Every morning at 5:30 a.m., my phone would screech in my ear. I'd slouch over my nightstand, aimlessly smack my phone off, and scurry to the kitchen for a sickening sixteen-ounce serving of cold brew to suck down while shoving rice cakes down my throat. By 6:00 a.m., my team-issued tote was tucked under my armpit, and I'd head to the locker room before the first practice of the day was underway.
Whether it was a morning tempo, threshold, or interval workout depended on our training block. Weights to follow. Then rehab. School. Another run. More rehab. And more school.
That was life as I knew it. Until one morning, it wasn't.
It involved an alarming pop from my lower back, crippling pain that left me limp on my kitchen floor, and a trip to urgent care. I emerged with crutches, strict orders of bed rest for two weeks, and a prescription for nine months of cross-training to repair my fractured sacrum.
I would try running again when fall turned to spring but soon realized my body was not the same as it once was, leaving me no choice but to hang up my spikes.
Now my alarm goes off at 7:00 a.m. And instead of hitting the track, I head to class at Cornell University – which felt like driving in a snowstorm at first. I knew where I was and where I should go, but my vision was so blurred that I couldn't navigate.
I had spent the past decade, day-in-day-out, dedicated to running. And though the NCAA's 2022 Well-Being Survey, distributed to each eligible NCAA male and female athlete across DI, DII, and DIII levels, notes that 38% of women and 22% of men feel mentally exhausted constantly or almost every day. I was more heartbroken that I could no longer compete at the caliber I had dreamed would take me places and be with me always than I was relieved that I didn't have to follow my usual routine anymore.
Running consumed my entire life. And I not only lost it. But, I lost the ability to call or text my athletic training staff about any significant or minor inconveniences and access to our locker room, training center, study center, and tutors.
On top of that, I felt forced to harness passions and skills aside from running without knowing exactly how or what they were
For many players, leaving their sport behind means losing a set of routines, access to a support system, and a sense of identity – all of which are overwhelming. According to one study, over 50% of student-athletes report a struggle with their transition to life after sports.
I suspect a lot of them are runners too. Frontiers in Psychology says that runners tend to elicit addictive symptoms and behaviors related to exercise more often than other elite athletes – coining their relationship with the sport as an "obsessive passion."
Particularly, suppose the end to their relationship isn't "chosen" but because of injury or other aggravating factors. In that case, it is no surprise that runners likely face withdrawal symptoms at comparatively exacerbated levels when transitioning out of their sport.
With additional anxiety, depression, grief, insecurity, and disordered eating – the most common occurrences from a transition out of sports – student-athletes' mental health is at risk.
I, for one, suffered from all three of these mental health problems when faced with my career-ending injury. Yet, the Association of Applied Sports Psychology (AASP) says this could have been lessened or avoided with some guidance.
Consistent with AASP and my own lived experiences, following the steps below may help any college athlete who feels pushed over the edge by an ending relationship with a sport:
First and foremost, be prepared to feel like a freshman again. Like being a freshman, there is a rock-bottom feeling, a full-blown identity crisis coupled with lots of trial and error. As you know, others before you have been in your shoes. They are much more knowledgeable than you at this moment. Talk to them and be a sponge – absorbing as much insight from them as possible.
In the meantime, also try to establish a new routine. Preferably start your day with something that puts you in a good mood so that you are ready to focus on what the rest of the day entails. Maybe that looks like something you couldn't do before – sipping a cup of coffee on your porch, reading a good book? Or perhaps it's something that feels a bit more familiar? Even though I don't have to wake up at 5:30 a.m., lift after clocking in 10 miles, or go to the training room for some contrast tubbing, I learned that I am happier and more productive during the day when I exercise first thing in the morning.
As you explore this new freedom, take note of what lights you up and what you are good at. Chances are, you are great at far more than training and racing for a 5k. But, what makes you great at running – consistency, hard work, a positive attitude, and so much more – are applicable in other areas of your life. Begin to explore different aspects of your personality and discover where to apply them. You may find different skills and traits you didn't even know you had along the way.
Know that getting excited about these new interests will take time. Training and competing are some of the most exhilarating and addictive sensations. I've never done drugs, but I have had a runner's high. And I honestly imagine they feel somewhat similar – every sound, sight, taste, and touch feels magnified while pain is minimized.
These feelings we get as athletes result from endorphins surging through our bodies at a higher rate than the average person. So, when that suddenly decreases in frequency or entirely stops, we experience a colossal chemical change in our bodies. That said, give your body time to adjust.
But don't wait to seek help if your gut tells you this adjustment is consuming you. At the end of the day, your health and well-being are more important than your commitment to any sport. Know your limits and seek professional help if you are having trouble coping with daily life, or getting through the days.
Student-athletes are believed to have a greater advantage in life after college compared to the average student. We see goals and relentlessly pursue them. We believe in ourselves so much that we constantly exceed our limitations. Even after we are no longer active in sports, keeping the athlete mindset can give us something to focus on. But with a loss of self and purpose, all these capabilities, gifts, and talents can dwindle.
In many ways, our strength makes it hard to change our practices or seek help when needed. But trust me, I've never felt better since transforming my mindset, figuring out a good routine, exploring my passions, and talking to a therapist.
I'm now running toward a future I can look forward to, even after hanging my spikes for good.