Sports Illustrated For Women – July 1, 2001 – Mary Bolster – July/August 2001 Issue -With only a month to train for the Dead Sea Half-Marathon, I had to get fit fast. Here’s a peek at my game plan

There comes a time in every athlete’s life when the unthinkable happens: You realize you’re out of shape. For whatever reason–burnout, boredom, friends, job–you’ve stopped exercising. Then something triggers that old competitive instinct, and you’re determined to get back in the game. In fact, you’re so fired up, you’re ready to run 13 miles, swim 4,000 yards or enter a hoops tournament. I know because it happened to me.

After months of erratic jogging and the occasional dip in the pool, I was invited to run in the Dead Sea Half-Marathon. The problem? The race was four weeks away, and I had never run more than six miles in my life.(A half-marathon is 13.1 miles.) I panicked. My competitive side said I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, but my realistic side said there was no way I could get in shape fast enough. Before the stress could rob me of what little time I had to train, I turned to experts for help. Here’s what I learned–and what you should know as you try to get back in shape.

Go to a pro. “Talk to someone who has been there,” says John Murray, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and the author of Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game (Jossey-Bass, 1999). The person can be a coach, personal trainer or athlete; the point is to tap into his or her expertise. I turned to my brother Tom, a certified personal trainer and a former professional indoor soccer player who has completed two marathons. He assured me I could do it, but disabused me of any notions of posting a competitive time. “You’re not going to race this,” he told me firmly. “You’re going to finish it.”

Change your focus. Tom’s lecture was lesson number two: You aren’t going to attain heights of former glory right off the bat. “Someone decides to get in shape, buys a great warmup suit, runs four miles, pulls a muscle and either quits or has to start all over again,” says Alan Goldberg, a sports psychologist for the University of Connecticut and the owner of a sports consulting firm in Amherst, Mass. Instead, he suggests, assess your fitness honestly and have realistic expectations.

Make a plan. Once Tom adjusted my expectations, he devised a training program to help me meet them. And like the best laid plans, it was piecemeal, incorporating daily and weekly goals (for more about setting goals, see Goal Rush on page 64) and a variety of activities. “You have to think of your goals in terms of eating an elephant,” says Goldberg. “If you try to stick the whole thing in your mouth, you’ll get indigestion.” My plan called for running three days a week and cross-training with swimming and yoga the other days. The low mileage and varied schedule kept boredom and injury at bay.

Get comfortable with comfort. Many athletes equate pain with gain, and I was no exception. As a kid I endured grueling early morning swim workouts. In high school it was killer field hockey and lacrosse practices. If it didn’t exhaust me, it wasn’t worth doing. So it was a big adjustment when Tom insisted I work out at a comfortable pace. “If it seems easy, that’s not bad,” he said. “Athletes need to learn that easy workouts are smart workouts.” Easy workouts, Tom explained, get you ready for the harder ones.

Don’t compare. Three mantras (Train within your limits; Run your race; Keep your ego in check) came in handy as so many people–fit, fat, young, old, coordinated, uncoordinated–kicked my butt as I trained in the park. By the time I did the half-marathon I was truly able to run my own race.

Following Tom’s orders, I kept my competitive streak reined in until three kilometers from the finish line in ‘En Gedi, Israel. I had passed the halfway point in under an hour, so I knew I could pull off my “unofficial” goal of finishing in less than two hours. Sure enough, in the final stretch, I sprinted to finish in one hour and 58 minutes. Mission accomplished–for now. In a fit of postrace headiness I signed up for a five-mile swim in the U.S. Virgin Islands in October, so it looks like I’m committed to this fitness comeback.