2x Olympian Runner Nick Symmonds on Running, Injury, and Mental Health

Nick Symmonds is a 2-time Olympian (Beijing and London) runner known most notably for specializing in 800 m and 1500 m distances. He finished 5th in the finals in London hitting a personal best. He’s sponsored by Brooks Running, won a silver medal at the 2013 World Championships, is an advocate for runners’ sponsor rights, and is CEO of his company Run Gum.

Basically, he’s an all-star.

 

While training for the 2016 Olympic Trials held in Eugene, OR, Symmonds was hit hard with an injury – a torn ligament and a stress fracture. Because of this, he had to back out
from attempting to earn his third spot on the US Olympic Team.

Devastating. 

Or so you’d think. I had the chance to chat with him about this, what sounds to be fateful, injury – and found that he’s taken a bad situation and turned into something beautiful and empowering.

Let’s start with the basics. When did you start running?

Nick: I started running when I was 13. I was a soccer and ice hockey player, primarily, in
Boise, ID. I was really small for my age at the time, so the coaches suggested I go out for the cross country team and work on my cardio vascular system in a field of play where people wouldn’t be hitting me. So, I went out for cross and I ended up being pretty good at it.

I’ve kind of been running ever since. In the beginning, it was just because I liked being good at something, but over the years it developed into an absolute passion for training and a healthy lifestyle.

Would you say that’s what kept you running?

Nick: I think, yeah. I mean, I’ve tried to quit this sport 25 times over the last 20 years and I always come back to the structure more than anything.

I would say that running is kind of the glue that holds everything else together.

If I have that number in my mind of miles that I want to hit at the end of the week, there’s only one way to hit it – having a life of dedication and taking care of myself. I used to run about 70 miles a week. I’m down to about 50-60 now. If you want to hit 60 miles a week, you’ve got to get to bed on time and you’ve got to eat healthy in order to get out the door and get your miles in. I feel that it has always provided me the structure that I needed.

I think that now a days, especially when there’s so much going on, it’s difficult to say no when someone says, “Hey let’s go do XYZ” at 11 o’clock at night.

Nick: Well, I resented it when I was younger and all of my friends were going out and traveling or partying. And I had to go to bed at 9:30 pm as a 23 year old. That would upset me. But as I got older and my friends were in jobs they didn’t love or working hard for somebody else, I kind of looked at myself and my career and saw that I was working for myself and set my own hours. Yeah, there were some sacrifices that had to be made, but in the end it was for my own benefit which was awesome.

It’s gotten you very far, which I’m sure is rewarding to look back on. Can you think back to the point in time when you knew running was what you were going to set your heart to?

Nick: It’s pretty clear actually. Between my junior and senior year of college. I was a nickebaytat-1biochemistry major. And I knew that I wanted to go on to be a doctor, but I also knew that I had a great potential in running. I’d won 5 national titles at that point, but I knew that at the end of my senior year I was going to have to find some way to pay my bills and it was either go on to more school, or it was go and run professionally. And at the age of 21, I decided to double down on the running play.

I moved to Toluca, Mexico to run for 10 weeks in the summer and trained at 9,000 feet, just like a professional athlete would and really lived the lifestyle. When I came down [from Toluca], I was basically a totally changed person. I had dropped 20 lbs of weight, I had dropped a minute on my 8k PR, and I had gone from being ranked 50 in the US for 800 meters to being ranked number 2. And that’s really what launched my pro career.

It was saying, “I really need to invest myself in this sport while I’m young and I need to really give myself a fair shot at being great at this.”

The dedication of going out there and spending that time fully engulfed in that lifestyle probably helped your confidence when you came back, as well. 

Nick: It did. I always tell people to write down your priorities. For me, family has always been my #1 priority and for a long time school came #2. But I took down a Post-It note that I had on my wall, and I crossed out school and put running. Just doing that changed everything. I do admit that my GPA dropped several points, but I always knew I could go back and retake those classes. For me, it was really about saying I’m going to give myself the best possible chance of doing this and not half-ass it.

I really believe that if you’re going to do something, do it with every bit of your body and mind. Don’t half-ass something. It’s a self-fulling prophesy that you’re going to fail if you half-ass it.

It’s like that saying, “What you put out into the world is going to come back to you.” 

Nick: Yeah. Exactly.

So, over the years, would you say that your identity was running? Meaning, you introduced yourself, “Hi, I’m Nick Symmonds, the runner.”

Nick: Yeah, I would say so. The last decade that was pretty much how I identified.

Nick Symmonds, Olympian.

Nick Symmonds, Professional Runner.

Nick Symmonds, Professional Athlete.6-2-tuesday-post-1-1

And, it’s a great, cool thing to say that when you’re young – that you’re a professional
athlete. Even though people look at you and say that sport shouldn’t exist *laughs*. But,
it does.

And, it’s only been recently in the last year, since June, that I don’t call myself a runner primarily. Now, I’m a business man – CEO of Run Gum – and I still run because I love it, but it’s not who I am. It’s just something that I do.

