5 Tips for My Younger Self

Pro New Balance steeplechaser Stephanie Garcia on what she wishes she knew when she started running

The beauty of running is its accessibility. Almost anyone, anywhere, can lace up their shoes, walk out of their door and go for a run. And, as with most new challenges, putting in the work will usually lead to success.

I started running competitively in high school and walked onto the University of Virginia’s track and cross-country teams. I tried what seemed like a crazy event called the steeplechase, and qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in my first year. By graduation I was the NCAA runner-up in the steeplechase with two individual ACC titles. I now run professionally for New Balance and represented the U.S. at the 2011 and 2015 World Championships.

There are a few truths only learned through experience. Now, with many years running at the high school, collegiate and professional levels, I wish I could time-travel back to my younger self and share a few tips to help her get through those tough patches of her career.

While there’s no “one size fits all” training plan, there are some general principles that all runners follow when training: build up mileage slowly and consistently to start; run easy on easy days and hard on hard days; add in speed to sharpen up for a race; etc.

I believe that these same tips apply to most things in life. So whether you’re trying to run your first mile ever, set a new PR or simply feel better about your life day in and day out, these tips are for you.

A young Steph Garcia jumps over a steeplechase barrier

1. Do you have a body? Do you run? Then you have a “runner’s body.”

It may sound like a stereotype, but some runners struggle with their body. Based on the number of elite athletes who have come out over the past few years to share their struggles with eating disorders, RED-S syndrome or body dysmorphia, it’s now become more acceptable to acknowledge that, for various reasons, running can be either a symptom or a cause of body image issues for some athletes.

My own experience struggling with my body began when I joined the cross-country team in high school. I’d look to Runner’s World feature stories on tall, lean, white runners and feel disgust at my body for not being the same--which then led to overtraining, restrictive eating and a misunderstanding of my body’s unique strengths and beauty. While I’ve evolved and moved past the majority of these challenges, I still have moments where, when scrolling through Instagram, I see bodies that make my own feel like an imposter.

I wish I could tell my younger self that having a body that stays healthy and can run consistently is all you need to be a REAL runner, and that the media’s decision to highlight one body type over others is an issue with the media and not with me.

2. Have the confidence to run easy on easy days.

This might sound silly, but it’s true. How often do you know you need an easy day but struggle to run slowly because you feel like running slow means that you’re a slow runner?

When I was younger, I’d cringe to look down at my watch and see a pace that I, for whatever reason, decided was “too slow” for a high-achieving athlete to run. Most likely, I saw the paces other athletes were running and believed that was their pace for every run, all of the time, no matter if they were warming up for a big workout or coming off of a huge training week.

The fear of “losing fitness” or teaching my body it was okay to run a slower pace sounds laughable, but what it really revealed was a total lack of confidence in how training cycles work. You simply cannot go all-out every single day. It’s a surefire way to pick up an injury. So, trust your body enough to give it what it needs. And regular easy days will actually boost your fitness in the long run!

So, younger Steph Steeples, know this: the most elite-level runners have the confidence to let themselves run slow when needed.

Steph Garcia races on a track in her New Balance kit

3. Sleep really is key.

As a collegiate athlete, I was busy. I had a double major, I was editor at the school newspaper, I interned at a local newsweekly on top of being a three-season athlete who nannied on the side and maintained social obligations, too. With a workload like that, who has time for sleep? So, aside from living off of coffee and sugar, I embraced the mantra “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” and carried on. It worked at the time.

I remember one of my coaches telling the whole team to make sure we got eight to 10 hours of sleep each night, and I laughed. My give to six hours was serving me just fine: I ran well, won conference titles and competed at the NCAA Championships. Clearly, sleep was necessary for some athletes, but I was so strong, it wasn’t necessary for me.

When I moved up to the professional level, my all-out schedule proved to be too much, and my running suffered. I couldn’t make the jump in training or racing without giving myself the opportunity to truly recover, which only happens when we sleep. Out of all the doctors and physios and massage therapists I’ve worked with over the years, one suggestion remains consistent: get enough sleep. These days if I get less than nine hours too many nights in a row, I feel it in the quality of my training efforts.

It’s okay to be busy, but make sure you set up your lifestyle to allow for at least eight hours of shuteye every night.

Steph Garcia race on a track in her new balance kit

4. There’s enough success for everyone.

I’ve trained with a big group of training partners for most of my career. While I love sharing miles with friends, I’ve also experienced the tension that can occur when someone has the best race of their life and someone else has the worst race of their life, all within the same day or event.

It’s impossible not to feel excited for your training buddies when they crush a workout or race, but it’s also easy to feel jealous, insecure or even angry when you’re on the other side of that same workout or race.

As you level up in the sport, the talent gap begins to grow even smaller, and sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of what success really looks like. The reality is, when I was in high school, I was able to win races (not always! but sometimes). In college, it was harder to win. As a professional, I’ve been lining up against the best women in the world, and winning has become a complete rarity.

So if I define success as “winning,” well, I won’t ever feel successful. That could lead to resentment when I see my competitors always crossing the line ahead of me. But as you grow in the sport (or in anything really), your definition of success changes; maybe it’s not about winning, but about finishing in the top 10 or running a personal best.

Success does not have to be finite. If you allow your vision of success to evolve as you evolve, there will always be enough to go around.

5. The BIG SECRET to success in running? Consistency.

It’s not a special protein drink. It’s not one specific workout. It’s not where you live or what shoes you race in or even who coaches you. Success over the long run is all about consistency. Can you regularly show up each day with a positive attitude? Can you reliably embrace challenges? Can you consistently put together training blocks without ending up injured or burnt out? My coach sometimes jokes that if you told an athlete to push a red button every single day for a year in order to make an Olympic team, they would, but if you told them to patiently do the work day in and day out… well, that doesn’t sound as glamorous.

The reality is, the most successful runners are the ones that string together years of uninterrupted training, and maintain a passion and joy for their running. That’s it. That’s the secret: Just keep going.

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