By the time we reach the end of our conversation, Nicole Mericle has sifted through all of her heartache and frustration and moments of despair to unearth her most salient lesson of all: It’s okay to let go.
She didn’t pull this piece of insight out of a fortune cookie the day after she injured her hip. Even if she had, she likely wouldn’t have listened. Mericle can be a bit stubborn. A self-driven, motivated athlete with a never-give-up attitude, Mericle spent the better part of three years relentlessly focusing on resolving her elusive hip injury.
“I should have allowed myself to explore things that would have given me joy instead of doing things exclusively for the purpose of getting back to running,” reflects Mericle.
The Dark Side of Discipline
Up until her injury, Mericle interpreted her discipline as an asset. As a Division 1 Cross Country and Track & FIeld athlete at Rice University, she held two school records and qualified for the 2008 Olympic Trials in the 3,000m steeplechase. When she tore her left labrum near the end of her senior year, she was sidelined from competing in the steeplechase. Instead of sitting the season out, she switched to the 5k, a decision with repercussions she hadn’t imagined.
For the next several years, Mericle was a professional patient. She was in and out of medical appointments, feeling invalidated and lonely as she navigated the world of elusive diagnosis. She saw experts who dismissed her injury entirely or suggested surgery as the only option, neither of which she was willing to do. She devoted herself to weekly physical therapy appointments and a daily, two hour physical therapy routine. She cross-trained to maintain her cardiovascular fitness, despite finding it boring. On top of all of this, she was a volunteer assistant coach at Rice University. Day in and day out, Mericle was consistently and constantly reminding herself that she couldn’t do the one thing she wanted to do most.
“As a general, human, psychological tendency, we will go to greath lengths to protect our self-concept when it is threatened,” says Ashley Coker-Cranney, who is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant and has a PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology. “Additionally, we’ve created a culture around sport that tells athletes to push harder and be stronger and faster. Because of this — and other things — athletes don’t always honor the time they need to heal appropriately.”
Mericle’s approach to healing was very similar to how she approached her training. She had goals and expectations to achieve them in a very linear fashion, which is rarely the case with injuries.
“I felt very broken,” says Mericle. “I felt like my body didn’t work. My hip didn’t work. I got to a point where mentally, I needed to walk away from running.”
Shedding the Past
When Mericle finally let go of the idea of returning to the runner she could so vividly remember being, she suddenly saw all that was hidden in plain sight for so many years. For the first time in a long time, she could do things without considering how it would impact her running; she didn’t even need to run it by her coach. Fairly quickly, Mericle started to rock climb, and soon fell in love with the sport. When she climbed, hours passed without a glance at the clock, something she stared at constantly when she was riding a stationary bike. Unlike cross training, rock climbing was fun.
“For about six months, I was done being a runner,” says Mericle. “I just rock climbed and had fun living in Colorado, trying to decide if I’d apply to medical school or not. Gone was the pressure of returning to running.”
Her decision to remove that pressure likely had immediate impacts on her physiology and biology, not to mention her mental well-being.
“It’s really gnarly what long term cortisol in the body does to you, which is the chemical released to respond to stress,” says Coker-Cranney. “Cortisol breaks down a number of things in your body which makes you more susceptible to disease and musculoskeletal injuries. It’s so important to reduce stress as much as possible because we don’t want all of that cortisol in your body for a long time.”
Embracing a New Self
As time passed, Mericle’s itch to run returned, but not without an understanding that she had to approach it differently. Mericle made a list of every activity that caused pain and every activity that didn’t. Running on the road hurt, but running on trails seemed to be okay, so she stopped running on roads. Driving was painful, so she quit her job as a tech rep driving around a four state territory and looked for a new job. Mericle was teaching herself how to let go. She was letting go of her strong hold on returning to the runner she once was. She was figuring out how to be happy for that version of herself and look forward to her future version.
Coker-Cranney has worked with many athletes who have had to let go of their past selves and look forward to their future selves. To help athletes do this, she focuses on two things: acceptance and being present focused. Coker-Cranney explains that when we accept that we are injured, we can start to see what we have, instead of everything we lost. When we’re present focused, we stop judging ourselves because we aren’t comparing our current self to our past self or who we thought we would become. Suddenly, a run with your neighbors is just as rewarding as the race you won five years ago.
“When acceptance and present moment come together, it gives athletes the freedom to be who they are and to honor all of their experiences, good and bad, without judgement,” says Coker-Cranney.
Once Mericle figured out how she could run in a different way, the potential to compete again opened up.
“Emotionally, when you let go of this rigid idea of who you were supposed to be, you tend to make decisions more aligned with your values,” says Coker-Cranney.
Today, Mericle isn’t pain free, and that’s okay. She’s figured out a way to work within her limitations. It’s not always easy. She doesn’t want to feel limited. But, she’s learned that accepting that she is is better than the alternative.
“I had no idea that I would be able to compete in anything again,” says Mericle. “Accepting that I have limitations has allowed me to do some crazy things that I would never have imagined.”
Sometimes, when we let go, we aren’t actually losing anything; we’re merely making room for opportunity and possibility.
Like, for instance, becoming the Spartan Race World Champion, which Mericle did in 2019.
Sport Psychologist Ashley Coker-Cranney’s Tips for Having A Healthy Relationship with Your Sport
Coker-Cranney wants her athletes to have a healthy relationship with their sport, which means she’s often working with them on other parts of their identities. If you feel like you’re only an athlete, then Coker-Cranney suggests the following:
- Take Inventory of Who You Are. “The first part of letting go is helping runners see who they are beyond their sport. Start by listing off every way that you are defining yourself right now — good neighbor, reliable colleague, parent, friend — and then assign a level of importance to each item.”
- Build Up Those Areas. “Brainstorm how you can serve all of these other parts of your identity while you’re letting your runner identity rest so the healing process can take over.”
- Check In With Your Motives. “Take inventory of why you are engaged in what you’re doing. Are you currently at physical therapy because you have to be or because you want to be? When you are doing something because you should be doing it, then it’s a very fixed mindset. When you are doing something because you want to be doing it, it’s much more flexible.”
- Rate Your Flexibility. “On a scale of 1–10, rate your level of flexibility. The more flexible you are, the better able you are to move with the ups and downs. If you find that you’re being very rigid, getting out of that can be as simple as repeating a mantra. I like the mantra, ‘The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.’”
- Focus On the Overall Trend. “Remind yourself that progress is not linear. Get a good grasp on the long term picture rather than the short term.”
- Be Kinder to Yourself. “Every day, after you finish your training, whether that’s physical therapy or cross training or something else, log how you felt. Wait an hour, and then go back and read it. If you hear judgement, have a pow-wow with yourself about how important it is to let go of that judgement.”
This story is the second segment of a 4-part series with elite athletes discussing how injury has helped them deal with larger issues in their running lives.