April 3, 2012
It's early in the morning. The April sun has just come up, and even though it's already warm, the heat of the day hasn't set in yet. It's a big change from the bitter cold of the winter season, when training involved layering and left little clouds in the air with every breath.
The Vanderbilt Commodores are used to this. For the cross country and track women, being a three-season athlete involves all the challenges and adaptations of training outdoors all year long. It involves early mornings, late afternoons, hours in the gym strengthening, and plenty of rehab for the wear and tear of miles of running.
"A lot of people don't realize that running is a year-long commitment," said senior Louise Hannallah. "We essentially compete in the fall for cross country, in the winter for indoor track, and finish off the year in the spring with outdoor track. When we're not competing during the year, we are training every day during the summer to prepare ourselves for the cycle to restart again."
And yet, despite the grind, they love it. For the Dores, it's about passion.
"Honestly it is a lot, but there is nothing I would rather be doing," said sophomore Liz Anderson. "To be a three-season athlete, I feel the most important thing is that you love what you're doing. It's when you put too much pressure on yourself when your love for the sport disappears and it seems to become more of a job than a passion."
Senior Alexa Rogers agrees. "I love it. It is something that keeps me on my toes and constantly challenges me. It is hard sometimes because we don't really get a break, but doing what you love all year round isn't such a bad job."
There are differences in the season, they admit, that help break things up mentally. For the cross country season, the team strives to compete together. The strategy going into this past fall was entirely focused on the unit, with the team running as a pack for as long as they could in each race--a strategy that paid off with an SEC title and sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships, both program firsts. And while the team still trains together, the track seasons provide an opportunity to compete individually for personal bests.
The toll that year-round competition takes on their bodies calls for time off and plenty of rehabilitation. Following their appearance at the cross country Nationals, Head Coach Steve Keith gave his runners some time off to recover. The team used it to their advantage, cross training in the pool or on stationary bikes to protect their joints.
"We had trained harder than we ever had before and set very ambitious goals," said Anderson. "We placed very high demands on ourselves because we wanted to succeed as a team and do it for our coaches, our school and for each other. Many girls, including myself, took some down time after cross country. This was well needed both physically and mentally, and I think a lot of girls benefitted from it."
Her teammates noted the same thing.
"Aches and pains go hand-in-hand with the physical demands of our sport, so it is extremely important that we listen to our bodies," said Hannallah. "The coaches are really good at encouraging our team to cross train, take days off, or to back off when we feel that training is becoming too strenuous. I also think that doing the little things, such as ice bathing, stretching, and getting rehab treatment, make all the difference for recovery and optimal training."
Competing year round can also be a mental challenge, particularly for student athletes who have demanding class schedules.
"Balance has become my new favorite word," said Rogers. "It is such an incredible thing to learn how to incorporate in your life and it is different for everyone so I can't really explain it. I do however, think that generally if you learn how to allocate even amounts of dedication to each sector of your life than you generally end up pretty balanced and happy."
Balance has become one of the words that the team has focused on all year, largely for the practical reason that they need it in their lives, and because it helps them to compete at their peak.
"I am a huge advocate of finding a balance in life," said Hannallah. "To me the equation is simple; I perform the best when I am happy. Our sport demands an enormous amount of mental energy, so I make sure to keep things in perspective by not placing too much pressure on myself. It's easy to get caught up with a perfectionist attitude of wanting to be the best in athletics and academics, but I think that it's important to simply stay organized, stay realistic, and most importantly, stay happy."
"Being a three-season athlete does seem daunting," said Anderson, "but once you're in season everything seems to go pretty fast, and pretty soon the season is over. As long as people stay happy, dedicated, and keep the reason of why we are here in their mind then it's very fun."