Sometimes, life hits pause.
For me, it happened in late 2018, when I was finally forced to stop training and begin my 18 months of full-time rest as I recovered from OTS. For some, the pandemic has been a pause button. Acknowledging that boredom is a real privilege right now, some of us are lucky enough to be filling the empty time with banana bread and sourdough starters while we wait for life to resume.
These times of pause leave gaps that need filling, obvious places in which to insert that project we’ve been wanting to work on for ages, or the new skill we’ve been itching to learn. Though I would argue we don’t need a global pandemic or the disabling of our body’s mitochondria to pick up a new hobby, I’ll put in a strong plug for the hobby itself.
Yes, I think we need hobbies.
They make us better at whatever our primary pursuits are.
The roles of a hobby are multi-fold. Yes, they can occupy our time when we would otherwise be bored, but that’s about the dullest reason to pick up something new. Some new hobbies actively produce something that will benefit us later (one of my housemates has, in the pandemic, become obsessed with planting fruit trees. But all you knitters and sourdoughers know what I mean too.) We’ve all heard stories about hobbies and passion projects that become 6-figure businesses, but I’d argue that’s a high pressure reason to start something new.
Learning a new skill and engaging with a project that matters to you, for no other reason than it strikes your particular fancy, has psychological and physiological impacts that support the growth of new neural pathways, reduce anxiety, impart a state of flow, and may even complement one’s primary pursuit physically. Sidelined with OTS, I picked up singing, and was struck by the physical parallels with endurance training. I’ve often wondered if my rock-climbing friends would make good pianists or guitarists, with their strong and dexterous hands.
Most of all, pursuing a hobby is a reminder that we are actively engaged with our dynamic lives, that we are complex and multi-dimensional, and that it’s never too late to make a change or try a new path. We all need to remember those things.
When I was a high school aged athlete, I felt like I continually heard from coaches that, in order to excel, I needed to have a single-minded focus on my sport. My biathlon coach used to joke I needed to love my rifle so much I slept with it like a teddy bear, leading to tremendous guilt on my part. “Distractions,” (what I now call having a life) were the enemy. A coach I never personally worked with referred to the three causes of decline for a young athlete: the car, the job, the boy/girlfriend. Not only is it deeply unreasonable to not have a car, a job, or a partner, very few athletes could be happy living and breathing only their sport.
As a young athlete, I felt pressured to “prove” how much I loved my sport, and downplay my interest in other things, when I should have been exploring how a serious commitment to this sport might interact with a life beyond athletics.
Loving and pursuing something else alongside training and performance is not a moral weakness. Diversifying helps keeps our focus fresh for the workouts that need it, teaches our brains to always keep learning, and throws us a lifeline when life suddenly sidelines us from training, or we decide to retire, or any number of things that prompt an athlete to become more than their sport.
Has the pandemic left you with time to fill? What new hobbies have you dived into (or want to dive into?) Here’s what I’ve been up to:
For one, I’ve kept singing. Even though I’m back to training most days of the week, I still sing in my car, sing on the rare occasion I have the house to myself, and, most recently, I’ve begun singing every Friday evening with my vocal coach, who also happens to be a local runner. She agrees that endurance sports and singing go well together, “since singing is a physical/cognitive activity just like running.” Also, as she points out, singing makes us happy.
My partner John and I have been putting our heads together for some more musical fun: he’s teaching me to do more than just strum the same 7 chords on my guitar (which is what I’ve been doing for about 8 years.)
John, meanwhile, has been reading Harry Potter in Italian. (His family is from Italy, and he studied in Rome in college.) I’m a huge fan of this. I don’t speak Italian, but I learned the basics in college and can get by in Spanish (the romance languages have the foundation in common), so even I can understand most of what’s going on. Wait, never mind, that’s because I have Harry Potter memorized. (Potterheads unite!)
I would even count listening to audiobooks as a hobby. Having only recently discovered the joys of a library card, I am making full use of audiobooks every moment my ears are free. My enthusiasm might need to be toned down a bit. My recent favorite is All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doer. It’s amazing. Read (or listen to) it.
The result of all this hobbying: I feel alert, refreshed, and excited most of the time when I go out to train.
I’m curious about my training in a way I never could have been in a single-minded pursuit. I turn to another activity when I have to take time off (I still go through dramatic energy slumps where it feels like my mitochondria have all been turned off again.)
For the difficult times, like during a pandemic, for example, my hobbies are tools for stress management much like training is. Maybe I can’t train for 8 hours a day. But I can listen to audiobooks!
Resources for your hobbies:
Want to sing with my vocal coach Jennifer? She teaches private lessons (now on Zoom) to singers of any level (I came to her with absolutely zero previous instruction). Learn more about her here, or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ready to pick up the guitar (or learn a new chord?) John’s lessons are all by donation during the pandemic, so if you’ve got a guitar, drop in for a session. (This is also a great hands-on activity for school aged kids.) John and I also play together on the weekends, so if you want to join us for a Zoom guitar session, drop me a line and I’ll send you the link to join us.