It’s Not Always Mind Over Matter


This might end up being one of those stream-of-consciousness posts that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but try to stay with me, ok? I’ve been thinking a lot about phrases like the following for the past few weeks:

  • “Our bodies can do so much more than we think they can”
  • “There’s no limit to what we can do if we just believe in ourselves”
  • “It’s just mind over matter”

Well, sometimes those things are true. Until they aren’t.

When I was in Nevis last year for the Nevis Marathon, I met an incredible guy who is a fitness role model with something like a million (literally) followers on Instagram. He was genuinely one of the kindest, most positive people I have ever met and we got along very well. But I’ll never forget telling him about my back surgery and why I stopped running marathons. I told him how many doctors told me I’d never run again, but that I found one who said I could still run – just not as much. And he said “Our bodies are AMAZING and they can do so much more than we think they can if we just BELIEVE in ourselves, keep pushing, and don’t listen to the naysayers!” And I thought “Well, yeah…but only to a point.”


Those thoughts have been floating around in my head a lot lately as I’ve struggled with hints of back pain over the past few weeks. I’ve had really bad days, like last week, really great days, and days when I thought more along the lines of “well, it’s not ideal, but it will do.” A few years ago I probably would have thought I was overreacting and tried to push myself through long runs or workouts even when I was in pain, but I know better now than to do that. Whenever I have to make that call, though, I mentally wrestle with the idea that I’m somehow “weak” because I’m not just sucking it up and going for my run. Trust me, I know how insane that sounds, but I also know that I can’t just suck it up – I mean, unless I want to fast track that spinal fusion I’ve been trying to put off. It’s hard, though, with all this messaging about “not accepting limits” to realize that sometimes, our bodies don’t care whether we accept them or not – they exist regardless.

I do believe that there ARE a lot of times when it is an issue of just “mind over matter.” In fact, there have been a ton of them for me as I train for the Prague Marathon. I’ve overcome the mental barrier of just getting used to working out for an hour or more every day. I’ve overcome breaking the 10 minute mile pace barrier in the half marathon. I even shocked myself by running under 2 hours in the half marathon for the first time since back surgery – something I truly didn’t believe I could safely train enough to ever do again. I was able to do all of those things because, while it did require physical exertion and mental toughness on my part, it didn’t hurt in the way that is indicative of negative pain. Sure, it hurt because I was tired and I didn’t feel like running anymore, but it didn’t hurt because I was hurt. It really was just “mind over matter.” But what about the times when you’re really, truly, physically hurting yourself?

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On the days when I really feel down, I sometimes feel like the idea of running a marathon without hurting my back is kind of like asking someone who had their arm amputated to just “think positively” to grow it back. That’s truly how ridiculous it feels. I am trying really hard to be positive about my back and just take it day by day, but sometimes, that’s hard. The nature of my injury means I have days when I feel great and days where I feel awful, often with no warning. Sometimes, those bad times last for weeks or months. As I write this, I feel totally fine, so I’ll proceed with my scheduled run for the day and hope for the best… but that wasn’t an option last week. However, this isn’t the type of thing where I can afford to ignore reality and just push myself no matter what. Any time someone tells me to just “think positively” about my back and my training, I think…ok, well, then what? All I can do is prepare myself and my body the best I can and try to find the balance between doing too much and not doing enough – and that’s a really fine line right now (like a few miles per week). I want to finish the Prague Marathon feeling strong more than I have wanted anything in a long time. But just wanting something doesn’t make it possible.

Can I physically complete a marathon? Yes, there is no question about that. Can I do it without further damaging my back? That, I do not know. That is what we are going to find out on May 7, 2017, and that is what this little experiment has been all about. All I know is that I truly believe that this training cycle, I have done the absolute best I can to find the balance between doing too much and doing too little. I have pushed myself to my limits in the most balanced way I know how. I haven’t babied myself or let myself quit. When I cross the start line in Prague, I know that getting myself to the finish will be a case of mind over matter. Whether I make it to another start line after that? That’s a different story entirely.

LEAVE A COMMENT: Have you ever struggled with feeling “weak” when you take time off for an injury – chronic or otherwise? How do you feel about the concept of “mind over matter?”


34 thoughts on “It’s Not Always Mind Over Matter

  1. So much to take in here and I agree with what you’re saying about “mind over matter,” as it absolutely has it’s limits. I’ll never run a 2:30 marathon no matter how much my mind thinks I can! The same is true for serious/chronic injury. The best thing you can do is make SMART decisions based on running for as long as possible…and I think you have done that pretty well. Good luck with the rest of your training because so far you have been just amazing!!!

    1. Great comment, Allie! I definitely think we are capable of more than we think we are, but none of us are capable of literally everything. I agree that we should push our limits but like you said – we have to be smart about it!

