When People Say, "You Can't"

You’re capable of much more than you think… It’s the most powerful lesson you can possibly learn.
— Ambrose Joel Burfoot

Since getting home from my races in Florida last month, I’ve had the opportunity to kick off another block of solid training, hitting close to thirty hours per week the last two weeks! It feels great to whip my body into shape, finding a new level of fitness and confidence.

That said, on long training days, I find my brain is sometimes lulled into a fog, where all I want to do is nap or tune into one of my favorite mindless shows on Hulu or Netflix. My teammates call this phenomenon “cardio brain;” I call it mush!

As someone who has always loved learning and challenging my brain, I do my best to keep a book going outside of the consulting I continue to do outside of my day job. The whole reading thing can be hard for me to maintain, particularly because it typically takes a good fifty pages or so for me to really become invested in a book. It often takes me just as much if not more time to get through those first fifty pages as it does to fly through the following 250!

However, my most recent read was an exception to that pattern. I flew through Alex Hutchinson’s Endure from the start and absolutely loved it, particularly because it sought to answer the very question that has been on my mind so much lately: as we seek to explore and expand our limits, which plays a more important role, the body or the brain?

Hutchinson does an incredible job of presenting both sides of the argument, and I ultimately agreed with his conclusion that it’s likely neither one nor the other: both play a crucially important roll in elite performance. Of course the body must have a certain level of natural ability paired with diligent work and proper conditioning. But the mind is so incredibly powerful—I feel like we see it time and again every Olympic season when we hear athletes’ stories, but it can be easy to question if your own mind and internal motivation is as strong as those warriors we see on NBC Sports.

Having had this topic on my mind, I absolutely loved elite triathlete Amy Dixon’s recent Instagram post:

This story is the quintessential example of how belief in yourself (paired with hard work, of course) can take you further than even the most qualified expert could have predicted. Amy’s experience reminded me of conversations I had with a couple coaches when I was deciding whether to pursue professional triathlon full-time out of business school. More than a few told me not to even consider draft-legal triathlon, as there was no way that, without a swim background, I would be able to make a Continental Cup front pack, much less a main or front pack at a World Cup or the top level of draft-legal racing: the World Triathlon Series. While my swimming still has a ways to go, I have proved those naysayers wrong more than a few times in the past 2 years.

It’s for this reason that I have so much respect for Gwen Jorgenson’s quest for Olympic gold in the Marathon. I was particularly drawn to this quote in her recent interview with Sports Illustrated:

“It’s definitely a huge feat. That was a bold statement of mine. It’s not a statement to put down anyone else. It was a statement to hold me accountable. For me, when I say a big goal, it’s out there and it makes me get up every day. I’m reminded and confronted with that goal. I hope that by me saying I want to win gold in the marathon, it motivates people as well to set big goals and go after them.”

I absolutely love this approach and think there is really no other way to approach life than by making bold statements and setting bold goals for ourselves. Doesn’t have to be the Olympics—it could be an executive position at your company, completing a race that scares you, or taking on a role that you’re not sure you’re qualified for.

As I check the “body” box everyday, I am working to check the “mind” box as well. One of the ways that I am doing this is by taking a more aggressive mental approach to training. In Hutchinson’s discussion of the various keys to Kenyan dominance in endurance running, he notes, “Every Kenyan runner wakes up every morning with the firm conviction that today, finally, will be his or her day.” They go out with the lead runners every session, hang for as long as they can, and then go home and repeat again the next day. I am adopting this mindset each day, and I find it is helping me to push a little further than I thought I could in swim, bike, and run sessions alike. I have almost exactly a month to keep building the confidence that is coming from this approach until I toe the line at Chengdu World Cup and am excited for the growth to come in the process. Give this approach a try and let me know how it goes for you!