One of my favourite combination of words in the English language; Endurance Challenge. It at once elicits excitement, fear, curiosity, apprehension, ambition and an understanding of the inevitable pain and suffering that is to follow. I think it’s the last part that makes me look forward to the challenge the most.
Now I’m no Mike Horn or David Goggins, but I have had a few decent endurance challenges in my short career. Since getting obsessed with these pursuits in 2014, I’ve cycled the length of Australia, climbed multiple mountains over 5,000 metres, run an ultramarathon, cycled the length of Vietnam, completed multi-day treks on 6 continents, walked 100km in under 24 hours (twice) and ‘hiked’ to the height of Everest on a treadmill in 15 hours. Now again, that might not sound like a lot to many of you endurance junkies, but I have come along way since not being able to run 5km back in 2014… The journey is only just beginning. Right now I’m training for a 57km ultra and a climb of Aconcagua, a 6,963 metre peak in South America.
What I wanted to go through in this article, is how I choose what challenge I want to tackle, how I structure a plan to get there and how I prepare both mentally and physically for the ordeal. Even if you’re an experienced athlete, I hope you can take something away from my own experiences.
Choosing the Right Challenge
Firstly, if the challenge doesn’t excite you and doesn’t encourage a little bit of fear, it’s probably best to avoid it.
Ultimately, what it comes down to however, is your WHY. Once you get to kilometre 70 in a 100km run and you’re tired, worn down, destroyed… what’s going to keep you pushing through? I can assure you, it won’t be motivation. It has to be a drive from deep within. Anything superficial on the surface just won’t cut it. For me it’s always been about testing myself, finding out what I’m capable of, what my soul can handle. That means that I need to constantly push the limits and exceed what I’ve done previously. Otherwise the event doesn’t fulfill its purpose and I lose drive to complete it.
Now I also want to ALWAYS have an event on the horizon. If it’s longer term (say 6 months +), i’ll schedule a few smaller events that will help me prepare and keep me focused. As soon as my calendar’s free and I’m not training for something specific, I really don’t train at all.. I don’t know about you, but I’m not really one for enjoying my training, unless I know it’s making me better and it’s getting me closer to reach a specific goal. I would NEVER run or cycle just for fitness or for a hobby. That’s why it’s so important for me to always be working towards something specific. I’m sure many of you know how quickly you lose fitness and how hard it is to get back to that previous level once you stop training. So yes, always be pushing.
Building the Experience
I believe there’s a fine line between ‘sensibly’ confronting a huge challenge that’s well outside your comfort zone and being completely unprepared for it. Some things you’re never going to have enough experience for unless you actually do them. Climbing Everest being an example. Whatever you do leading up to it, it’s going to be outside your comfort zone (unless you’ve just climbed K2). So it’s a matter of building enough experience with smaller challenges until you deem yourself ready to tackle the big one. This can be hard to judge and there appear to be two types of personalities when it comes to that self-evaluation.
Firstly are those who believe they can take on any challenge no matter what their experience. They’re ready to take on an ultra-marathon with practically zero training. This was me in the early days. A combination of bravado and naivety can be deadly combination in the endurance realm. That being said, a certain amount of ego (and dare I say naivety?) is required to tackle a challenge that’s well outside your comfort zone, even if you objectively appear to have the required experience. This can often be a preferable trait to the second type…
Those who are always waiting to be ready. The ‘one day’ crowd. The ‘oh I’d need a good 12 months of training to be ready for that one’ type. Yes, they always have grand ideas but never actually get around to putting them into action. Unfortunately, these types are likely to be left with a lot of what-ifs when all is said and done.
I believe the balance lies somewhere between the two, though I’d say highly skewed towards the first. If you want to do something, commit, sign up, book, whatever you have to do, then start preparing as best you possibly can.
Don’t leave those questions unanswered.
Garnering the Right Skills
Experience is one thing, skills can be another. An ultra running event across relatively nontechnical terrain will require significant running experience covering vast distances. It won’t however, require any real technical skills. Kite-surfing across Greenland however, is a different ballgame. So when it comes to skill requirement, I’d shift the balance between the personality types listed above a little more towards the second.
With many endurance challenges, the battle is mostly mental. You can will yourself through a hell of a lot more than you realise. That’s why the gung-ho approach is often the best course. When technical skill is required however, it adds a different element. Why do you think so many people get into problems when climbing Everest let’s say? Look, on a good day with perfect conditions and Sherpa support, you can probably get to the summit and back down with minimal technical mountaineering experience. Perhaps a high level of fitness and an ability to suffer would see you through. What happens though, if you start to develop High Altitude Pulmonary Edema? Would you know the symptoms? What if a white out develops and you lose sight of your climbing team? Would you be able to remain calm and find the best course of action? Likely not, and that’s where the real trouble starts. That’s why lives are lost.
