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A Change in Mindset

Is it just me, or do relays bring out a different side of you as a runner? I know I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, relays have always been my favourite. No matter how we placed as a team, no matter what kind of race I had as an individual, I always walk away with such a surreal and positive outlook. 

As a runner, something I’ve struggled with on the daily is the mental aspect of running. In workouts, I found it hard to believe in myself and push past the barriers or marks I’ve set before. For example, when I’ve run a certain time or distance for a tempo, it’s been difficult for me to think towards increasing the distance or pacing when I repeat it in the future. Races were terrifying and once the pain and fatigue began to set in, I’d give in and let myself believe that I couldn’t; but in reality, I very well could. 

You can be as fit as you’ve ever been, able to run as fast as you ever have, but if mentally you’re not quite there yet the times and the pr’s will never come. It’s very hard to let yourself go and decide on the line and during the race that you’re going to push yourself to give every last bit of anything that you have. I know it has been hard for me most of my life. Recently I realized this was because I was always focusing on myself and thinking about my own improvement and my own goals as an individual and letting the bigger picture fade from my sights.

When I’m feeling the burn in my lungs, or my legs are tired and I think I can’t possibly go on, I now think of my team and my coaches and all the other supporters I have on my side. I think of them and tell myself that this is more than just you… you’re doing this for more than just you. Running for more than yourself gives so much more purpose and strength to everything you do. 

You all must be wondering at this point what the heck this had to do with relays… well think back to the last relay you’ve run. Think about what you thought about before you went to the starting line. No doubt you were already tired from your own personal events, maybe you had even just finished your own. Each and every time though I’m sure you put your own PERSONAL excuses and doubts aside because instead of thinking about YOU, you were thinking about the TEAM. When your mind fails you, thinking about doing it for someone or something else gives a higher purpose. 

Now, whenever I get on the line for a race, I think about doing it for my team. When my legs are tired during a run, I think about my team. When my lungs are burning during a workout and I doubt my abilities, I think about my team. At the end of the day, you’re more than just a runner, you belong to something much greater, and to limit your impact and to only think about yourself would be doing both you and everyone on your team an injustice. Running may be an individualized result, but it is a team sport. 

A team above all. Above all a team


Why not to Compare Ourselves to Others

Running can be a viscous sport… not in terms of contact but in terms of mentality and psychological strain. This doesn’t just come from training but also from comparing ourselves to other runners. Too often the stereotype of what a “normal” runner should look like or train like is planted into our heads. The problem with this is that there really is no “perfect” training regime or body type.

First year University was a struggle for me… when I got here I quickly realized that the way I trained was far from conventional and the way I looked wasn’t exactly like other runners on my team.

Differences in Training

I’d see my roommate and other girls on my team going out and running long tempo runs and completing high mileage weeks, yet here I was… not even being able to complete a 3 mile tempo at the pace that they were running for 10 miles. I was running maybe half of the mileage as everyone else and this very quickly got to my head.

I actually had to start doing my runs and workouts solo because running with others was just not possible. In my mind I’d quit before I had even started when running in a group. Running became miserable.

I remember sitting with some of the girls the night before my 15 minute tempo… yes that’s correct only 15 minutes. “Only 15, you can do that in your sleep”, and, “Oh my gosh that’s so easy, that’s not even a workout,” were some of the things being said. Yet to me that workout was a hard one.

I’d sit in my dorm room when I was alone questioning why I was here, why my coach had faith in me when I couldn’t do the workouts everyone else could and most importantly how was I going to do any of this. This was quite upsetting for me which ended up translating into my overall mood and outlook on life during that time.

It was so easy to overlook any progress I was making and even after getting personal bests in races I’d look at the success of others and immediately get down on myself. It was easy to compare myself to others and dismiss my own success. It took me almost all of my first year to be able to conceptualize how my training worked for me, and that was really all that mattered.

Before I was able to recognize the strengths that came from the differences between myself and others, I had to distance myself from my thoughts as well as put all of my faith and trust into my coach. (After all he has been doing this for a long time and he clearly knew what he was talking about.) I trusted that everything I was doing was for a reason, was meant for me and was going to help me become the best runner I could be.

