Inside The Endurance Athlete’s Mind

December 21, 2016

Great Britain’s Mo Farah (second right) in action during the Men’s 10,000m Final at the Olympic Stadium, London, on the eighth day of the London 2012 Olympics. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday August 4, 2012. Photo credit should read: Martin Rickett/PA Wire. EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Bob Whitman’s days start at 2:45 a.m.

While the rest of us are rolling over in our beds, Whitman, CEO of the Salt Lake City, Utah-based Franklin Covey , is fitting in a few hours of biking, swimming and running before work in preparation for next month’s Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

Considering that the majority of Americans have trouble finding the time or energy to work out at all, let alone train for a grueling triathlon while juggling a C-suite position, it begs the question: How does he do it?

Much of it is mental. While many endurance athletes say there’s nothing special about their physical abilities, clearly people who are drawn to and are able to accomplish feats such as marathons, triathlons and challenging ultra endurance events differ from the rest of us somehow. A big piece of the puzzle is how these athletes think about their lives, goals and the obstacles they face.

“Moderation bores me,” says Dean Karnazes, who completed 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days and wrote about the experience in the new book, 50/50. He is also currently trying to be the first person ever to complete the world’s five major desert foot races in one year. “Once I did a marathon, I thought, ‘Huh, I think I can go further than this.’ I wanted to explore not only my physical limits but my mental confines.”

Successful endurance athletes also have to know how to psychologically face and overcome pain during events. Roger Little, CEO of Spire Corp. and a longtime triathlete, was competing in the World Championships Triathlon Long Distance in Almere, Netherlands, last month when he hit a giant wall.Persistence is particularly crucial in helping endurance athletes stick to a training schedule, which they know can’t be compromised no matter how much work is waiting for them at the office or how sore or tired they may feel. The benefits of showing up every day for a workout aren’t just about being physically prepared on the big day. They can help an athlete feel like he or she has done everything possible to meet a challenge, ultimately translating into confidence at the starting line, Susser says.

Little swam 3.1 miles and rode his bike for 76 miles on a hot and windy course when he started to feel sick. After completing his ride, he took the first step of a 20-mile run and set what he calls a new “personal pain” record. Even though the event took him 10 hours to finish, he didn’t give up–it wouldn’t jibe with the way he thinks of himself as an athlete.

“You get into the sport and you talk about it so much that you end up having an image you’ve created that you have to live up to,” Little says. “You can’t just say, ‘I’ve had a bad day.’”

Pain Management

While specific techniques vary, endurance athletes rely on methods of distraction to get through painful or difficult patches. Susser counsels people to focus on the technicality of their sport by zeroing in on their strides, or to play games, such as coming up with an animal for every letter of the alphabet. During the Ironman swim, while Whitman is trying to avoid getting dunked or kicked, he counts his strokes and recites a poem called The Little Red Hen to keep himself on pace.

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“It might be a little like a pingpong game–this type of distraction is never 100%,” Susser says. “But if you can swap your focus enough you can get yourself through it.”

In the event that they should have to quit, endurance athletes know how to embrace their failures, too.

Karnazes recalls passing out in 1995 at about the halfway mark of his first attempt of the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile run through Death Valley in the middle of summer. The experience was crushing, since Karnazes had spent six months training and planning for the race. He later realized that his problem wasn’t his preparation, but his lack of mental flexibility.

At some point early on, Karnazes unknowingly downed some nonpotable water, which quickly made him sick. Rather than slowing down and letting his body recover, he pushed himself to nail a certain time–a decision that cost him the chance to cross the finish line. But the experience infused in him a fire to conquer the course the following year, as well as many times since.

“Unless you push yourself to failure,” Karnazes says, “you don’t know how far you’re going to go.”

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