How Running Helped Me Boost Self Esteem and Overcome Challenges

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I’ve devoted quite a few posts on this blog to the subject of running, fitness, and how they help us stay healthy. Today I’m going to focus on a different benefit of those activities – how through running and staying active we can boost our confidence and self esteem.

I may not be an expert on how this would work for everyone, but I believe that my own story is a great example of that.

Disclaimer: this post has been sponsored by adidas. All opinions are my own.

I’ve mentioned before that I was born and raised in the ex-USSR, and immigrated to the US by myself when I was 21. I haven’t gotten into too many details about immigration-related challenges I had to endure (I’ve talked about my body image struggles, but of course those don’t happen to all immigrants, or to immigrants only).

How running can help women boost their confidence and self esteem: my story.

The truth is, my almost fourteen year-long fight to become a US citizen has brought me to my knees many times. It made me doubt my self worth and whether or not my dreams had the right to exist, let alone to come true.

I went through a few years of being undocumented, followed by years of being barely documented. I lived in a state that had passed a law to prosecute not only people like me but even US citizens who did as little as offer a car ride to people in my situation. (Hi Alabama!)

I worked low-paying jobs for as much as 80 hours a week (no extra pay for overtime) given me by people who took advantage of my undocumented status and kept my wages if they felt like it, threatening to call the immigration services on me if I complained.

I still made sure to pay taxes every year knowing full well that the system I was paying into wasn’t going to take care of me if I needed help.

I lived for years in fear of being assaulted or robbed as I walked home from work every night. Had that happened, I would have been too afraid to go to the police because by letting the authorities know about my existence I would have risked being deported.

All of this – and dozens more situations – took a huge toll on my self confidence.

I was ashamed to explain to new friends and acquaintances why someone with a college degree like myself would be working a minimum wage job, or why I didn’t have a car even though I didn’t have any outstanding traffic tickets or driving violations.

I was ashamed to invite new friends to my house – a place I shared with four other Russian immigrants – because I didn’t even have my own room, and slept on the living room couch for almost four years.

I was ashamed when a doorman at a local bar laughed in my face and announced to a group of my new American friends that my ID had been expired for over a year. How do you explain to a bunch of born and raised US citizens that the state of Florida where I lived at the time wasn’t going to renew my ID because of my undocumented status?

When I met my future husband Rob and moved from Florida to Alabama, I couldn’t work or drive for almost three years because of the newly passed Alabama immigration law.

By the time Rob and I eventually got married in 2012, I was a year into my bizarre reality of appearing a lot like other Southern ladies who stayed at home and looked pretty, yet not having even a third of opportunities they had but chose not to use.

For three years of my life in Alabama, I watched friends graduate colleges, soar in their careers, travel the world, all while I couldn’t so much as drive to the grocery store. Needless to say, that took a huge toll on my self esteem.

By saving grace, during those days I discovered my love for running and exercise. As my weekly runs became longer, I set a goal to run a half marathon.

Finishing my first half marathon in Pensacola, FL in 2011 gave me a huge confidence boost. At that time I didn’t personally know anyone who has ever participated in a race of that distance.

Finally I found something that my immigrant status wasn’t going to set any limitations on. I went on to run six more half marathons and three full distance marathons in the years to come.

Shortly before I started training for my second marathon in Florida, Rob and I went vegan. I decided to start a website to document my marathon training as a vegan athlete. This is how Vegan Runner Eats was born.

(When we moved to Seattle, WA area, I shared my monthly training updates for my third marathon here on the blog as well.)

How I improved my self esteem and confidence through running.

Wearing adidas Adicolor Trefoil Hoodie in Future Hydro/white. See more women’s sweatshirts by adidas over here.

Running gave me the confidence I needed to believe that I was strong enough to set and achieve goals that weren’t limited by my immigration status.

Starting this blog gave me the confidence to share my voice and my evolution as a runner, blogger, vegan recipe developer, and eventually a mom raising our vegan daughter who was born in 2017.

Today, more than six and a half years since I started Vegan Runner Eats, I am happy to say that the bulk of my immigrant challenges are over. We found our new home state of Washington way more immigrant-accepting. And at the beginning of 2020, I have finally received my US citizenship.

Now that my voice counts, I can’t wait to vote for the first time in the US presidential election later this year.