After this I was able to realize that while yes I was doing less mileage, I was doing more speed workouts instead and in reality I was preparing for completely different races than others on my team and different races require different training… Duh

Finding love in your own training and trusting in yourself and your coach builds the base of a strong and successful program. It is so easy to compare your training to others but no two runners are completely the same. Everyone has different training strengths and weaknesses.

Some runners have more natural speed and power and others have natural endurance. Each of these two types of runner will be better at a specific type of training/workout and therefore training will translate into racing differently for everyone.

My own style of training works for me… I was able to achieve multiple personal bests and in the process fell in love with running again.

There is nothing wrong with aspiring to be able to be like someone else but never let it turn into a comparison game with yourself.

Stay positive with yourself and create goals which are realistically achievable. There is nothing more discouraging than making a goal which is unrealistic. Be honest with yourself.

Seek progress and not perfection… remember to always reward yourself. It is quite easy to achieve one goal and instantly make another before you have time to realize what you have already accomplished thus far.

Finally, there is nothing wrong with taking pride in your own training and progress! Let yourself know and heck let others know as well when you’re proud of a run you’ve done or when you’ve hit a personal goal! Let yourself be happy and DO NOT compare your own successes to others.

“Never underestimate the power that one good workout can have on your mind. Keeping the dream alive is half the battle.” Kara Goucher

Differences in Body Type

As many people already know, body image and eating disorders are both things which are very prevalent in distance running specifically. Whether it stems from our perception of what a “distance runner” should look like, what others around us look like or even the uniforms we wear, many runners have these thoughts of self-doubt in the back of their heads. I know I did… and still do from time to time.

Distance running is a sport which makes it hard to accept our bodies, especially when there are such strong stigmas around how being smaller will help you run quicker.

Body image is something I still struggle with today, it is something that on some days rules my life… dictates what I eat, drink and even wear. It’s hard to see other runners around me with that body type, the one which I think to myself, “if I only had… how much faster could I run?”

Every person is different and we can’t compare ourselves to those around us because at the end of the day, our differences are what makes us who we are. Our differences allow us to be the runners we are and excel in our own ways.

Through this process though, I had some very eye opening moments and learned to love myself for the way I was.

In the past, I followed through with these thoughts, I stopped eating and started to drop weight and size. For a while yes, this dropped time off my race times… but your body can only sustain this lifestyle for a short period before it starts to break and ultimately shut down. In my case this resulted in an extended amount of time with a stress fracture which took me out of the sport I love so much.

Poor nutrition can harm your performance, energy levels, muscle composition (because believe it or not, your body will actually take from your muscles before it takes from fat storage) and even mood. Yes it effects you psychologically as well as physiologically.

While in the beginning it can seem like a good idea, it really just harms you in the long run and isn’t a lifestyle that any athlete can sustain. We need fuel to power us through workouts and help us recover and rebuild.

Just like you can’t take someone else’s picture and apply it to yourself, you can’t take someone else’s diet and apply it to yourself either. Everyone has different caloric and nutrient needs and paying attention to your own body is very important because it will let you know what it needs.

I’m not saying go and eat whatever you might be craving in the moment, but rather pay attention to your physical activity levels and coordinate food consumption to maximize recovery and making sure your body gets what it needs. This will differ from day to day depending what you’re doing as well.

We can be so quick to dismiss our wins and achievements all based on those of others. We can also be so quick to critique ourselves but are slow to recognize ourselves, if at all. This is an obvious problem.

Being a distance runner means that we will obviously be directly compared to others in our performance… it’s exactly what the sport is. However, just because someone may be faster than you that doesn’t mea their body type is better for you.

We all have unique body types that allow us to excel in different ways and just like in training, the same goes for racing. In my case, I don’t have the typical thin legs that some runners may have BUT that extra muscle gives me the power I need to perform like I do. Embrace your differences because at the end of the day, they make you who you are and no one else but yourself has gotten you to where you are today.

