You’re More Than an Athlete – Hillary Allen on Recovering from Injuries and Discovering Your Why


You’re More Than an Athlete – Hillary Allen on Recovering from Injuries and Discovering Your Why

By Vanessa Steigauf, Swimming World College Intern

What can injuries and forced time away from our sport teach us? How can crises help us gain perspective and lead us on a path to self-discovery? And what do brick walls, a branched tree, and old bananas have to do with that?

Hillary Allen, professional ultrarunner and endurance athlete, has answers to many of the questions most athletes come across at some point during their careers. The 34-year-old runner, writer, scientist, and coach made it her mission to be a voice for those who struggle with injury recovery and self-discovery while finding their path in life as an athlete.

She knows the highs and lows of sports, having experienced world-class wins of skyrunning races but also having spent enough time in a hospital bed to question her reasons for professional ultrarunning. You can say she is familiar with fighting through adversity and seemingly endless phases of recovery. But this is what made her one of the most influential advocates for athlete mental health. She stands up for everyone who struggles with the place that sport holds in their lives, and I was lucky she shared some inspiring thoughts on injury recovery and resilience with me.

The Big “Why?”

While everyone who works out on a regular basis comes across that big “Why?” at some point, the question about what place sport holds in everyone’s life is especially prominent among student-athletes and those who are forced to take a step back during injury. In both situations, you find yourself in a spot where your whole life is somewhat upside-down.

The dramatically changing circumstances provide more than enough opportunities to spiral through thoughts like “why am I doing all this?” and “who even am I?” Especially while recovering from an injury that forced you away from your sport, your natural coping mechanism of working out is suddenly taken away from you. The frustrating mixture of overthinking and not being able to “shake it off” during a good practice gets overwhelming faster than we would like it to.

How to Get Through Recovery

Times of injury recovery are with no doubt some of the hardest times for athletes. But one big advice that Hillary has for every athlete going through a hard time is to be patient. Patient with yourself and with the process. Now, patience is definitely not one of the strongest characteristics of most athletes. But realizing a common misconception can help to give yourself the time you need to heal.

Patience is not Inactivity

It isn’t rare that athletes who are going through a recovery process are impatient because they confuse it with being inactive. Recovering from an injury might keep you away from your sport and many other activities that usually give you joy. But patient recovery still is an extremely active process. Realizing that your recovery does the opposite of forcing you on the couch can help to gain new motivation in working towards the new goal: getting healthy again.

Accept the Imperfections

Another misconception about recovery, is that every day and every step toward healing needs to be perfect. And this is where the brick wall comes into play. It is no secret that athletes usually tend to be very perfectionist. But it is simply not true that you can’t lay some bricks with little cracks and still get a perfectly stable wall. With the bricks symbolizing every little step in recovery, you can trust that the strong bricks around the imperfect ones will reinforce the construction and your outcome will be just as stable.

Throughout her recoveries, Hillary definitely learned that she needed to redefine what strength looks like. During a recovery process (and as we learn over the years, during any time) your physical strength, measured by your personal best or your maximum training load, isn’t what you should measure your strength with. Strength really lies in vulnerability. “Having the strength to ask for help and invite people in to see you at your lowest level”, is what builds resilience. Making yourself vulnerable also holds the opportunity to create supporting communities and friendships that will last much longer than records or PBs.

Injuries as a Gift

Hillary even came as far as to call injuries a gift – despite their challenging and unpleasant nature. Any recovery really holds an opportunity to learn something about the process and about yourself. About your WHY and the love for your sport. And if you learn those things, you can come back with a real appreciation and new motivation for your athletic goals.

The Connection to Athlete Mental Health

Unfortunately, an injury’s long-term advantage to your mental health doesn’t come without a tough process you need to go through first. To discover your “Why?” you first have to be in a situation that is unpleasant enough to make you question your “Why?”. But the refreshing outcomes are usually free of many anxiety-inducing objective performance standards. What Hillary experienced with her “mental journey” is that she replaced many perfectionistic views with her (newly discovered) core values.

Self-Worth for Athletes

Identifying the values that define you at your core is definitely one of the most important steps in your journey of self-discovery. It is an incredibly powerful source of resilience. A characteristic that lies deep within every one of us, according to Hillary. What helped her access this somewhat hidden source of toughness is the realization that running, the sport that was temporarily taken away from her, wasn’t defining her. Whether she was out running and competing wasn’t dictating her self-worth. Because running itself is only an expression of one of her core-values. Curiosity was the value that shaped her identity and ultimately led her to enjoy running trails so much. And if you look closely, this realization has a lot of potential. It takes away the extrinsic nature of how she defined herself and let her base her character more on intrinsic values that cannot be taken away easily.

This realization ultimately took away the attack surface for thieves of joy and fulfillment such as comparison and it opened the door for a deep sense of belief. Belief in herself and her capabilities. And it led to one of her mantras that kept her going during some of the most challenging times that came after.

“Believe That Your Best Athletic Days Are Ahead of You.”

Being brutally honest with yourself and open about your emotions and values allows you to access this source of resilience that powers deep trust in yourself. And even in light of other circumstances, such as age or life-phase, this mantra holds. Because “your best days” aren’t the ones you swim your best time or outperform your opponent. Your best days aren’t defined by a number that scientists calculated as “performance peak” for each gender and sport. Your college years don’t have to be the ones when you retrieve your best ever performances. Allow yourself to think outside of the bubble you are in and appreciate the many years you are still going to have in your sport.

And none other than Sarah Sjöström herself proves that this mindset also applies for swimming. She once said “The older you get, the better you get. Unless you are a banana.” Simply put but it brings the same message across. If you believe in your upcoming best days, they will be ahead.

…Your Best Days Ahead

Your best days are defined by your spirit, the goals you set, and the work you put in to make your dreams come true. And especially during times of injury, or just as an athlete in college, it is important to embrace that Sport doesn’t have to define you fully. It can be a focus in the time that it needs to be. But it can also take a backseat and you can prioritize other aspects of your life. Just like a tree needs nourishment in all of its individual branches that make it so interesting and beautiful, your life needs attention in areas other than sport.

What Role Does Sport Hold in Your Life?

One of the main lessons that Hillary learned through years of hardship and self-reflection is that “there is so much more that sport teaches you than just being the fastest”. Being an athlete holds the potential of a life lesson that you will take with you forever. It can bring out the incredibly resilient core that lies within each and every one of us. It teaches you discipline and hard work.

And it makes you realize that not every day is going to be your best day. That performance doesn’t define your worth. Of course, it can be fun to be one of the best. But when that all goes away, (which it inevitably will sometime) does that mean you don’t do sports anymore? Does that mean you are worth less than when you stood on top of that podium? It doesn’t. And to fully embrace that though, go on your own little journey and find your reason why.

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T Hill
T Hill
1 year ago

Good read. Just say in the moment or ” Challenge the Moment” watch the Disney (Nat. Geo) “Limitless” educational, funny, inspiring and thought provoking.

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