Imagine adding a part-time job to your already crazy schedule. Turns out your friendly neighborhood triathlete has. Training for an Ironman—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2 mile run—requires a minimum of 20 hours per week for six months, the equivalent of adding a part-time job to the athlete’s schedule. Even a marathon with its relatively lower physical demands still necessitates four or five hour-long runs, speed training sessions, and at least one 10-plus mile run weekly.
It’s easy to imagine athletes as the endurance equivalents of surf bums, people who work at a running store just often enough to pay for all of their race fees. After all, who could possibly train on top of a real job? But nearly half of athletes registered with USA Triathlon are white-collar workers, and 19% are doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals. Ultra-marathon and marathon runners also fit a similar demographic.
If you’re struggling to make time for spin class after work, it may seem impossible to reconcile a serious training schedule with an equally high-powered career. But not only do endurance athletes survive this insane schedule, they thrive on it, often registering for races the morning after their last one.
Whether you’re planning an Ironman or your company’s five-year strategy, you can apply some practices of endurance athletes to your own professional life. Here’s how they do it:
1. They Don’t Manage Time, They Master Time
But as you’ve probably learned through painful experience, good intentions don’t compensate for poor planning. Since they have so little time to waste, endurance athletes plan every aspect of their day to death. They’ll pack their gym bag, lunch, and recovery tools the night—or maybe even a full week—before each workout. They’ll check the weather to protect against any surprises the following morning. They might even sleep in their running clothes to save a few sleepy seconds the next morning.
And after months of training, athletes don’t take chances on race day. They won’t sample a new breakfast food for fear of indigestion. They won’t wear the new shorts they found at packet pick-up the day before. Both during regular workouts and race days, athletes conserve all of their mental energy for the race at hand.
Their adherence to a strict schedule translates well to the workplace. After all, how many times have you stopped to check a few emails at 9 a.m., only to look up and realize that it’s time for lunch?
2. They Anticipate Deviations To The Plan
Even the best-laid plans can be derailed by last-minute emergencies. With time on their hands before a big race, endurance athletes will forecast any and all potential disasters. “What if my bike breaks down? What if the weather gets too hot? What if I crash halfway through the race?” With these nightmare scenarios in mind, they can prepare themselves for the unforeseen obstacles.
“If my bike breaks down, I’ll move off the road and find a race official for assistance. If I start overheating, I’ll grab ice and slow down. If I lose my energy, I’ll ingest more carbs.”
Triathlon coach Matt Fitzgerald suggests that our amount of suffering stems from expectations: We’re less disappointed by setbacks when we’re not shellshocked by them. Approach your high-stakes projects with a similarly cautious mind-set. Once you’ve envisioned the worst-case scenarios and game-planned some alternatives, you’ll respond to unexpected setbacks more gracefully and rationally. While nobody is psychic, a proactive mind-set makes it less likely that a shoddy Skype connection or unreliable partner will sink your success.
3. They Get To The Root Of Their Underperformance
Have you ever put “spend three hours on social media” or “put off that performance review” on your to-do list? We never arrive at work excited to procrastinate the day away, nor do we strive to shoot ourselves in the foot. Yet we routinely undermine our own productivity by avoiding unpleasant tasks at work. Why, you ask?
When we ignore a specific work situation, we’re really resisting the underlying negative emotions that they produce. Not preparing for your big pitch to management? It could stem from your belief that you’re not worthy of success, anyway. Faking sick from another networking event? You could assume that you can’t spark interesting conversation, or that your skills and connections couldn’t possibly help anyone else.
But these self-defeating thoughts aren’t always based in reality, and Ironman and marathon finishers are as susceptible to them as us mere mortals. That’s why when ultra-marathon runner and adventure racer Travis Macy noticed that his own dysfunctional beliefs were undermining his training, he recognized them as fictional “stories” that can be rewritten.
In his book The Ultra Mindset, he counsels readers on how to rewrite their own stories to improve their performance, both in sports and in life.
- Step 1: Sit down and write the negative story.
- Step 2: Read it and reread it. Recognize it for what it is: just a few words—nothing that should have the power to rule you.
- Step 3: Write out a positive alternative that can be used to battle it, and find a new “plot” for your positive story. Could it be a new goal? Changing a behavior? Eliminating the negative?
- Step 4: Turn one or more of these positive affirmations into a mantra.
- Step 5: Determine what you will do to prove that the negative story is not true and that the positive story is true.
- Step 6: Repeat the actions above, in any order, as many times as they need to be repeated.
Next time you’re saving your presentation to the last second or skipping a networking event, investigate whether your own negative stories are behind that behavior. Once you answer those questions, you can attack the underlying issues and stop self-sabotage in its tracks.
4. They Optimize Work Conditions To Maximize Efficiency
Endurance athletes are constantly seeking an edge. In their attempt to grow stronger, they become students of their sport, often taking up additional activities like strength training and yoga to reach new levels of fitness. As he increased his weekly mileage to 110 miles per week, ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek explored every possible avenue to become stronger. In his book Eat and Run, Jurek describes his own open-minded process of development.
“I was reading more about posture and stabilization and core strength. I hit the gym, working on my upper body, because I was beginning to realize how much a strong torso and arms could propel tired legs. I experimented with Pilates. I took up yoga for flexibility, body awareness, and centered focus. I even tinkered with my breathing.”
Jurek’s experimentation has netted him enormous success: He’s won more than 10 100-plus mile races. So whether you’re an executive or an entry-level employee, seek unconventional ways to broaden your skill set. Learning how to use a new piece of software may not turn you into a Silicon Valley billionaire, but your knowledge could save you some time and headache in the future. Practical benefits aside, lifelong learning has also been found to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and depression among seniors.
Whether you’re training for an Ironman or gunning for a promotion, take some productivity tips from the endurance pros. Pace yourself. Get fit. Plan for the long term. Eke out every performance boost you can.
After all, your 40-year career is the ultimate endurance sport.