“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” – Carl Gustav Jung

A Letter to my Younger Self: Injuries are not the End

2 years… 2 whole years was the amount of time that it took for me to completely heal and run properly again. Not because my injury was expected to have a long recovery time but because quite frankly I was (in lack of a better term) an idiot when it came to my recovery.

Now imagine, it’s your grade 11 year of high school, you’re talking to college coaches about furthering your athletic career and this is the year to really prove what you’ve got. You cross the finish line in the 1500m steeplechase… 4:46 a new Canadian high school record. Those emotions going through your head are sweeping you away from reality.

Well this was the situation I was in accept one small problem. My foot was in excruciating pain. I still had 800m prelims (and hopefully finals) the next day and there was no way I was giving in now. An ice bath and some advil would have to suffice.

I ran the next day and it went alright. I can’t complain about my time or my placing, but now even to walk had me wincing in pain. However, did I stop there? OH HECK NO. In my head I was not getting rid of my summer competition goals and this was just something I was going to run through and not tell anyone about. I kept telling myself that it was only a pulled muscle or that I tied my shoes too tight and my foot was bruised.

I kept training and by the next week I couldn’t even walk at all. At this point I knew I had to go to the hospital. “Stress fracture”

That was what came out of the doctors mouth and was now as if in stone, engraved into my mind. My summer was over. I kept telling myself that everything was now over. My racing let alone my college career. I thought surely no college coach would want me with this injury lingering over my head.

Here is where my own stupidity comes into play. I thought to myself

What if they never know?

After 2 weeks completely off my foot (supposed to be 6-8 weeks) I drove to Windsor to a regional club meet where I was going to try and appeal past this stage as this was the first of 2 meets to qualify for the provincial team. I showed up still in my boot and on crutches, but after talking with the officials they said there was nothing they could guarantee.

I wasn’t going to accept that… I took off my boot, spiked up and raced (idiot). Well I won and broke the meet record as well as my foot again, throwing all my progress down the drain only to be disqualified for stepping out of bounds.

In the meantime I had told college coaches I was taking the summer off after having a long year of running. For now that would have to do.

I really didn’t stay off my foot because of being the stubborn person that I am. I just learned how to walk on the outside of my foot to avoid the pain. A month and a half later off of absolutely no training I decided I was than going to run provincials.

After provincials, I somehow managed to convince my dad to fly me half way across the country to go to nationals and again with no training (now into August) was going to race.

After crossing the finish line of the 1500m in 4:48 (slower than I had ran 1500m steeple earlier this season) it started to set in just how out of shape I was at this point. Regardless I still had the 3km and 2km steeple left at this meet.

The next day in the 3km I was about 4 laps in when I felt the oh so familiar shooting pain through my foot. I at this point didn’t realize how much I was limping but apparently it was very noticeable because I could hear my dad as well as some coaches screaming at me from the stands to drop out. A trip to the hospital later and (drum role please) it was re-fractured!

To sum up the rest of this story, I was out until December of that year (6 months total) and in the process was doing my official visits. Like I said earlier no coaches knew of the condition I was in and I had to maintain this on my visits as well. I would take off the boot when I went on my visits and would actually run while I was there, setting myself back yet again.

I didn’t really train much my last year of high school, as my foot was painful to run on and I couldn’t get in any quality training but stupidly still tried to jump right into racing for the outdoor high school season. i ended up re-fracturing it… AGAIN in May of 2018.

I had now signed with WVU and was too scared to tell my coach what was going on in fear he would get upset or just simply drop me so I stopped contacting him… and all of my future teammates. This was probably single-handedly the biggest mistake I made.

Coaches and teammates are only there to help you get better! Coaches want to know when you’re struggling so that they can help you get through the tough times. While, yes they are there to ultimetely help you excel in your sport, this cannot happen if you can’t a) train properly or b) mentally aren’t okay. They want the best for you as an athlete and this starts by establishing trust. You can’t gain trust from them either if you don’t give a little as well. Trusting in your coaches compassion as well as wisdom and knowledge will help build the relationship needed for success.

