Elite endurance athletes tend to have more tricks to translate hard work into top performances by tilting things in their favour. These are not only practices that help the athletes go a few paces faster, but also the less talked about strategies athletes use to stay mindful during their gruelling training and races.
Tested and re-tested over countless kilometres, these practices from the world’s best endurance athletes can help you find your inner champion and put you ahead of the pack.
Get Ready, Set – For Pre-Race Rituals
Elite athletes know that what they do before the race can determine how they perform in those few hours on the course. Training and drills go a long way, but lifestyle habits can also make a big difference.
Triathlete Alistair Brownlee, who won gold at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, says that the key to his success has been staying happy and comfortable in his training schedule. Boredom is a common downfall in endurance sports, so Brownlee suggests taking up exercise that you enjoy rather than just running on a treadmill or lifting weights at the gym. The training should also not be a burden.
“You have to be happy to get up and train everyday,” Brownlee told Esquire magazine. “I get up at 6.30am to go training at 7am, but only three days a week. The rest of the time I’m pretty lazy.”
The training schedule has to fit you and not the other way around, says Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall.
“Runners tend to get so married to a program that if they deviate from it they see that as a failure when in actuality, it is the program that should be adjusting continually for the athlete’s changing day-to-day needs,” he told Runner’s World. “If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing it.”
Adjusting the training regime to suit your needs can be as simple as adding new types of exercise that are not directly linked to your core sport.
Aside from her rigorous running, cycling and swimming regimen, triathlete Julie Ertel would do yoga-inspired exercises twice a week. She stood on each leg to work on her balance and saw her running times improve substantially as a result. Cyclist Kristin Armstrong also incorporated yoga as part of her preparation for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and went on to win gold in the road time trial.
As it gets closer to race day, the athletes face the added challenge of trying to relax at the same time as their adrenaline pumps up in anticipation of the big event. A popular way to reduce stress among top-level athletes is to set aside technology and reduce social media use ahead of competition.
Double Olympic medallist Simon Whitfield is among the proponents of this tactic. The triathlete recalls how much technology distracted him at the height of his competitive career and advocates stashing the cell phone in favour of mindful reflection.
His advice for reaching the penultimate level of focus? Meditate.
“There is no physical – it’s all mental,” Whitfield told CBC. “The single most important thing you can do, in my opinion, is learn to meditate.”
Even if you don’t have the time or the patience to meditate, there are quick mind tricks that can help you relax before the race. Whitfield likes to wind down with an enjoyable book, while Desiree Linden, who finished seventh in the marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games, told NBC that she makes an effort to eat breakfast with the funniest person she knows on the morning of the race. Linden also repeats the mantra, “calm, calm, calm, relax, relax, relax” to set herself up for success.
Go! And Stay Mindful During the Race
Staying relaxed once the race starts is an even bigger challenge. Elite endurance athletes rely on mindfulness techniques to reach a state of calm even as their bodies push past the comfort zone.
One way athletes reduce stress is by ditching high-tech gadgets and relying on their senses instead. “Listen to sensory data,” elite marathoner Renee Metivier Baillie told Runner’s World. “Instead of getting hung up on numbers, focus internally on the feedback provided by your senses. How is your breathing? How do you know you’re relaxed? Does your stride feel smooth and comfortable? When you learn to read your body, you become more present and your running flows organically.”
Lynn Jennings, a three-time World Cross Country champion, does not wear a watch during her training runs to resist the temptation to compare her times. “For me, running is a lifestyle and an art. I’m far more interested in the magic of it than the mechanics,” she told Men’s Health.
Meb Keflezighi, the winner of the 2009 New York Marathon and the 2014 Boston Marathon, is a master of tuning in to his sensory data. He monitors and evaluates his form throughout each race by doing a body check every two or three miles.
He advises warming up and getting into the rhythm of the race before starting on these checks. “Starting out, I’m mostly telling myself to relax. Once I’m in a rhythm, I start monitoring: Is my cadence okay? Are my shoulders low? Is my posture good? How am I doing?,” Keflezighi writes in his book, Meb for Mortals. “If something seems wrong, for the next 50 or 100 meters, make bettering that your focus.”
Opportunities abound for Keflezighi who does his body checks by glancing at himself in storefront windows and glass bus stops, or even tracking his shadow.
Motivation can be found not only by improving your own form, but by looking at fellow competitors. Gayle Barron, the 1978 Boston Marathon champion, uses visualization to improve her running, but when she goes to the starting line, she picks out someone from the field who is running well and looks relaxed, and tries to copy their strides.
After the Finish Line
Elite athletes regularly have to deal with the disappointment of finishing a bad race. To stay from feeling discouraged, many keep a journal to track their training and overall progress.
Documenting her journey has helped Olympic triathlete champion Gwen Jorgensen keep a positive attitude. She keeps a journal where she writes three things she does well every day and three things she needs to improve on. “If I need confidence, I look back on those three things I do well and that’s what gives me confidence going into a race,” Jorgensen told Triathlete magazine.
Rower Seth Weil lists his workouts in a journal. He says this helps him to see how well he trained, to stay on track and to return to the training more easily after an injury or time off.
Another post-race consideration is the toll endurance activities can take on the body and the need for good recovery. Elite athletes know that rest time is crucial for long and injury-free success. As Alistair Brownlee told Esquire magazine, “Overdoing it is definitely the best way to get injured.”
Brownlee’s younger brother Jonny, who won silver and bronze medals in triathlon at the Olympic Games, agrees. “Training consistently is important, but at the same time you have to accept that you can’t always do the training you want to do,” Jonny Brownlee told The Telegraph. “If work has been busy or you’ve been on holiday, don’t rush yourself back into it. Rest up and train properly when you are ready.”
While it may seem strange for Olympic medallists to advise taking it easy, the sentiment is a common one among professional athletes – and for good reason, considering what’s at stake.
“Back off at the first sign of injury,” two-time Olympian runner PattiSue Plumer told Men’s Health. “Three to five days off is better than missing a month or two. Take regular days off.”
When in doubt, follow the advice South African marathoner Bruce Fordyce, a nine-time Comrades Marathon champion, shared with Men’s Health: “During the hard training phase, never be afraid to take a day off. If your legs are feeling unduly stiff and sore, rest. If you’re at all sluggish, rest. Whenever you’re in doubt, rest.”
Recovery methods vary for athletes. Two-time Olympian Anne Marie Lauck soaks in a hot tub every day and gets a weekly massage when she’s training for a marathon. Meanwhile marathon swimmer Keri-Anne Payne swears by eight hours of sleep at night to stave off illness and injury.
Skipping or scaling down workouts can bring a sense of guilt, but professional athletes know that changes to training schedules are inevitable. Aside from unexpected life events, athletes adjust their training depending on weather and season to reduce the stress on their bodies.
Cyclist Jillian Patterson reduces her training in cold months while fellow cyclist Kristin Armstrong keeps fit by snowshoeing and Nordic skate-skiing in the mountains during the winter season.
For marathon swimmer Maarten van der Weijden, who won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games after surviving leukemia, the end result is all a matter of perspective. He told 220 Triathlon magazine that he gained a more relaxed view of sports over time and this ultimately helped him to succeed.
“I always used to get very nervous before a race and, in my mind, a bad race was the worst thing that could happen,” van der Weijden said. “After my [cancer] treatment, of course, I realized that a bad race is far from the worst thing that can happen. I’d never want to say that my illness helped me win Olympic gold – there’s no way a bone-marrow transplant can help me physically – but the whole thing did help put things in perspective.”