An Interview with Pro Runner Neely Gracey
Neely Spence Gracey is a pro marathon runner for Adidas and a mother runner (mom to 18-month-old Athens). And, she and I have one big thing in common. After having our sons, we both struggled to get back to running. After one terrible run in particular, we both knew something was wrong. Bloodwork revealed whacked-out hormones after having our babes. This can make you really tired and prone to illness and injury.
That was the case for Neely, a 2:34 marathoner. After having Athens, she fractured her femur and suffered other injuries and got sick a lot. She was close to hanging up her racing shoes until she discovered the root cause of the problem–a hormone imbalance and “mom-life” taking its toll.
With treatment and a plan to prioritize self-care, Neely started feeling better and her running took off. Just 8 weeks ahead of the 2020 Houston Marathon, she decided to try to qualify for her third Olympic Trials. She succeeded with a time of 2:44, about a minute under the 2:45 qualifying standard.
“My slowest marathon, yup. The marathon I’m the most proud of, yup. My first two, @bostonmarathon & @nycmarathon , I was trained, fit, and ready. This one I was none of the above but did it anyway. Instead of comparing myself to previous years, I focused on the progress I made from last week to this week. And guess what, over time, that’s what creates fitness to tackle bigger goals ahead,” wrote Neely on Instagram.
I chatted with Neely, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, about how her professional running life has changed since becoming a mom, her advice for other mother runners, and pro tricks for staying injury-free, among other topics.
I think you’ll find Neely doesn’t hold back in her honesty and wisdom.
Here’s Neely on:
What does a typical day as a pro “mother runner” look like for you?
When my main focus was solely training, my day was very structured and I thought I was so busy. HAHA. Now I know what busy actually looks like. I get up at 6 most days, and have coffee, chat with my husband, and answer emails or prep my gym bag. Athens gets up around 7 and usually, we have an hour or so together before the baby sitter arrives
and I head out to run. I get in my miles, cross-train (XT) or core in my garage/gym. If I have extra time, I will get in a little coaching work before the baby sitter heads out. We are doing swim lessons right now which is Monday through Thursday for the next 6 weeks, so I only have two hours with the baby sitter’s help before I take Athens to swim. We come home, have lunch, and he goes down for a nap at 12:30. I usually XT in my garage, shower, and lie down to write some training plans for my online coaching business, Get Running. Athens wakes up around 2:30 and we have a fun time together, park, walk, playing, etc until dinner. After dinner, I get Athens ready for bed, and then my husband and I have an hour together before I head to bed at 9.
How has motherhood changed you as a runner?
I have more things on my plate and cannot obsess or dwell on how that run wasn’t exactly perfect, or I should have lifted a little heavier at the gym. I am less focused on things having to be ideal, and more happy to get them in… which is liberating after years of perfectionistic tendency. Also, everything is flexible. I used to be very rigid in my day and now I am able to be much more go-with-the-flow.
You had a wake-up call of sorts last fall where you were so exhausted you could barely run 2 miles. What changed after that?
We did some sleep training to help Athens sleep through the night and have a more consistent nap each day. I realized I couldn’t commit to as many things and needed to become a bit more “selfish” to allow my body time to recover from what I was asking of it.
Based on that experience, what wisdom do you wish to impart on fellow mother runners?
Be patient, it is your story and your journey and shouldn’t be compared to anyone else. I heard so many times that between 9-12 months after birth, the body starts to feel normal. I am 18mos after and I still don’t feel normal. I am closer than before for sure, but it can actually take up to 4 years, yes, FOUR, for the healing and rebuilding to happen at the cellular level.
What training advice do you have for mamas making a comeback after baby (or after any sort of break)?
Listen to the body. If it feels forced, stop right away (both mentally and physically). Everyone will respond differently, just like running during pregnancy. No one knows how you feel except you, so trust your instinct.
How do you think your running impacts your son, Athens?
I hope he learns about goals, and hard work, and passion. I never want to put my training in front of him, so I talk him through the importance of mama having her run time and then I prioritize being present when we are together. We don’t care if he becomes a runner or not, we just want him to find something that he really enjoys.
On Injury Prevention:
What are your best tips for recovery?
After having Athen, I have found I respond the best to mid-run nutrition/hydration as it gives me a head start on recovery. When I was nursing, any run over 10mi I would carry a water bottle. Now, any run over 90min I have fluids and or gels. I like to have quick snacks post-run, apple, banana, and peanut butter, overnight oats, Dave’s Killer bagel. (*Note I am not a savory breakfast type). I also meal prep, so I try to have grilled chicken and salad stuff ready to go for lunch so I can just throw it all in a bowl. Dinner is the meal I put the most time/focus into and that’s only bc my husband gets really bored with my cooking if I am lazy in the meal department. It is good to try new things, and then we kinda decide together if it’s a keeper recipe or not. I have cut out a lot of dairy products as I developed a bit of a sensitivity to that after having Athens. We also don’t eat much red meat unless it’s hunted from a friend of ours. I always keep veggie burgers on hand for busy days when I need a quick protein option.