So, that leads me to another question, a little off topic, but I’ll bring it back. On the morning of the trials, where was your head at?

Nick: On the morning of the trials, I was happy to be in Eugene. It’s like a second home to me. I was happy to be with my family and I was just happy to be watching the Olympic trials. I wanted to be running – I’d trained for it. I wanted to make my 3rd Olympic team and that just wasn’t in the cards for me, but fortunately, I’ve got a lot of people who’ve been there for me in hard times, including my sports psychologist.

He talked a lot about having an attitude of gratitude. Meaning, be grateful for all that I’ve been given.

Like, the fact that I was injured in 2016 and not 2008. Had I had the same injury in 2008 I wouldn’t have been an Olympian. Instead of being angry at my broken ankle that would’ve gotten me to my 3rd Olympic team, I was grateful it had taken me to so many cool places and will continue to take me to other cool places. It just is a frame of mind. It’s choosing to look at the good, rather than the bad.

That’s incredible and takes so much mental stamina to get to that point.

Nick: And I’m not always great at it. I slipped into a pretty deep depression for a day and I called my psychologist. I think it’s pretty important to have people help you shift your perspective, because once you start going down that rabbit hole you can have trouble seeing out. I’ve always relied on my parents and my business partner, Sam, and my friends and psychologist to help me out of that hole when I’m feeling depressed.

When running is who you are or even working out, really, and that gets taken away from you by something that’s out of your control that’s tough. I’m so interested to hear how you worked through that. 

Nick: Yeah, absolutely. I mean it’s one of those tough things when you’re a professional athlete. To be the best professional athlete, it takes single minded focus. It takes putting every bit of yourself into one thing, but then when that one thing doesn’t go according to plan due to injury or something that’s out of your control, you know it’s devastating.

I remember in 2014, I had what could’ve been a career ending injury.

I slipped into a deep depression for three months. I literally just laid in bed all day because I had nothing else to do. I realized that I never wanted to feel that way again.

I really, really believe that to be a sane and happy person you have to have multiple interests.

The minute I made the investment [to start Run Gum], the minute I made that my number 1 or number 2 priority, I was no longer depressed. I woke up every morning with a sense of purpose and I worked from 6 am to 12 am to make this company, Run Gum, successful. And who knows, maybe I should’ve been in there doing rehab drills and trying to get on the track as quickly as possible. That wasn’t what was going to make me happy that summer. What was going to make me happy was investing in my future and that meant starting a business.

It probably had helped that back in 2014, you had gone through that slump already. You’d been through it before, you knew what actions might need to be taken next. 

Nick: Yeah and I deal with injuries so much better today than I did 10 years ago. An injury at the start of my career was devastating and life altering and a lot of, “Who am I? I have no idea who I am without running.” Now if I get injured, I just kind of shrug my shoulders and say, “Alright, well I guess I’ll go focus on Run Gum some more.” And there are times when Run Gum and being CEO of this company gets in the way of my training.

But I would rather be a good runner that’s happy than an excellent runner that’s clinically depressed.

 Since that injury happened what did that recovery process look like? And, an add on to that question is, what other means of activity did you do to release some of the energy you couldn’t burn by running? 

Nick: I am hopelessly addicted to exercise and even if I can’t run I’m always trying to get a workout each day. My favorite form of exercise is biking and swimming. I’ll kind of alternate those. I like to get outdoors and bike and ski and hike and do all those sorts of things, but typically if I’m injured and trying to get as healthy as possible, I’m in the pool most days. Every injury I’ve had over the past 10 years has involved that.

And it’s funny, when I was younger I couldn’t swim a lap to save my life. I mean it literally was pathetic to watch me trying to swim. But due to unfortunate injuries over the last few years I can go out and swim a mile in about 24 minutes. I got my flip turn perfected. Everyone says, “Wow did you used to swim in high school or professionally.” No, I just got injured way too many times.

Obviously, I like [the endorphin rush] from running best, but if I can’t get it from a runner’s high, then the next best thing is a swim or a bike for me.

That’s a great point. So when you were feeling anxious or depressed what were some tangible things you did to work through that?

Nick: Well I don’t know how helpful this is for everybody else, but my number one passion outside of work is fishing. I’ve been fishing since I was 2 years old. My dad had a fly rod in my hand the day I could grab something. So even in the darkest, darkest days I’d grab my fishing rod and go fishing.

I remember being absolutely depressed and sad and wandering down a river trying to catch fish, but it felt like at least I was doing something.

Not like productive in the sense that I was working for money or trying to get healthy, but just, ya know, being outdoors and living my life. Anything was better than just laying in bed and staring at the ceiling, so I would grab my fly rod and spend all day on the river and it was very very peaceful and cathartic and I caught a lot of fish. So, it was a nice summer.

There is something to be said about being outdoors and that’s probably why runners run. Just being outside is therapeutic in and of itself.