I finally got back in contact with my coach and teammates a week before I went to school. This is also when I started training again after almost a full year of really nothing. I was so so out of shape and knew that I had to come clean about everything that had been going on and where I was mentally as well as physically at this point.

I was very fortunate that he was super understanding about everything. As of now, in August 2019… more than 2 years later I can say I’m officially 100% pain free and healthy.

Now what was the point of that big long story?

What athletes don’t realize is that the toughest part of injuries really is the mental effects which stem from the injury, not the recovery itself. The questions you ask yourself… the what if’s and the self-doubt.

I did it to myself… I had myself wrapped up in all of these unrealistic horror stories and because of this I prolonged my 6-8 week recovery into 2 full years. Don’t scare yourself with the what-if’s, let things happen as they do and worry about things when they actually happen. You cannot control what has already happened but the road to recovery has no short-cuts (I can assure you if there were any short cuts I would’ve figured that out by now as I tried anything and everything to speed up my recovery).

After talking to my coach about this, these were his words (maybe not exactly but you get the point). “You had the times, you showed your potential and nothing can take that away from you. If high school is the peak of your career than why are you running post secondary.” Think about it… the whole goal is to get better than you are now, so why be so concerned about racing at your current level when you’ll be racing at an even higher level in the future.

Being injured can make you feel isolated. You watch your teammates training and competing while you sit out on the sidelines. It can feel like you’re all alone and personally… it sent me into a depression. First year was a struggle but by talking to my teammates and coach, I found some ways to still be involved and active on the team

Some ways you can still keep yourself involved while injured are:

  • Go to workouts and help time reps or simply just cheer your teammates on
  • Complete and take your cross training seriously
  • Travel to meets with the team and yell out words of encouragement from the sidelines
  • Use the opportunity to learn how to balance other things like school with athletics, correct nutrition or even start to practice regular healthy habits (sleep schedule & nutrition etc.)

When you’re injured, do not feel embarrassed to reach out to your coaches or teammates or even friends about how you feel. Learning from experience, keeping it all pent up only makes it worse. Your team is there for you and they want to see you succeed just as much as you want them to. You’re like a family and helping each other through these times is all part of it.

Injuries may feel like the end of the world at the time, but if you do the cross training and let your body heal properly than you will come back stronger and fitter than you were before (With some runs back after and training of course)!

Mentally, injury taught me to also never ever take my sport or fitness for granted again. It is such a privilege to be able to compete at the level I do. Fitness is not given, it is earned through hard work and dedication.

You are not alone when injured either. It is not your end and you will most definitely get through it. However, if there is one thing I can emphasize it is please listen to your coach and doctor. Take the time off and let your body heal properly, the rest will fall into place as it is supposed to.

Before injury, my identity was only that of an athlete (or so I thought). Because of this, after injury I isolated myself and withdrew from social life. I learned through this though that I am more than just a runner. That goes for everyone.

We are all individuals before we are runners. Running is a passion but it is not everything and it does not define who you are! You are the same person inside and out whether you are running or not.

Let’s Get This Pre-Race Party Started!

Pre-Race Mentality

The hours leading up to a race can be super stressful… as a result everyone has their own pre race rituals or superstitions which allow them to calm their mind.

Aside from superstitions there are also nerves. On the day of meets and even the night before meets I would get ridiculously nervous. I would be a complete train wreck actually, and while to some it may have seemed over the top, it’s really not something that I could control.

Pre-race nerves are completely normal and they manifest differently from person to person. Everyone has their own way of letting them go and preparing themselves to run. While one person may want to be left alone, others may want to socialize to help keep the race off their mind.

In response to the nerves, I used have trouble sleeping the night before any of my races (whether they be big or small). I would wake up countless times throughout the night and have trouble falling back asleep once I was up. My mind would be racing (pun intended) with different possibilities of outcomes. Due to this, some nights I would maybe get 4 hours of sleep on and off.