What are your best tips for injury prevention?
If I had this dialed in, I wouldn’t have the injury history I do, but I try to really listen to my body in this regard. If I need a day off or a day on the bike instead of a run, I take it. I also try to roll out each night before bed so that I can stay in tune with what areas are tight and need extra attn. I am also a big fan of lifting and I am in the gym twice a week working on strength and power.
I notice on Strava you cross-train a lot. Is that for injury prevention?
Instead of running twice a day and every day throughout the week, I try to get in 2-3 hours of bike/pool per week to take off the pounding and get the blood flowing. Most of my XT sessions are easy and not workouts or anything. I would typically only do XT workouts if I was injured and needed to get the HR high for performance benefit.
You’ve posted some great at-home workouts on Instagram. What sort of strength training do you do/recommend to your athletes?
I provide a ton of variety when it comes to strength training for my clients. We probs have 30 different routines, ranging from 5min of bodyweight work to yoga videos, heavy lifting programs, TRX, mobility and PT type exercises for various runner injury spots, and pilates. Everyone has a different need and desire when it comes to this stuff so I pick and choose from the bank of routines based on the individual.
When you’re struggling mentally in a race (or workout) and everything hurts, how do you keep pushing and find that next gear?
This is something I just learned over time. The more fit I get, the more confidence I have to hurt for longer in a race. But I use my breathing as my guide to help me know if I am working to the correct effort on that day.
As a pro runner, how do you avoid burnout?
I make sure my goals are exciting to me. What will get me out the door even on the crappy days? I find people to run with, friends always make things more fun. I set process goals to help me see progress throughout training versus just having an end result goal and that’s it. Usually, I get burnt out from the structure before I get burnt out from the running. I’m sure to take a few weeks off here and there throughout the year to reset the mind and body.
What is a “process goal”?
An outcome goal is the big one… for me, make the Olympic trials standard. The process goals along the way are smaller goals to track the progress and keep me focused. Get to bed by 9 p.m. each night. Swim twice a week. Limit alcohol to two drinks per week. Lift twice per week. Listen to my body. Be flexible with scheduling. I typically track my process goals in a bullet journal each night so I can see the consistency build.
What is it about running that you love?
It’s so much more than a sport for me. Running is part of who I am and the lifestyle I live. I think that’s why I struggle emotionally so much when injured/when I was pregnant because a huge part of my daily routine is taken away. My social time is on my runs, my me time is on my runs, my time to think, the start of the day just isn’t right without it.
You have a coaching business called, Get Running. What about coaching do you enjoy?
I started my coaching business in 2013, and each year it has grown! My college teammate and fellow pro runner, Katie Spratford and I have about 100 clients between the two of us. It has been so much fun for me to help other runners work towards and achieve their goals.
You just qualified for your third OT (on a whim!). What about that excites you? What are your goals for Atlanta?
After my pregnancy, my goal was to get my OTQ (Olympic Trials Qualifier). When I fractured my femur in June, I thought that my goal was dead. But this fall, when I started back to running, I was really struggling both physically and emotionally. Dillon (my husband and coach) asked me if I was done competing, that no one was forcing me or pressuring me to continue if I didn’t want to. And that’s when I realized that I wasn’t done. I was just scared because if I tried and failed, then what would that do to my already broken confidence? But not trying meant I automatically failed. so I knew I needed to give myself the chance. I have qualified now for three Olympic trials, but I hope this is the year I actually make it to the start line! So that’s my #1 goal for Atlanta. Start the race.
What about the marathon do you love?
I would love the marathon more if it was 20 miles #saideveryrunnerever but I am learning the distance and that is a fun challenge. I’ve done a bunch of 5ks in my life, but with the marathon, it’s a new and exciting event to learn, break apart, and conquer.
On Run/Life Balance:
How do you think your running impacts your husband, Dillon?
With a baby, it is tough for us to balance work, training, parenting, and finding time for each other. Just like most families, I am sure. Dillon ran the California International Marathon and during that time, we realized that it worked bc my training was so minimal but that it will be really tough for us to both train for goal races at the same time. We will see what that means, but he is currently taking is a certified financial planner class and is very busy with that for the next 9 months so he plans to run for fun mostly.
Any tips for balancing running and life?
I found that “balance” felt overwhelming and unachievable. I like to think of it more as “priorities” and then I have things listed out and can check them off with the most important ones at the top and the least important at the bottom. If I do this, each day I still have “wins” and that feels better than trying to seek this elusive balance.
Thank you, Neely, for being so open in order to help us fellow mother runners.
To read more about how Neely balances training and motherhood, check out her Runner’s World piece.