Nick: Well, especially if you work a 9-5 and you’re indoors. In the winters it’s even worse, especially in Seattle. You’ll wake up in the dark and drive to work and as soon as you’re done, it’s dark again. What a horrible cave dweller existence. If you can get out on your lunch break – even if it’s just 30 minutes – get out and get some fresh air and see the sun. That makes a huge difference

While you’ve been going through this recovery process, you talked a little about throwing your energy into Run Gum. You also mentioned that you identified as a runner. How have you shifted your identity and what does that look like now?

Nick: I think in order to give myself the best shot of making the 2016 Olympic team for the last 4 years I’ve had to say, “I’m a runner first and foremost and everything else is ancillary.”

Once I knew I wasn’t going to be able to compete for that spot on my 3rd Olympic team, nick_release-copy-1-1everything shifted. I grabbed that Post-it note and I mentally crossed off runner and put business owner, which is something that I had been doing on the side for the last two years. But now it’s the perfect opportunity to make being the CEO of Run Gum my main priority and that’s where it is right now. I haven’t changed anything. I think I still may run
another year, but that’s not who I am. Right now, my primary job is bringing this awesome
product to as many people as I can.

And doing a great job at that! So if you could give us one piece of advice for sustaining mental health during an injury what would that be?

Nick: Probably exercise. Depending on the nature of your injury. No matter what the injury is, you can get out and be active. Maybe you’re a runner and you can’t swim like I wasn’t able to. Go and swim a lap and then the next day try to swim two laps and the day after that try to swim three laps.

That feeling of euphoria that running or anything athletic gives you, is also found in bettering yourself. It’s being stronger today than you were yesterday.

I remember this summer I couldn’t run, so I said, “Okay I’m going to see how far I can bike.” I started out with a 5 miler and then the next day a ten miler and the next a twenty miler and every time I biked a new personal best I had this absolute feeling of euphoria of really having accomplished something cool. And that got me through the worst of the month when I was injured during the trials.

The real euphoria and sense of accomplishment comes from accomplishing something you couldn’t do the previous day or the previous week. It gives you something to work for. Humans need to work. That’s just a fact. And we, as athletes, are chemically dependent on that feeling of euphoria that working out gives us.

I remember reading this article on an 85 year old guy who had this amazing, active life. He was asked, “What’s the number 1 thing you recommend people can do with their lives?” And he said exercise for at least 30 mins a day. He’s lived 85 years. He’s owned businesses and had an amazing family. To this day, at 85, he still makes sure he gets 30 minutes of exercise a day.

What an inspiration. So bottom line.. setting goals and accomplish them.

Nick: Yeah, that’s what humans are built for: short term, intermediate, and long term goals and always working towards them.

Now I want to talk about what seems to be your biggest passion at this point. Tell us about Run Gum.

dorris_winter-1Nick: Yeah, it really is my focus right now and I am super passionate about it. I am the creator, the co-owner, and CEO of Run Gum, which is based in Eugene, Oregon.

Run Gum was created out of necessity. I was looking for legal stimulants that could help give me an edge in competition. And I have a degree in bio chemistry, so I knew what I wanted. I wanted caffeine, taurine, and B vitamins. I was getting those through sugary, acidic energy drinks, but the problem with an energy drink is you want the stimulants, but then you have all of this nasty stuff in your stomach sloshing around, which is the worst combination possible.

Sometimes I’d be purging my stomach after a race because of the energy drinks. Just, ya know, collapsed at the finish line doubled over because they’re so painful on your stomach. I’m like well, I need these stimulants, but I really don’t want the junk that’s in them, so we took everything that’s in the energy drinks and put it into chewing gum. You chew it and you absorb it much faster than you would if you were to swallow something and absorb it through the gastrointestinal track. It really gives you an increase in energy and focus in a quick and efficient way. There’s no calories, no sugar. It’s just the performance enhancing stimulants that you want and we sell it at getrungum.com. You can get it at Amazon.com and if you go to getrungum.com you can find a list of retailers that we work with throughout the US. There’s almost certainly to be a store near you.

That’s great. I’m excited to try it once this hamstring heals! Any parting words for us?

Nick: I preach this and have preached it for years: running provides that sense of purpose. But, even I loose it, as I did recently. I wasn’t really structuring my mileage. I was just kind of going out on a run once in a while.

Without setting goals, without setting short term, intermediate, or long term goals you’re just kind of stumbling around on one foot in front of the other.

So, I always encourage people to pick that race and even if you never end up racing it, just having it in your mind and having that sense of accountability that you’ve got to prepare for something, I think that is an important part of the process, as well.

Thank you, Nick. We’re excited to see what’s next for you and for Run Gum. Thanks for sharing all of this wonderful insight!

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I overcame an eating disorder, anxiety, and depression with the help of this wonderfully amazing thing called running. And that's why I'm here - to share my story and to help those who are going through what I've already gone through. On this blog you'll find running tips, mental health tips, and lots of joy. Join me as we piece life together one run at a time.

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