I’ve always been able to run. Slowly, and often with questionable form, but I could run. The first event I ever “trained” for was the mile run test in fifth grade. It led me to cross country in junior high and track and field in high school. I was never competitive, but it felt good to move, and of course I wanted to be slender.
Being a girl and becoming a woman, I had my head and heart deep in the idea that I only had two options for being in shape: running or aerobics classes. I went with running, and it lasted me through college as occasional recreation and weight management, and later became my therapy after a particularly gut-wrenching breakup in 2013. That year, I hired a personal trainer who got me off the treadmill and into the weight room, and I started taking strength seriously, graduating from ‘booty camp’ classes to squatting the big plates and learning to deadlift. But I was mentally and emotionally restless, and slightly obsessed with finding manic joy on the road and in racking up the miles and pushing farther every day.
Unfortunately, wine and whiskey and beer were also large factors in my emotional recovery. The combination of generally poor nutrition (when I cared to eat at all), outright alcohol abuse, and running with no plan or recovery, all led up to a debilitating stress fracture in the neck of my femur in the middle of spring. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. My world crashed around my ears for the second time that year, and I felt all my mental health and progress was just utterly wasted.
But, like anything that doesn’t kill you, it somehow makes you stronger. Recovery felt like forever, I limped and ate and cried and I became the heaviest I had ever been in my life. After months of recovering on my ass, I couldn’t even try blame the weight on muscle gains. I’m not even sure I can adequately describe my mental state or self esteem at that point. It wasn’t good.
I took official “before” pictures of my poor body as soon as I was cleared to go back to the gym.
Clawing my way back to fitness from injury was a turning point for how I would view and treat my body. I wanted to eat more and well, not less, and I refused to crash-diet in an effort to lose the weight I’d gained and risk my performance taking a hit. This time around, I would prioritize strength, and the weight room at the gym became my second home. It didn’t give me the same thrill as running, but it certainly built up my body like running never did, and it became very exciting to have my lifts progress. A 200lb deadlift was a huge celebration, then 225 came and was a sticking point for weeks. But 235, and then 250, and more, and I felt more and more like my old self through rebuilding and growing. I also focused on nutrition and began tracking macros, and still follow IIFYM today.
By the start of the next year, I was finally feeling like I was back on track, and joined CrossFit. Strong as I was, it threw in my face that I was (and had always been) lacking in speed and explosive power. Another goal to chase, along with continually progressing lifts.
Somewhere in there, I decided to train for a Tough Mudder. For years I had wanted to be one of “those people”, the wildly strong, dirty, fearless beasts that could run 10 miles, fly over walls and through obstacles, and have a smile on their face the whole time, but I never believed it possible for me. The longest runs I ever managed previously were roughly 6 miles, and a Tough Mudder would be nearly double that. I would need to reintroduce running, and that scared me, but by now I was getting kinda good at doing scary things. Researching running programs doubled down on the importance of strength training for runners. I carefully followed the most novice program I could find, and worked the long runs in around CrossFit. And it was GREAT.
The long runs added up and I was going farther than ever before, with less pain and more energy and still getting stronger. My first Tough Mudder was an incredible success, and so were the next seven (#muddernation!). I would focus on powerlifting over the winter and endurance in the summer, keeping CrossFit in the mix the whole time for the cardio and variation of movements.
I even kept this up through 2016 while I was pregnant, and give major credit to continued strength training and conditioning for my comfortable pregnancy, fast and uncomplicated delivery, and easy recovery. I treated the nearly 10 months of pregnancy like a long slow bulk – Of course I was going to gain weight, and while some of that would be a baby and the necessary organ accessories, a bunch of it was going to be plain ol’ fat. But if I could at least maintain the muscle I had worked so hard for and maybe, just maybe, get a little stronger, I would be setting myself up for success both during and after pregnancy. I ran a Spartan Super around 16 weeks pregnant and a Tough Mudder at 24, and managed to match my all-time PRs in bench, squat, and deadlift when I was 34 weeks pregnant. My post-partum body rehabilitated well. I took my return to the gym slow and steady, and then I took first place in my weight class at my first official powerlifting meet, with my six month old daughter cheering me on.
If anyone had asked me around 2014 if I ever thought I’d be doing the things I can do, or look the way I do, I would have been 100% convinced without question that I’d never get there. I wasn’t built for it, I would need to starve myself to ever see my abs. These days, I keep my macros pretty tight within the flexibility that IIFYM allows, and am so, so fortunate to be able to say that the aesthetic results of a keyed-in diet are secondary to how athletic I feel – light on my feet and strong under a barbell. Everyday life comes easier in a fit body – hoisting a toddler in and out of a car, carrying groceries, new experiences like pole and trapeze, even just sitting at work for long hours is less stressful on my body when I train. Fat will come and go, but prioritizing strength and focusing on body composition rather than the number on the scale makes a world of difference. That, to me, has been the most important change of all, striving for health, strength and fitness at any and every size.
Right now I’m wrapping up another summer season of obstacle course races and going into the fall with a new goal of training for a half marathon and a powerlifting meet at the same time, the events being six days apart. Wish me luck!
–Amy Zager

***At Lift Heavy Run LongĀ®, we are in constant search of inspiration. We are fortunate to have a Facebook group which involves people who have, for one reason or another, decided to make drastic changes in their life, in order to lead a more fulfilled existence.

We want to share with you some of the encouraging stories that have come from the people in our community. We would love for you to be part of the group.