Neely Spence Gracey and Cindy Kuzma know a thing or two about setting and achieving goals. Neely is a three-time Olympic Trials qualifier and has her sights set on qualifying for the Trials in 2024. She was the top American at the 2016 Boston Marathon and has broken 70 minutes in the half. Cindy is a writer, author and podcaster who has helped countless athletes come back from injury with her book Rebound and her Injured Athletes Club podcast.
They’ve teamed up to write Breakthrough Women’s Running: Dream Big and Train Smart, drawing on their personal experiences and those of the successful women runners they interviewed. Their objective is to help women achieve their running goals and to recognize the ways that those goals can – and should – change throughout their lives.
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“I have this really cool book idea and Human Kinetics wants me to write a book and they gave me the liberty of finding someone to do it with, would you be interested?”
As co-author of Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger From Sports Injuries and co-host of The Injured Athletes Club podcast, Cindy is well qualified to write about women’s running. When her book idea was accepted, she reached out to Neely to share her perspectives as an Olympic Trials qualifier, running coach, and mother runner.
The timing was perfect for Neely. Between the Covid pandemic and expecting her second child, she suddenly found herself with no races to train for and more time to devote to the book. Having a very different experience of being pregnant and returning to running postpartum than she had during her first pregnancy provided her with insights that she wouldn’t have had otherwise,she says, which has “been really helpful for me, so that was a really big perk.”
Neely: I honestly feel like I can be a better athlete because I don’t overthink and stress and emphasize just this one aspect of who I am.”
Having the book to focus on gave Neely an outlet for the energy that she would have devoted to racing. However, she had already discovered that she could be more than “just a runner,” which hadn’t been her outlook earlier in her career. “One of my biggest regrets when I look back on my training at the collegiate and post-collegiate professional level is that I basically put that above everything else and I let a lot of relationships and friendships kind of crumble because my main focus was on myself and my training,” she recalls. “I kind of saw everything else as a distraction and a negative more than a positive.”
Cindy: “It’s important to have goals that reflect the reality of where you are right now in your life.”
Cindy agrees with her about “how beneficial it is to have those other interests and things that fuel you and that you’re passionate about, that aren’t just your athletic career, regardless of what level you are.” But whatever your goals and passions are, you have to recognize that there are times in your life when pursuing them isn’t feasible.
At those times, you need to accept that “there are too many other things going on in my life right now; this isn’t going to be my main priority and therefore I can’t hold the same goals that I would have had were it my main priority.” What’s most important is that “you can still feel just as satisfied by achieving those modified goals at that point in your life.”
Neely: “It’s so easy to not celebrate the small victories along the way and to lose sight of the good things that are going right now.”
Returning to running postpartum has taught Neely not only to accept modified goals but to be proud of achieving them. In the past, she would run 8 x 1 mile hard; now 8 x 1 minute hard is a tough workout for her. But when she finished that particular session, she says, “my mind instantly went to ‘wow, I’m so happy; I felt really good today’ and I was really pumped about how that workout went.”
She hopes that something that comes through in the book is that “your breakthrough may not be a PR, your breakthrough may not be this big end result; it doesn’t have to be big. A breakthrough can be small; a breakthrough can be meaningful to just you and that’s okay.”
Neely: “Everyone kind of has a happy place when it comes to volume, based on what’s going on in their life, what their job is, what their kid situation is.”
Besides modifying your goals depending on where you are in life, you may need to modify your approach to achieving them. Contrary to what you might expect, that may prove to be beneficial. After Neely had children, she didn’t train at the same level of volume and intensity as she had previously, but discovered that she could still get really fit. Now she thinks that a lot of the training that she used to do was “wasted time and energy” that just fatigued her and hindered her growth, rather than helping her.
Neely: “Something I’ve learned over time is that every time I’ve lined up on the start line, we’ve all gotten there in a little bit of a different way.”
The realization that she benefits more from stretching or mobility work or taking a nap, rather than doing extra training through double runs or cross-training, has changed the way that Neely approaches her training. She takes the time that she used to spend doing workouts and uses it to do something that will encourage recovery versus breaking her body down more.
While extremely high intensity training might work well for others, rather than trying to emulate other runners’ methods, she does what works for her body. “If I can be healthy on the start line,” she observes, “I’m worth a lot more than if I got myself injured.”
Cindy: “Just as there is no one training routine or amount of mileage that works for everyone, there’s no one body type that makes you a good runner.”
Cindy agrees: “To try to emulate what others look like or are doing and assume that that’s going to result in your best performance is shortsighted and and it can really lead you to some places that you you don’t want to go.” Lately she’s seen a lot of runners recognize that “they’re going to be able to have their best performances, whatever that means to them, by honoring what’s right for their own specific body.”
Cindy: “Those things that might have been perceived as setbacks or obstacles were things that were essential to their success in the long run.”
The runners whom Cindy and Neely spoke with for Breakthrough all discovered the right path for themselves through trial and error. But, Cindy emphasizes, their experiences are a reminder that the obstacles “are all part of the journey and it is not always easy to embrace these setbacks, but if you do, your breakthroughs are just around the corner and are even more meaningful than you could have anticipated.”
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“Thank you” to Neely and Cindy. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.