Last year I went on an expedition to Denali, the highest mountain in North America. I knew there were crevasse dangers on the whole route, I knew we would be self supprted, there were avalanche risks and I would have to be pretty damn competent in the mountains to be ok. Although I’d had a reasonable amount of non-technical mountaineering experience, I took a 7 day alpine course to ensure I could get out of a crevasse, that I knew what avalance dangers looked like and that I could take care of myself if trouble arose. The climb was much more comfortable and enjoyable as a result.
Get your skills upto, if not above the minimum competency required for the task you’re about to undertake. That way you can focus on the grind and not waste so much energy thinking about the technical elements.
The Physical Preperation
Getting physically prepared for an endurance challenge will vary significantly dependent on what the actual pursuit you’ve chosen is.
I’ll give one strong piece of advice that is highly hypocritical of me, but something I unquestionably see the benefit in. Get a Coach. I’ve rarely used coaches in putting together training plans or schedules except in strength relate domains. I always figured I could work it out myself, with a little help online from Dr Google. It never optimizes results.
Coaches serve benefits on multiple planes, not just in structuring a training program. They provide accountability and therefore motivation to stick to the plan and get workouts in when you don’t feel like it. They can objectively assess where you’re at in terms of preparation, something we’re generally pretty bad at. They can help with technique, be it running form, cycling aerodynamics or swimming stroke.
Then of course, there’s the actual training structure with the various elements involved. I strongly believe that many endurance athletes should be doing more strength training. Not only is this an injury prevention strategy, it dramatically improves performance. Look at any professional sporting team these days. No matter what the sport, I can almsot guarantee they have a strength coach and are doing strength training on a consistent basis. That doesn’t mean only weights. I’ve found the best strength training for me to be gymnastics and calisthenics. I don’t get the real tightness and joint pain that comes with lifting heavy weights and it seems to get you just as strong.
Remember, training is there to get you prepared for the event you’re about to do. Now, no training will properly replicate the intensity and level of the event itself, but you should try and get it as close as possible. This is definitely something I’ve learnt with experience. I want to train just as hard as I think the event will be.
The Mental Preperation
As important as physical preparation is, the mental aspect is at least twice as important. Again, your training should best replicate the mental state you will be in for your chosen pursuit. If that means 5 days straight of intense physical exertion, that will be hard to fully replicate, but you must give your mind a glimpse into what you’re in for.
Most importantly, is training your ability to suffer. In any endurance activity, if you’re doing it right, you will suffer. That shouldn’t be a surprise to you when you’re halfway through an event. It should be a familiar feeling, not a foreign one. You should be welcoming the pain like an old friend you’ve been expecting to visit. Ah there you are my old chum, now let’s see if I can take you up a few notches this time.
Another aspect of mental preparation that is almost universally utilised in the upper echelons of performance is visualisation.
Visulisation creates nervous system responses similar to those used when actually performing the physical action. It’s perfect for getting in tune with exactly what the event will look and feel like. Check out this video of Michael Phelps’ coach talking about how visualisation helped make Phelps the most dominant Olympian of all time;
During An Event
Rule number 1 is what’s known as ‘chunking’. That is, breaking the challenge down into small bite sized chunks to avoid getting overwhelmed and disheartened. In a running event, it could be getting to the next checkpoint. In an English channel crossing it could be getting to the next food break. In a multi day event it makes sense to take things day by day. Chunking is particularly useful during particularly difficult spells when quitting seems like the preferred option. If you find this to be the case, set yourself a goal of simply getting to the next obvious point and assess how you’re feeling then. With a rest, some good nutrition and a new target, it’s more than likely you’ll be ready to go again.
People keep themselves motivated in different ways during physical challenges and there are no steadfast rules about how to tackle them. Some like to let their mind drift and think about anything but the pain they’re in at the present moment. Some listen to music that inspires them and takes their mind to a different place. The mindset requried will vary dependent on whether you’re looking to alleviate fatigue or whether you’re generally struggling to push through and starting to have self-doubts. if the latter, it usually pays to think deeply about why you signed up for this and why you put so much time and effort to get to this point. This is why it’s crucially important to have a genuine ‘why’ before you choose to tackle something that will push you past your limits. For David Goggins, one of the most inspiring athletes alive (seriously, go and read or hear his story), he has a tool that he refers to as the ‘cookie jar‘. This is a mental reserve of all the amazing things you’ve managed to get through over your journey so far. All the struggles and all the obstacles you’ve overcome. It’s to remind you of what a badass you really are and what you’re capable of when all is said and done.
What really matters, is understanding your own motivation and using that to fuel you.
There are multiple other aspects to consider during an event of course- nutrition, support crew, pacing but those are a little outside the scope of this article and specific to your situation. We’ll have to look at those another time.
In the meantime, stop procrastinating. Sign up and make the commitment.
Challenge yourself. Keep pushing, keep grinding and get after it.
I’ll see you out there.