  2. This is such an important post and a great lesson for anyone. There are points you should not be pushing yourself through an injury. Sometimes your body just cannot physically do something. Running is hopefully lifelong but that comes from making smart and wise decisions, including knowing when to stop.

    1. Great point, Hollie! That’s the basis of how I make a lot of my decisions. I want to be able to be active in the long term, and that sometimes means moderating what I’m doing right now.

  3. Like the “no pain no gain” sayings–well, ok, but only to a point. There is always a limit.
    Get the rest you need, recalibrate. You have a month, you have done great training up to this point. I remember my first marathon, when I got a really bad case of ITBS, and I basically was terrified going into the marathon after 1.5 months of barely being able to run. I ran it conservatively, but it was still the experience of a lifetime. Yes, I was terrified that my leg would give out at any point, but it made me so thankful (believe that I am NOT insinuating that you are not thankful!). Was it my original time goal? No, but I really was able to take in the course–I still remember so much of it.
    Anyway, all this is to say that life and our bodies have ways of checking us before (hopefully) we wreck. And that smart people (like you) listen to those cues.

    1. Oh, I’m with you completely! Despite how well my training has gone in terms of speed and pace, my goals for the race really have nothing to do with that. Sure, it would be great to run a faster marathon than the others I have done since my surgery, but really, all I care about is finishing healthy and being able to run another one. That’s why I’m trying to be really smart about this – I don’t want it to be one-and-done because I push too hard and wreck my back again.

    1. I love that phrase! What a great way to put it. The article was really interesting and something that I think I have struggled with for a long time. I often feel guilty for not thinking positively or for not just pushing through or whatever – but that is not always productive. And exactly like you said, “Do they think I LIKE being sick?” I often wonder if people think I like not running marathons. I don’t like it at all! But I dislike chronic back pain more…so I’m only willing to do marathons if I can get through the training and the race generally healthy.

  4. I’ve struggled with that too this training cycle. I’m running Boston in less than two weeks but on January 1st I tore my plantar fascia. I was luckily able to return to running after a few weeks but am only able to run safely a few days a week compared to my usual 6. It’s been a constant balancing act similar to what you described (but less serious… It’s only my foot!) to try to get enough training in without pissing off my plantar! Some days it’s perfect and I feel fully healed, other days I can barely walk.
    I think I’ve balanced it OK but I will find out Easter Monday I suppose!

    1. Oh no, Lisa!! I am so sorry to hear about your injury! That is absolutely terrible timing. I hope you have an AMAZING race in Boston and are able to enjoy that incredible experience! Good luck!!

  5. I definitely agree that you can push yourself too much. I pushed really hard through a half marathon once…and it ended with a terrible foot injury. My physio said that it was my elite swimming background and my mental toughness to push myself beyond that caused the injury! He said most people would have slowed and walked but my mental push to keep going saw my form fall apart and an injury result. Listen to your body!! Push hard but find that fine line and don’t go beyond. Good luck!

    1. Wow, Kylie! Well hey, I guess that is a huge compliment from your physio – at least you know you are mentally tough πŸ™‚ “Push hard but find that fine line and don’t go beyond.” – that’s exactly what I’m trying to do and the balance I’m looking for! Great advice.

  6. I agree with you that “mind over matter” doesn’t always apply. My yoga instructor is constantly reminding us to not “move into pain”, and it’s important to know which pain is ok when you’re running (or doing any sport) and when you need to back off. It sounds like you have a really strong grasp on what your body is and isn’t capable of, and you’re adjusting your workouts accordingly πŸ™‚

    It also reminds me of when people seem to think you can will away mental illness with positive thinking. Bah.

    1. Yes! We say that in barre, too – “No negative pain.” The thing is, I do feel like I have a good grasp on what my body is and isn’t capable of, like you said – but then sometimes I worry that I am being too easy on myself or that I’m just not pushing hard enough. The messages that we get from society can be confusing even when you know better!

      And I totally agree. The whole “positive thinking” thing can be a great tool, but it can also lead people to be more depressed and feel worse about themselves. Elle linked to a great article about it in the comments!

  7. Injuries, especially injuries that last a long while, can really mess with our confidence in ourselves. Sometimes I feel like things will never be the same or I will never run like I used to. We runners aren’t good at finding patience (not short term but for the long term). It is hard to see past what we are dealing with. You are right, there is a lot more going on beyond just mind over matter. For some reason, I just know you will be running pain free in a marathon again.

    1. So true, Sarah! It has been really hard to deal with this injury in particular because I have had to kind of find a “new normal.” Mentally, it has been challenging to feel like I’ll never be back in the place I once was. But as long as I can run a pain free marathon, whatever the time – I’ll be happy! Thanks for the encouragement!