Passing It On

I realize that not everybody has experienced limitations of the immigration system like I did. I also realize that a lot of people today continue to experience limitations set by our society that I’ve never had to experience as a white able-bodied woman.

This being said, I have an immense hope that the young people of today (and women especially) won’t have to deal with a lot of these limitations as they become the new generation of adults.

The question is – how do we get there? How do we ensure that young women have the confidence to go after their goals and shatter glass ceilings put there by the generations before them?

I credit running and fitness for helping me find my voice and become confident in expressing it. Unfortunately, too many young girls today face barriers to finding opportunity and motivation to participate in athletic programs. This can have long-term consequences both for their health and opportunities in life.

According to Women’s Sports Foundation, “Girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys… By the age of 14, they drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys.”

My story of how running helped me improve my confidence and self esteem.

This is why I was excited to learn that adidas had partnered with Up2Us Sports, a non-profit organization that has developed the country’s first national service program for coaches, to launch She Breaks Barriers initiative “…to help inspire and empower the next generation of coaches, mentors and role models for girls in sport”.

She Breaks Barriers focuses on ensuring access to sports for women and girls, removing gender stereotypes, and helping provide visibility for female athletes at all levels and ages.

As a part of this project, adidas and Up2Us Sports have developed a free interactive online coaching curriculum that can be used by teams, schools, leagues and parents anywhere to get a better understanding of reasons and ways to help girls succeed in sports.

Benefits of Participating in Sports for Girls:

  • Developing a positive body image and learning to appreciate the power of their own bodies;
  • Learning important life skills like teamwork, leadership and confidence;
  • Improving communication skills and forming stronger social bonds with peers;
  • Doing better academically in school and college: girls who play sports tend to score higher on achievement tests, graduate from high school at a higher rate, go on to college, and succeed in their careers (source);
  • Having a greater lifetime earning potential: about 94% of women in executive positions have some background in sports (source);
  • Reaping long-term health benefits later in life: according to Women’s Sports Foundation, “…[g]irls active in sports during adolescence and young adulthood are 20% less likely to get breast cancer later in life”.

When I was growing up in Russia, I developed a thorough dislike for all athletics because of the way physical education was taught in our schools and colleges. A lot of female classmates and I counted days till the end of high school so we would never have to deal with PE again 🙁

It took me years to rediscover the joys of being athletic, and to appreciate the opportunity fitness gave me to become stronger physically and mentally.

My wish for the new generation of young women is that they never grow to hate athletics in the first place, and that they reap the benefits of higher self esteem and confidence from participating in sports from the beginning.

It’s up to our generation to lead them that way. That’s why the She Breaks Barriers initiative is a great start.

How running helped me boost my self esteem and overcome challenges.

Disclaimer: This post has been sponsored by adidas. All opinions are my own.

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About Alina Zavatsky - Vegan Runner Eats

Alina first made a switch to a vegan diet in 2013 to optimize her athletic performance as a marathon runner. Eventually she embraced veganism as a way to be kinder to fellow living beings and the environment. Alina hopes that this blog helps its readers on their path to becoming vegan and making this world a better place.

8 Responses to How Running Helped Me Boost Self Esteem and Overcome Challenges

  1. T says:

    I am embarrassed and ashamed of the way this country treats immigrants. Let’s hope we can work toward a more compassionate process. Your daughter is blessed to have such a wonderful example of perseverance and grit in her mother.

  2. Maria Manuela dos Santos Oliveira says:

    Alina, you are one winner and fighter!
    I imagine it must have been very difficult for you, in the early days!!
    I’ve heard stories like yours, I gave classes at night to foreign students. They taught me a lot, they showed tenacity, resilience, strength, courage, determination, just like you!

    I understand Sport was very important for your balance and mental health … a way to move forward in life!
    In fact, you are right, trying to help future generations and we can also boost our confidence and self-esteem through sport!
    I don’t run like you, but I like hiking, walking and cycling … and I feel good …
    I´ve enjoyed this post! Well done!!

  3. Mina says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I am first gen and have seen the struggles of my loved ones first hand. You are a badass mother runner 🙂

  4. How inspiring … you are one tough vegan!! Good for you for sticking with it all and powering through obstacles. Love you attitude and your blog 😄

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