Alexi Pappas: Missed Race leads to Lessons Learned

2016 Olympian Alexi Pappas reflects on the lessons learned after “overtraining” for the New York City Half Marathon forced her to make a conscious effort to slow down.

EUGENE, Ore. – With running, it is better to be like pasta: slightly undercooked. Sometimes, we learn this lesson the hard way by “overcooking” our training and pushing our bodies beyond their ideal ranges. Overcooked pasta falls apart. Overtrained bodies get injured.

After the New Year, I began gearing up for my first ever half marathon, the New York City Half. It was intended to be my first big peak following the Rio Olympics, and my first steps into marathon territory. When I was in New York City to race the 5K Dash to the Finish line this past November, I visualized what it would be like to finish a race more than four times the distance the following spring. I had been told I was meant to be a long distance runner – even longer than the 10k on the track – and this felt like the next right step.

“I take on injuries just like I take on my training – with full commitment.”

My training was going well, incredibly well. And then I took the wrong step, or too many steps … it is really hard to say. I overtrained. The month leading into the race, I tried a few new things that I’d pay for later. I wasn’t recovering properly – not napping enough, not refueling and stretching to the best of my ability. I was also pushing too hard in practice. I had the chance to train at altitude alongside a great Olympic marathoner who was visiting from Colombia. She had conquered the half marathon and marathon distance more times than me, and she knew how to handle the intense amount of mileage that we were covering every day. I tried to keep up with her during a time when I should have been most keyed into my own body and myself. That was my first lesson: while having a training partner to push your limits can be a wonderful gift, it’s also very important to check in with yourself and make sure you’re able to properly recover.

The body is like a reservoir that takes everything in. It can do amazing things for us but it has its limits. After a long Olympic year – a year in which I also got engaged and premiered my film – I didn’t take the proper time to slow down between seasons. I took my much needed physical break from running, but I didn’t really slow down at all. I wanted to keep going. And, like trying to hold onto an ice cube, if you squeeze anything too hard, it can pop right out of your hands. After making the decision to not race the New York City Half Marathon, I knew I needed to consciously make an effort to slow down.

2016 Olympian Alexi Pappas goes out for a long run with one of her training partners.

I didn’t take to slowing down very well at first. Initially, I filled my time furiously seeking out medical help, advice, and recovery tools. I take on injuries just like I take on my training – with full commitment. The last time I had an injury was when I broke my toe last spring – it was my middle toe, which did not sideline me as this overuse injury did. I was able to jump back into action and design a special insole that allowed me to continue to train and compete with very little downtime.

“I FELT LESS LIKE MYSELF BECAUSE I FELT OUT OF CONTROL.”

I remember being relieved and grateful that the toe injury was something that I could isolate and that could heal. But in the case of overtraining, when the body needs rest, it means the whole body needs rest. There is no isolation with overuse. Or if you do try that method, such as cross training through the rest period, it may not allow the body to fully recover. A broken toe is black and white whereas tired legs are more like a collage, a smudge, a blur – much less clear.

I finally learned that the thing I needed most was exactly the opposite of running around from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment – I needed rest. Just rest. So I took a period of time without any running or training whatsoever. For my long-term health, I knew resting was more important than racing, but the period of time I took away from running was extremely challenging. Breaks from running after a long season or a big race are wonderful, but forced breaks are a whole other beast. For one, I found that I suddenly had much more excess energy than I was used to. I had trouble sleeping and needed to learn how to refocus this energy.

“My time spent in recovery instilled in me a greater sense of gratitude and respect for those athletes around me…”

Without training, another thing felt compromised: my confidence. Practice and training is how I orient myself with each day and each week, and without it, I feel off. There is nothing to report to, except myself and my injury, and that can be maddening. I felt less like myself because I felt out of control. I could feel my confidence and attitude going in the wrong direction and I needed to change that. To cope with this, I tried to create practice times around my healing. There was a time for icing, a time for physical therapists, a time for naps, and (most important) a bedtime. I tried to fully trust in the plans my physical therapists and coaches gave me, as if healing were my new training. This new way of looking at “practice” helped me tremendously during that time – and eventually, helped me regain my confidence.

A refreshing “ice bath” helps Alexi Pappas get back on track at altitude training camp.

Once I started running again, it needed to come slowly. I couldn’t just jump back into full training, and I am still building back up into that regular routine. This kind of patience is new to me. During the time I didn’t run any double runs, I spent time writing and also reading – and coming across other stories of athletes who have had similar experiences. I realized that all of my mentors have had to deal with injuries and setbacks. It’s part of being an athlete. My time spent in recovery instilled in me a greater sense of gratitude and respect for those athletes around me who have always inspired me for their accomplishments in health, but now also inspire me for their determination and fortitude during periods of injury.

As I write this, I am at an altitude training camp – which I could look at as a tough situation, since I’m still not fully back in the swing of training. I am sitting in the kitchen observing teammates prepare for workouts, leave, come home, nap. I thought this would make me feel jealous and left out, but it actually makes me happy.

I think the thing about injuries, most of all, is that we can focus entirely on ourselves, or we can take the chance to, for once, leave our body alone and appreciate the other athletes around us. If we can feel lifted by others when we’re not healthy, we can also feel lifted by them in our health.


Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas

I’ll see you at practice
On adaptation in winter
On staying put in TrackTown USA
On the best women’s 10k race of all-time
The night before my first Olympic Games
Training with the boys at altitude
How I spend my Sundays
The longest run
Run like your best 12-year-old selves
On being happy to compete
Watching greatness
Staying connected
My growth as a runner
Running as a team sport
Race decisions can be invisible
Trust your race plan
Outside my comfort zone
On budgeting willpower
What the President said
Channelling your inner racing bug
No easy way to prepare for marathon pacing

Alexi is an avid tweeter and her thoughts can be  found @alexipappas.

Alexi Pappas graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College before joining the Ducks as a University of Oregon fifth-year student, helping lead the team to two NCAA championships in 2012 and 2013. She currently runs professionally for the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, Oregon. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Alexi set a personal best and Greek national record of 31 minutes, 36 seconds with a 17th-place finish in the 10,000 meters.

As a filmmaker, Alexi co-wrote, co-directed and stars in the feature film, Tracktown, which was produced with support from the Sundance Institute and premiered at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival. She contributes poetry regularly to Women’s Running Magazine and most recently she and her partner Jeremy Teicher created a 5-episode short film series entitled “Speed Goggles in partnership with Kodak, published by the New York Times. She is also co-founder of the Portland chapter of the Film Fatales, a nationwide group of female directors.