When You Need to Welcome Unwelcome Criticism

This is a guest post by Susan, a vegetarian marathoner and 2010 Ironman hopeful. She wrote her first guest post, The No-Meat Newbie, shortly after completing her first marathon.

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.  Norman Vincent Peale

Endurance athletes, as a general rule, are stubborn people. After all, who else would actually push their bodies to keep running when the brain says “This is a dumb idea. You should be eating cupcakes”? Who would willingly submit themselves to the rigors of daily training when the results, often, are very slow to reveal themselves? It takes a stubborn mind to do so.

Vegetarians and vegans, too, have their own special resolve. In a society where we’re bombarded by fast-food ads exalting the joys of juicy burgers, vegetarians often have to be comfortable being the only one at the party asking for salad when everyone else is eating filet mignon. Only a particular type of person has that persistence. Because of this, tenacity actually works in our favor.

Sometimes, though, stubbornness causes us to ignore advice that truly can help us. We get so caught up in how good we feel about ourselves and our choices that we sometimes turn a blind eye to the potential downfalls. When people give us suggestions, we gasp. How DARE they tell us what to do? What could THEY possibly know?

The Criticism We’ve All Heard

When you take on a lifestyle change of any sort, you’ll quickly learn that everyone has advice to dispense on the subject, whether they have actually been through the change or not.

“Running will destroy your knees!” they’ll say as they sit on the couch, mid-way through a Law & Order marathon.

“If you’re going to be a vegetarian, you will be weak from the lack of protein!” they’ll tell you between bites of their fried pork chops.

“You’re training all wrong! You need to be running faster/more miles/wearing weights like that guy in the infomercial/book/magazine!” they’ll advise.

Everyone’s an armchair quarterback. At times, it can be overwhelming trying to sort out all the advice and separate the valid from the hooey. No matter how stubborn we are, sometimes we feel criticized, vulnerable, and doubtful of the choices we’ve made.

Believe it or not, these comments are almost always a good thing. Rarely will someone give you information with the deliberate intent to sabotage you. Even when a “pearl of wisdom” is ill-informed, it’s likely the person dispensing the information is truly trying to help you. Take it as a sign of support, smile, and thank them for their suggestion.

When to Pay Attention

Even when we may not like it, there are times we need to pay attention. When Mom expresses concern that you aren’t getting enough nutrients with your vegetarian lifestyle, make sure her concern isn’t based on something she’s directly observed – perhaps you have been acting differently or exhibiting symptoms of fatigue. When your training partner tells you he thinks you’re putting in too many miles, maybe he’s seeing the grimace on your face when you’re struggling to finish a workout.

As stubborn creatures, we each hate to admit we don’t know it all. What we can, do, however, is listen to those who do. Surround yourself with people you trust and listen to their feedback. Use what works, and dispose of what doesn’t. You aren’t the first athlete, the first vegetarian, the first person who’s quit smoking, or whatever your case may be. There are people who have blazed a trail before you – might as well try their path. It could very well make things easier for you.

I’m slowly but surely learning this the hard way. When I decided to train for Ironman (with the added “challenge” of doing so as a vegetarian athlete), I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tips received from friends, family, books, trainers, nutritionists, doctors, coaches, workout buddies, classes, and websites. Rarely did two sources agree with each other, and of course, every source thought they were the best one. In my stubbornness, I shunned almost all help, deciding I would show them all in the end.

Valiant, right?

No. Idiotic could possibly be a more appropriate term, though I’m not sure it does my situation justice. After experiencing burnout, frustrating myself, and alienating people I genuinely care about, I had to eat a big fat slice of humble pie.

I’m lucky to have people in my life who are willing to forgive my stubbornness and help me rebuild to get back on track with my training. I’m certain that if I get stubborn again, they’ll remind me of what happens when I don’t listen to those around me. That reality check will be invaluable. I now realize that even though I’m the one crossing the finish line at Ironman, the journey to that point is not one I need to make alone.

No matter what your goal is, just remember – save the tenacity for when it really matters. Being humble and listening to the advice of others isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, it just might make you stronger.



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  1. Fabulous. I never thought of the stubbornness factor involved. No wonder!

    I am in definite need of well meaning advice some days and I appreciate that reminder. Very well put.
    .-= Rita´s last blog ..Find your Inner Athlete =-.

  2. This is a fantastic post. You have most endurance athletes & vegetarians pegged- they both involve resolve to do something. I love your take on when those useless comments might actually be really important 🙂
    .-= Heather @ Side of Sneakers´s last blog ..Slow Mornings =-.

  3. I loved that you included how humbling endurance training can be. I love/hate running because it teaches me that I’m not invincible, that I do have limits, and that it’s okay to hurt, and not be perfect. I loved Matt’s post about getting over a fear of failure by embracing it, which I think is along the same lines. Great post!
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Another reason to wake up at 4 in the morning and run 26.2 miles =-.

    • Agreed, Amanda! I mentioned in my post about being frustrated…the culmination of that was during swim training, when I simply gave up. I got out of the pool, put my clothes on and told my coach (in a nice way) to kiss my hind end. I was giving up. It was too hard, and I had been doing too much. So I gave up.
      When I went home and started pouting (while consuming large amounts of ice cream and wine), Matt wrote the post you’re talking about. He said, “For me, failure isn’t a DNF (Did Not Finish) in a race. Failure is giving up on the process, letting a goal I care about deeply die when it doesn’t come as easily as I’d like.”