  8. I completely understand! I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in July after a relapse, and finding my “new running me” through this has been very difficult. I take medicine to fight the crushing fatigue, but I’m still tired much more often now, and if I don’t get a good night’s sleep there’s no way I can function all day if I get up to run. I’m beyond frustrated because after taking over 6 months off, running isn’t coming back as quickly as before, and everything is harder. Thankfully, my running friends and family are supportive and remind me that I’m doing the best I can (not the mantra of a perfectionist!) and that while it might take time, it’ll happen. I’m training for my first half marathon (an MS half!) on May 27th and my husband reminded me last night “you’ll make it the 13 miles on that day, regardless of how training goes, because you want it. You might not be able to walk for a week, but you’ll cover the miles”… I’m going to try reminding myself of this and giving myself freedom from “perfection”. You take care of YOU – you know what you can do and when, and you’ll cover the 26.2 miles on that day, regardless of how training goes! πŸ™‚

    1. Wow, Tammy! I am so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. I understand how hard it is to find your “new running self” for sure! I have worked really hard to retrain my brain to focus less on what I could do before my surgery and focus on the victories that have come since then. I’m still pushing myself, but celebrating things that probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal before because they’re a huge deal now. I’m so glad your family and friends are being amazing and supportive! Please let me know how your race goes! Best of luck to you!!

  9. Yep – I think people can use it as an excuse, but I also know people have limits.
    My husband, its NOTHING for him to do mile after mile – he never eats nutrition, he never drinks water – his body is naturally made to run. Me? I have to watch every bit of nutrition, my blood sugar drops, I get dehydrated & get dizzy & faint… he doesnt understand why I can’t just do the “mind over matter” thing… when I’m physically, literally passing out. As long as YOU know your limits, that’s all that matters.

    1. Definitely! I totally agree people can use it as an excuse. I am terrified of doing that myself, which is part of the problem – I’m always second guessing my decisions, even when I know they are the right ones, because I don’t want to be one of THOSE people. Cheers to knowing your limits!

  10. I’m a firm believer that limiting thoughts CAN impact our results (if you say you can’t run 12 miles by yourself, well, you know the outcome); however, I don’t think it’s true in all instances.
    Like, I don’t think I can positive think away my anxiety, just like you can’t positive think away your back problems.
    I also waaaaay overthink, like, EVERYTHING. I’m supposed to go to barre tonight for a fundraiser but I’m exhausted and my legs are shot and while I KNOW I need to rest, there’s that little part wondering if I’m just lazy (spoiler: I’m not).

    1. For sure! I know our brains do limit us unnecessarily a lot. But I think sometimes our bodies are loudly saying “NO” and we just refuse to listen for fear of being perceived as weak. Like you mentioned with your anxiety – I’m sure you’ve had a thousand people tell you “Just relax!” like you can just wish anxiety away. I always have that little piece wondering if I am just lazy or not tough or just weak, even though I know better – I can totally relate!

  11. I am currently sidelined from running (and in a friggin’ boot!) from a soccer injury nearly 2 weeks ago. The chick kicked me in the ankle and the doctor thinks it is torn ligaments. I have certainly struggled with “mind over matter”. Trying to still work out, yet any twinge of pain (or discomfort) I wonder if I am pushing too much right now. Sure, we should be positive, but we also know our bodies better than anyone else.

    Your weekly recaps show you are kicking butt and taking names this training cycle! And from reading, it definitely appears as if you HAVE found the balance that works for you; day to day, week to week. That is all we can do! Can’t wait to read about Prague!

    1. Oh no!! I am so sorry to hear that, Aimee! I hope your ankle gets better soon.

      Thank you so much! I am really trying hard to find the balance. I’m lucky to have a super patient coach who works with me and is willing to make as many adjustments as needed to my schedule! I do not think we have nailed down 100% what the right plan is (I like to think that if we had, I wouldn’t have any pain at all…but that’s probably not realistic), but I am hopeful we will get there soon!

  12. Thank you for this candid post, Danielle! This is something I have dealt with (some days better than others) while recovering from the fractured humerus I suffered when I belly-flopped at mile 13 of the New York City Marathon in Nov. I was able to get up and finish the race…had I not fallen I was on the way to a magnificent 30 minute PB. Instead, it ended up being almost a PB by less that a minute. Six weeks in an arm sling, no running for 6 weeks and no driving for over two months. The most difficult thing to hear was when the PT instructed me to not do anything except shoulder raises. Then following directions for home exercise and twice a week PT for almost 5 months as he slowly added new things to the mix. This are some fairly explicit limits, yet to jump into an activity too quickly could compromise the glacial progress we have been making…so when he said ‘no planks’ there were no planks. It is truly a matter of being body aware and challenging limits…within limits. To tell the truth, I didn’t know I could be still until this happened πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing your journey!

