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Why (and How) Athletes Should Regularly Consider The ‘Cup’ Metaphor

February 19, 2019

Why (and How) Athletes Should Regularly Consider The ‘Cup’ Metaphor

“The cup metaphor suggests that pain occurs when all of the stressors/loads in our lives exceed the space in our cup.  When we overflow we have pain.” -Greg Lehman

A while back, we had chiropractor and pain expert Greg Lehman on The Consummate Athlete Podcast. I didn’t think much of it at the time, because I wasn’t dealing with any pain. Flash-forward to now, when I’m in the middle of coming back from a particularly vicious bout of the leg cramps that I get a couple times a year. Why I get them is a bit of a mystery, but they take me out for a solid week and change when I’m dealing with them. We’re working on getting to the root cause, but Peter pointed out to me last week that maybe, even if we can’t find the root of them, we could work on building a bigger cup.

You must go read Greg’s full article here on the concept of the cup as a metaphor. But basically, it boils down to two things to mitigate pain: 1. Decrease some of stressors and loads that are in the cup. 2. Build a bigger cup.

The two are basically one and the same—essentially, if you can’t solve the pain with an obvious solution (i.e putting a cast on a broken leg), there are still things you can be doing.

Now, I’ll also add that for me, as I’m doing this, I’m still hunting for the root cause, and I have a few different avenues I’m pursuing there—but it’s dumb to leave changeable lifestyle factors in place, especially ones that don’t hurt/only help overall health and wellness.

Here are a few of the ones I’m working on, and while you might have different ones, I’m going to challenge you to—BEFORE YOU ARE INJURED OR IN PAIN—think about working daily to make that cup bigger. You’re working towards becoming as resilient as possible, which isn’t always easy for an endurance athlete, but it’s SO damn important. (Try making your own list!)

Dropping sugar

Down, not out. I briefly considered going full-on auto-immune protocol, but changed my mind (you’ll see why in a sec). What I am doing, though, is cutting back on it. Skipping most of the sweet treats I would gravitate towards (easier when not in a big training block, I admit!), switching my usual afternoon oatmeal with PB and brown sugar and cutting back my chocolate-for-dessert habit. This forces me to cut down on a lot of processed foods, and decreasing sugar is generally a good suggestion when it comes to working on gut issues. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to make things like eating on long rides, or having a piece of chocolate for dessert things, things that were (pun intended) off the table. That’s because…

Decreasing stress

The reason I wanted to drop things like sugar down, but not cut out, comes back to stress. I don’t want to make myself more neurotic and stressed out and obsessive over food—I don’t think that’s going to help matters. So while I’m making these food changes, I’m trying to keep them as tame as possible in order to decrease the amount of stress I have around wanting to eat something and needing to say no. I’m also doing the typical stress fixes, like taking time out to chat with friends / read a good book / journal / actually chill after dinner. I know meditation should get on there again at some point, but baby steps.

Decreasing alcohol / gluten / common allergens

Basically, I’m trying to eat more anti-inflammatory foods (ahem, homemade turmeric lattes all day) and in the process, trying to drop down foods that are inflammatory. I’ve even cut peanut butter out at the moment, just as a bit of experimentation. Some things, like coffee, are great in moderation, but when it comes to the volume I would drink if given the option… It’s time to cut down to one cup a day, if any, and start adding back in more green tea and drinks like that. Basically, trying to really focus on nourishment.

Focusing on good nutrition

High nutrient density is the name of the game right now (and should be, always!). The usual tons of veggies, fruit, clean sources of protein and fat, and good sources of carbs where needed. (More on solid everyday nutrition here)

Improving digestion

This is kind of the whole point of the food stuff: Your gut is responsible for SO much more than you’d think, and so many other issues can stem from a gut imbalance. Healthy digestion = healthier gut. I’m obviously focusing on packing my diet with a ton of leafy greens and other fiber-rich foods, but I’ve had chronic stomach issues for years and I’m also trying to tackle them. I take a probiotic, of course, but now I’m also adding digestive enzymes before lunch and dinner, and doing a cup of warm water with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in the morning to kickstart my digestion.


One thing that can set me way back on any pain issues I have is a lack of sleep, so I’m making that a priority. Easy this week, not as easy next week when I’m coaching a camp and still getting my normal work done, but I’m going to make it a top priority.


Again, this is a bit of a ‘duh’ one as far as good habits but it bears repeating. Also, I admit I haven’t been as good with stretching other than my usual AM yoga routine for the last couple months. And no, this won’t likely directly impact my cramping issues, because they definitely stem from something that isn’t as simple as ‘stretch first’ (sadly), but it will help keep my knee working right/help hopefully prevent more injuries like my recent knee one!


Now, all of this is what I’m trying to do right… But what about the areas that can’t be fixed? We all have those. Because I know these are the cups that are going to stay low for the next few months, just given what’s on the calendar, I think it’s important to acknowledge the problem areas so that you can understand how important it is to work on the stuff that you can change/influence. Luckily, the three big cup-draining things are super positive stresses, but they are stresses nonetheless. I think it’s super easy to forget that even the stuff we love can be draining.

My training

This is a positive stress, but again, it’s a stress. Because I have a 50K on my calendar for early May, there isn’t a lot of time to take time off, and I already have taken all the days off that I’m comfortable taking, so as my body is cooperating, I’m training. (I also am coaching a few training camps, so there’s that…)

How I’m working to mitigate it: Rather than going it alone this year, I’m working with an awesome new coach, David Roche (he’ll be on the podcast soon!). He’s been amazing through all of this, and it’s been helpful having someone objectively look at my training and prescribe the bare minimum I need to do to work towards my goals in a real way without putting myself in a hole.


Again, I’m not exactly feeling sorry for myself here, but in the next 8 weeks, I have at least four 6+ hour flights, and a few 10+ hour driving/train days. I’m going to really great places that I’m stoked on, but it does take a toll.

How I’m working to mitigate it: Traveling smart. I’m trying to not book flights with obnoxious layovers, trying to pack light to make airports less stressful, and packing the food that I’ll need on certain trips (i.e protein powder and the supplements I need when I’m in Spain and that stuff is harder to find) so that I’m prepared to have healthy trips. I’m also banking sleep this week in prep for a redeye flight!


Again, I love what I do and wouldn’t change it. But there are deadlines that need to be met, articles that need to be posted, photos that need to be taken, camps that need to be organized and coached… I wear a ton of hats, and none of the jobs I do are ones that I’m willing to give up or dial back.

How I’m working to mitigate it: I am going through my to-do lists every day and crossing off things that aren’t as important to me, when possible. But honestly, this is the one area that’s going to be full steam ahead for a while, simply because with a few new places I’m writing for and the launch of Shred Girls barreling towards me, I need to keep focused.



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One comment
  1. […] Molly wrote about a Cup Analogy, that we learned from Greg Lehman who uses it to describe how we end up in pain. From a training standpoint, we each have a cup we can fill up with training, taking the kids to hockey and eating at McDonalds while reading the news. At some poitn that cup overflows and this, in training, would be too much. […]

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