance sport, a 100 mile mt. bike ride might be easier for me to complete. That’s not really the root of my rant here, but rather the common perception that athletes are energizer bunnies with endless amounts of energy to spare and spend at any given moment. The myth of the professional athlete. In fact, for the people who believe it, we end up being massive disappointments.

Take pretty much any non-skier with whom I’ve ever gone on a run. Hearing that I train hours at a time, he/she assumes that I’m the perfect partner for collecting miles in the mountains. Each run generally begins with a “you’re in such good shape, you’re gonna kick my ass” sentiment quickly rescinded when we’re halfway up an incline and I’ve geared into an ever glamorous and athletic looking ski-walk. Here it’s really a pride thing. I can go faster, I want to go faster, but I shouldn’t. Not now, at least.


Outside of exercise, my buds wonder how it could be that I’m chasing international fame and glory and yet can’t make it up a long flight of stairs without bemoaning my soreness or fatigue. My infantile eating/sleeping/napping habits don’t exactly glean an image of the brazen, stoic sportswoman either, and the whole goddess-athleticism thing is starting to fade.

So why can’t we just suck it up and live up to our athletic reputations? Rather, why is it so hard for us to explain why, in the every day respect, we don’t?

I repeat myself, in order to go hard (and fast) some of the time, we must go easy (and slow) most of the time. As cross-country skiers, when we go hard, we go really really hard (pan to finish line of any race, ever), which means that in order to go harder in those big efforts, we have to prioritize rest and recovery in between. Rest is the doing of nothing. The sleeping, the lounging. That’s easy.

Recovery is much more complicated, because as endurance athletes, if we simply slept between hard efforts we wouldn’t get the distance training we needed to sustain long races. Thus, slow, easy workouts (and slow, easy weeks) are part training/part recovery that allows our bodies to go harder next time.

According to this scholarly article that Google found for me, recovery is defined as the ability to “meet or exceed performance in a particular activity.” Paraphrased, recovery comes by 1. getting your heart rate down, 2. your cells de-stressing (science nerds: homeostasis), 3. eating, eating, eating and being picky about that eating and 4. moving in a controlled way.

Read: sleeping well, eating better, chilling out between sessions and, when you’re not directed to go hard, going easy. [For a detailed graph of what appropriate intensity/recovery cycles produce, see Jason Cork’s left arm tattoo.]

We all know this, we live and have been preached that lifestyle since we were junior minions. So how do we explain ourselves when we purport to be intense, full-time athletes and yet decline a 5 hour bike ride because it falls on the wrong day?

You know… I don’t know.

Looking through all of the words I just wrote, I’m having trouble picking out only a few that will explain our peculiar position. Perhaps this is just one of the things we have to let go in order to ski at an elite level–you have to let go of your pride in social situations and say “Yup. I run slow, eat slower, and sleep a ton. But I also have a six pack and a coupla medals, and that’s good enough for me.”

Forever using 1,000 words to not answer your questions,









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