      Call it a sign if you want, but I was really mad at Matt for writing exactly what I needed to hear at that time. And he didn’t even know any of this was going on! Don’t you love it when that happens?
      .-= Susan´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

  4. I loved this post! I’m typically one to take all criticism personally (which is just as bad as ignoring all of it)! 🙂

    Also, just curious, which IM are you training for Susan? I’m doing IM Wisconsin in September…
    .-= pen (pen at peace)´s last blog ..…brings May Flowers! =-.

    • No way! I’M doing IMWI! 🙂 You and I should talk.

      I know what you mean by taking criticism personally. For the most part, I’m a stubborn, stubborn gal. But sometimes a criticism about something we’re DOING can feel like a criticism of who we ARE. And that can be a big jolt to the ego. A coach of mine had to remind me to keep my emotions in check and a level head…and when I do that, I find that it’s much easier to deal with.
      .-= Susan´s last undefined ..Response cached until Tue 4 @ 20:43 GMT (Refreshes in 23.92 Hours) =-.

  5. When I read your first post I *thought* you were funny and inspiring, and now I *know* you are funny an inspiring! Thank you, thank you for using your wit to share such a difficult and potentially humiliating experience with us so we can learn. Matt, keep the guest posts from Susan coming pleeeez!

    • Heh, that’s really nice of you! Thanks so much! 🙂 And don’t worry — it isn’t a humiliating experience. As someone who thoroughly embarrasses herself on a regular basis, nothing humiliates me anymore. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing remains to be seen. 😉

  6. I almost passed by without commenting, but I saw your “why lurk?” and changed my mind. When I was reading the “Criticism” section, I had to laugh. As a girl, when I first started running, the comment I got more often than the knees….”your uterus will fall out!!!”.

    I’m here today to say my parts are all still in tact and in working order. 😀

    • It brings me great relief to know your uterus has yet to fall out. Just in case, I’d suggest carrying a cooler full of ice (or at least a Hefty bag) so you can transport it to the ER if it happens. Hey, if enough people say it, it must be true…right? 😉 Thanks for the giggle!

  7. Great post. It IS important to listen to our own intuition, and to also have a balance of listening to others!
    .-= Sagan´s last blog ..Re-cap of the Thirty Days of Yoga Challenge =-.

  8. Well said.
    I started to realize some of my stubborness (but didn’t know it was that) shortly after I went to an “almost” vegan/mostly plant based diet. I felt like people were clueless to what I had just learned (benefits of plant based & downside to typical animal-based diets). I mostly keep my thoughts to myself now when someone comments, but your post is encouraging as I need to be more thankful for others’ good intentions.
    .-= Mario´s last blog ..RE-CAP: Falls Duathlon & Spring Classic Kids Mile =-.

  9. Great post! I have had lots of trouble in this area. When both becoming vegetarian and a marathoner, I felt like I got a lot of critisism from my family and coworkers. I let it make me angry and more often than not found myself thinking, “What do they know? I start doing something for myself that I’m proud of and now they have something to say about my well-being?!” Just reminding myself that these people love me and are showing support just by being interested in what I’m doing would have been a huge help in my transitioning process.
    .-= Lizz @ Leading the Good Life´s last blog ..Is It May Yet? =-.

  10. I must say it is refreshing to have this perspective. This post talked about a topic that most people don’t want to admit: Our own shortcomings. I like having your voice on this website. It is humorous and thought-provoking at the same time.
    In both your posts so far you have mentioned being ‘lucky’ to have good people in your life who support you. I think they would agree they are lucky to have you as well. You seem like such a positive individual!

  11. Thank you for that post! I think in the past I have been overwhelmed and subsequently turned off by the sideline commentary, such as “You’re destroying your knees!” Still, if it is coming from trusted/loved sources, it’s probably best to at least let it register and then decide if the concern or advice is warranted.

    Great guest blog choice!

  12. I like this post too. I usually have that same bad attitude toward criticism. You kind of have to, since so many people will criticize you, even if it’s subtle, when you try to do something special. I’ve heard that the reason many people do this is to protect their relationship with you. If you achieve something awesome, maybe you won’t be the same old you that they’re comfortable with.

    But your post is a great reminder that it’s not ALL like that. I guess you just need to listen and consider the person’s reasons for critiquing.

  13. Susan — I LOVE this post!!! So well-written and you bring up such excellent points.

    I think the other thing that can goes hand in hand with our stubborness can be a sense of superiority (which you kind of touched on in your post). It’s often sub-conscious, but when you’ve made a change and are sticking to something that YOU believe is THE best way to live healthy (like being a vegetarian endurance athlete), it’s easy to get caught up in the “I’ve seen the light and you don’t know what you’re talking about” type of mentality….and then not take these type of comments seriously. It’s important to always keep a sense of humbleness about how much we DO know, and learn when to actually listen to the criticism.
    .-= Lauren (Health on the Run)´s last blog ..I survived! =-.

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