On the day of meets I would obsess over who was in my heat, as well as my times compared to theirs. This past year at my first indoor meet I actually wrote down everyone in my race (500m) and their personal bests on a sticky note and studied it on the bus ride there.

To put into perspective just how absurd this was… there were 30 people in this race and I knew each and every one of them, as well as which heat and lane position they were in; I also knew every time they had run in different race distances and when they had ran them.

Looking back this made no sense because personal best times aren’t the times you run every race, especially not the opening race of the year.

Considering I had never in my life even ran this race before, I really had no reason to be this nervous. I realize now, there was no pressure or expectations, and I had just made it seem like there had been… it was all in my head.

However, eventually this stressing came to an end because of one teammate!

My coach had roomed us together at a meet and she was the complete opposite of me when it came to pre-race… as we were in our room getting ready to leave she turned on some music and started to dance. In my head all I was thinking was, “ARE YOU CRAZY?! Why are you not conserving your energy? We literally have to go run now and this is what you’re doing?” She continued to do her thing and eventually I thought screw it… why not join in? So I started to dance and before I knew it all those nerves I previously had were now gone.

Since that meet we’ve been roommates at any other meet we’ve gone to and we always have our pre-meet dance party. Like I said earlier in this post, everyone deals with nerves in their own way.

I learned from this that no matter how bad your nerves get, there is always something that can help nip them in the bud. You just need to find what works best for you!

Something you should always remember as well is that coming up to the race, you’ve prepared yourself well. You’ve put in weeks… maybe months of training and hard work already. You can do this, don’t let yourself get into your own head now.

Worrying about the race will not change the outcome and that was something I had to learn. I now tell myself exactly that before racing: “There is nothing else I can possibly do now that will change the time I am capable of running“. This mantra is all to the credit of my coach who one day before a meet told me that there was nothing to be worried about, and that the work has already been put in… racing is the easy part and now I just have to trust in my own abilities.

Physically Preparing

While pre-race mentality may play a large role when racing, physically preparing yourself is just as important.

Some of my own pre-race rituals include:

  • Pasta the night before racing (to be exact: spaghetti with grilled chicken and marinara sauce)
  • A cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter for breakfast the day of racing
  • Wearing the same socks (unless I’m steepling) and sports bra for every race that season… yes, I wash them after each meet
  • No food 3 hours before racing to ensure my stomach is okay come race time
  • For cross country, when we’re doing our course walkthrough the day before… absolutely NO crossing the finish line (I save that for the actual race)

I’m putting these examples out there as a reference to what some different superstitions could be. They are merely there to show you that everyone has their own weird quirks that they follow before races. These just happen to work for me and give me some mental reassurance when preparing for a race.

In the days leading up to a race there are some key things that I do to ensure I am able to perform at my best.

Something that I find many runners overlook is their sleep patterns. I’m not one to talk… as my sleep patterns aren’t the greatest, but slowly I have been correcting that. What many runners don’t know is that the sleep they get 2 nights before a race is more important than the sleep the night before in terms of making sure you’re adequately rested and recovered. I was surprised when my coach told me this but once I started paying attention to it I quickly realized that when I had a better sleep a few nights out, I always felt more awake and energized the day of the race.

This fact can apply to training as well and can carry over into all aspects of life!

Another thing I pay close attention to starting a few nights out from a race is my diet. I’m not talking about cutting back on foods or eating more or less. I just make sure that all the foods I eat are ones which I am familiar with and know agree with my stomach.

A huge part of performance is HYDRATION! Did you know that if you lose even 2% of your body’s water weight without replenishing it, there are noticeable physical and mental effects? Yeah… neither did I until this year. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still horrible at consuming enough water and find myself dehydrated from time to time, but after hearing this fact from our nutritionist I smartened up big time.

Finally, the last thing I do to adjust before racing is give my body a break. I try to get off my feet, cut back on the pace of my mileage runs and just let my body recover to ensure there is no lingering fatigue come race day.

The final fact of this post also comes from my coach: the run you do 2 days out from a meet actually has an impact on your energy levels and how your legs feel the day of the race.