    1. Beth, I cannot believed you finished the race with a broken humerus! That is seriously hardcore! I’m so sorry to hear about your PB, but what a story. Wow! I love what you said about challenging limits…within limits. That’s perfect and exactly the way I’m trying to look at this training cycle!

  13. I’m gonna approach this from a different perspective, but sometimes people can be downright rude when you’re coming back from an injury. After 6 weeks off and 2 weeks back, I ran the Bridge Run in 48:24. It was 5 minutes slower than my original goal, but the comments I got were “You ran that after being injured?!. I mean, I was out 6 weeks, but I’m not sure if they expected me to walk or just jog the race? I actually had someone who suggested after a race that I really wasn’t injured and was just complaining because he said my time was still good. Or those who have the same injury and will say they ran through it… but every injury and pain tolerance is different- and everyone’s comfort level with running through something is different too (I am on the “safe rather than sorry” team because I don’t make money running and in the end we only have one body for life).

    The worst thing is that often those who run injured and put “mind over matter” get tons of positive feedback on social media. I had a friend who ran a race injured and she got so many likes, loves, and comments. Way to push through! No. Way to beat yourself into the ground. Social media has gotten to the point where it is no longer enough to run a race. Now you must run a race sick, injured, with no sleep, after working all day, while wearing full fireman’s gear, and barefooted.

    Honestly Danielle… it does not matter what kind of time you run. The fact that you get out there and run after your back surgery and all the times when it would have been perfectly acceptable to quit is what is so inspiring. That is more inspiring than a finish time or finish line.

    1. Amy, this is such a great point! I’m so glad you brought it up. I can really understand what you’re saying because I know I have been guilty of it myself. Especially being in the blogging world, I can’t help but feel super jealous and frustrated when I see other runners come back from injury so quickly. If I took weeks or months off from an injury, I would be crawling my way through a couple miles, but it seems like everyone else jumps right back into their old paces and mileage immediately. That said – I know everyone is different and life isn’t fair! I would never judge someone for coming back from an injury in the way that feels right for them. Being rude is totally unnecessary and uncalled for. I will just silently sit there with my jealousy instead, haha!

      Ugh, the social media thing is so frustrating, too. I try really hard not to focus on it too much, but it is hard not to. I have run more races than I care to admit injured or sick, and looking back, it was so stupid. I regret not taking better care of myself.

      Thank you so much for your encouragement! It really means a lot. I am doing my best to keep moving forward and I’m hoping for the best!

  14. This is a great post! I am definitely one of those people that think the human body is capable of so much more, and that a lot of it is mind over matter. BUT, I only believe this is true for a healthy human body that doesn’t have any injuries or back problems, etc. It really irritates me when people tell you (and my other friends that have health issues) to just be positive and you’ll get through it!!! I want to slap them! If being positive was the answer, you’d be cured! I think people are well meaning, they’re just clueless because they’ve obviously never dealt with anything like this, and they hope that being positive is the answer. You’re most certainly not weak, and you know your body so much better than most people know their own. Keep on doing what your doing, because I think you have it figured out.

    1. Great point, Patty! We are always capable of more than we think, but everyone does have a limit at some point. Certainly, people are well meaning, but sometimes it just makes me feel worse or makes me second guess myself. I definitely think I’m on the road to figuring out what works and what doesn’t! Hopefully, with a few more tweaks, I’ll nail it down.

  15. I love this post! A few years ago (when you and I had the same coach- J), I developed autoimmune hypothyroidism. I had the genetic suceptibility, and the hard training was the trigger. Since then, running has been a struggle! Fatigue, loss of muscle, and temperature sensitivity have all contributed to less and less enjoyment of running. Sometimes I worry I’m becoming lazy, but there is a definite medical reason my running has changed. I have been excited to read about your progress throughout training and can’t wait to hear about Prague!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing some of your story, Donna! I relate so much to what you are saying. I worry I’m becoming lazy sometimes too, even when there is tons of evidence to the contrary. I’m proud of you for continuing to run despite the frustration!

  16. it’s always mind over matter until our bodies tell us otherwise-and they always matter. I wish you luck, not only that you can finish Prague, but that you can do it (fairly) painlessly and that it is not your last! I broke my knee last winter and I was just able to start running in August–and not much at that. My goal is a 5k on Memorial day. I too know (in shorter workouts–I wasn’t a marathon runner to start) that feeling of wussiness when I can’t do what I want–or should be able– to do, and the feeling of overdoing cuz it didnt’ hurt–at the time! I am trying to reasonable with my body, but dang, it’s a pain!

    1. Thanks so much for the encouragement, Samantha! I am hoping for a relatively pain-free finish, too – I want to do this again! I can’t believe you broke your knee. That is crazy!! That must be a really tough recovery. Best of luck in your 5k! I hope you can do it. Neither of us is a wuss, even though it sometimes feels like that. Stupid bodies, forcing us to be reasonable!

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