The Morning Call (Sunday)
Strengthen Your Mental Stamina Like a Pro
Endurance athletes have a lot to tell us about how to thrive in the pandemic.
THERE’S A SPECIAL KIND of exhaustion that the world’s best endurance athletes embrace. When fatigue sends legs and lungs to their limits, they are able to push through to a gear beyond their pain threshold. These athletes approach fatigue not with fear but as an opportunity. It’s a quality that allows an ultramarathoner to endure the rough segment of a race, or a sailor to push ahead through hurricane winds.
The drive to persevere is something some are born with, but it’s also a muscle everyone can learn to flex. And in a way, everyone has become an endurance athlete of sorts during this pandemic, running a race with no finish line that tests the limits of exhaustion.
Some of the world’s best extreme athletes shared what they do when they think they’ve reached their last straw. How do they not only endure, but thrive in daily challenges? One message they all had: You are stronger than you think you are, and you can adapt in ways you didn’t think possible. But here are a few techniques to help you along — 100-mile race not required.
Training to become an elite endurance athlete means learning to embrace discomfort. Instead of hiding from pain, athletes must learn to work with it. A lot of that comes down to pacing, the sports psychologist Carla Meijen said.
Similarly, as you muscle through an ongoing pandemic, you must look for ways to make peace with unknowns and uncomfortable realities. “When we think about the coronavirus, we are in it for the long run; so how do you pace yourself?” asked Dr. Meijen, a senior lecturer at St Mary’s University in London.
She recommends thinking about your routines, practicing positive self-talk and focusing on processes instead of outcomes.
Conrad Anker knows something about pacing oneself. The celebrated 57-year-old mountaineer, who has summited Mount Everest three times, advises people to “always have a little in reserve.”
Deplete your resources early and you’ll be in trouble. If you burn out all your mental energy in one day or week, you may find it more difficult to adapt when things don’t return to normal. “When you get to the summit and you use every single iota of energy and calories to get to the summit, and you don’t have the strength to get down, then you’re setting yourself up for an accident or for something to go wrong,” Mr. Anker said.
Sports psychologists frequently recommend creating smaller milestones en route to a big goal. There are many steps on the path from base camp to a mountain’s summit. Likewise, there are smaller, more achievable milestones to celebrate as you venture ahead into the unknown.
“Setting goals that are controllable makes it easier to adapt,” Dr. Meijen said. “If you set goals that are controlled by other people, goals that aren’t realistic or are tough or boring, those are much harder to adapt to.”
The professional ultrarunner Coree Woltering is skilled at conquering mini-goals. He has stood on the podium after races from 50 kilometers to 100 miles. This summer, he set his sights on breaking the running record on the Ice Age Trail: 1,147 miles across Wisconsin. He ran over 50 miles a day for three weeks in a row to accomplish the feat.
“I’m really good at breaking things down into small increments and setting micro-goals,” he said. How micro?
“I break things down to 10 seconds at a time,” Mr. Woltering continued. “You just have to be present in what you are doing and you have to know that it may not be the most fun — or superpainful — now, but that could change in 10 seconds down the road.”
Mr. Woltering said he has spent six-hour stretches counting to 10 over and over again. “You just keep moving and keep counting,” he said. “And you have to have faith that it will change at some point.”
Dee Caffari, a British sailor and the first woman to sail solo, nonstop, around the world in both directions, said structure is imperative to fight back loneliness and monotony. On the sea, Ms. Caffari would base her structure around a twice-daily weather