Sadly, I learned that one the hard way. So from personal experience and for the sake of your race… never EVER try to get frisky on the run 2 days out or you will regret it! Seriously that run can not improve your fitness and it will not make you any better than you already are for that race.

I find it amazing how such small differences in routine and training can make such an impact on your racing. While I’m still learning my own body and the little things that work best for me, these are all big things that I can do to better prepare myself.

The Day of the Race

On the day of the race I try to sleep in but not too much, I find that if I oversleep it actually has adverse effects on my energy levels. I eat my pre-race breakfast (bagel) and if I don’t race until later in the day, I’ll do a shakeout run which is usually done about 6 hours before race time.

For those of you who may not know what a shakeout run is, it is a slower, shorter run (6-10 mins for me) which just gets your body moving so that you’re not sluggish later on in the day.

I usually roll out as well if I have time and just relax during the day. If I’m still in school, then it’s the perfect time to catch up on homework or studying!

I usually like to get to the meet a little earlier than necessary (about 2 hours early), as this allows me to get used to the environment and settle in before I have to warm up. I start my warm up about 45 minutes before the event but everyone is different!

Once I start warming up, the ear buds go in and I blast my favourite pump-up tunes! This is the final step of preparation.

Before a race, always believe in yourself! You’ve put in the work, you’ve prepared and you are ready. Don’t doubt your abilities now… remember you cannot control what others do around you! Focus on yourself and your race and only compare you to you! This sport is about improving upon your own times and being the best you can be.

Finally, when it’s time to get on that line and the gun goes into the air I know…

Introduction: The Runner I Am Today

Hello, my name is Mikenna Vanderheyden and I am a mid-distance runner currently attending West Virginia University.

I created this page as a way to share my running experiences with others and to give insight as to what the life of a NCAA student athlete actually entails.

To open up and begin this blog I have decided to share with you all why I run and what helped me to become the runner I am today.

How I Got to Where I am Today

Okay, lets rewind to grade 10… I was a soccer player; I’m not talking like I did it as a hobby… no no no soccer was my LIFE. I was set on a goal of going NCAA for this sport and was doing everything in my power to make this happen. At this time running for me was something I didn’t really take seriously, it was more of a social outing for me, somewhere to meet others who enjoyed similar things as I did. And lets be honest, who didn’t love to miss class to go to meets!

I didn’t actually think about pursuing track and field seriously until a soccer teammate of mine- Victoria Kyriakopoulos mentioned one day that she thought I could maybe take this whole running thing to another level. I thought about it that spring and after my soccer team folded I decided that maybe it was time to move on and try something new. So with a huge risk, I switched gears and put all my focus into running.

I’ll save the rest of that story for another time… but long story short things really played into my favour and here I am today, a NCAA runner in the Big 12 Conference. (That’s something I never thought I’d say)

Why I Run

I’ve always had a passion for running but it goes much deeper than just something I was good at.

Many people don’t know this but high school was a tough time for me. I struggled to make good friends (not just friendly people) and found myself alone most of the time. I didn’t really go to social events and was really caught up in sports which took much of my free time. To be honest, I was the kid who ate my lunch in a teachers class near the end of high school just so I wasn’t alone eating alone.

At school people weren’t really the nicest . I just wanted to fit in… or at least blend in with others and be apart of conversations or be included in plans. But quite often I found myself left out unless someone wanted something from me.

Running for me was the escape to reality. I could be myself when I ran and just let all my emotions go… I was able to forget about what was going on that day or how I felt and be with myself. It helped me to forget about things people said about me, or let go of stress.

I can really thank running for being the reason I survived high school and to this day all those reasons stand to be true still.

Running began as a passion and is something that I have since turned into a serious endeavour.

I wake up every morning and cannot wait to go for my run, I love the feeling of the ground beneath my feet and being able to push my body to its limits.

While I have found people in West Virginia who I can call good friends and who I can lean on when I need support; running is still something I love… not because I am good at it, but because of the energy and life that it brings me.