The Making of an Endurance Athlete

Aug 2018. I have been writing weekly articles for Bicycle Network to assist the Around the Bay athletes get a little bit of a kick up the butt each week with some coaching and motivation and guidance from me!

A few weeks ago I wrote this piece on what I feel it is to be an Endurance Athlete. 
I still love the 'magic' that is on the journey of going long.

Thanks for listening, hope you can resonate with it.

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  1. the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.

"she was close to the limit of her endurance"

        2. the capacity of something to last or to withstand wear and tear.

Making the Endurance Athlete

What does it really mean to “go long”?
Have you ever said, or had someone say to you, “I couldn’t do that”, in relation to a 200km bike ride?
Have you ever doubted yourself about accomplishing something BIG and scary? 
Have you put off entering an event for fear of failure or maybe even you are just not sure how to get to that space?

What do people who are Endurance Athletes possess that others don’t?

I personally believe it is a desire and a want to find out what you can do and what happens when you push yourself beyond what you have ever done before.

Like I said before, some will say they could not do what you have just done.
I prefer to ask them, “Well do you want to? Or do you not want to? That is the question. We can do anything, but you have to WANT to.”
I love this quote, “We are born with a body that can cope with almost anything, it’s our minds we have to convince.”

To endure, to be an endurance athlete, to go long, we must first be willing to go longer and further than those around us, and often it can feel like a lonely place. It is no social ride to the coffee shop and back, it is a journey that takes you metaphorically to another solar system.
Beyond our world of what we know and what we trust, into a world that is scary only because you really get to meet the real you, the one that wants to be challenged but also wants to finish now so the pain will stop.
The one that wants to do what others fear but also fearing the moment when you wish you stayed home in bed and did normal things like a 5km Park Run that was over and done within 30 minutes.

Every endurance athlete I have ever met has one thing in common and that is an almost addictive desire to find something bigger, more amazing and more challenging than the last one.

I have a belief that those who sign up for the challenge know that out of the adversity, the pain, the suffering comes growth. That growth creates meaning and purpose and also expands into other areas of your life. Nothing is ever impossible again.
It is the bliss of being pushed to your limits, to breaking point and coming out of it the other side euphoric and wisened.  
Those who go long, those who choose to endure do so because the reward of making it to the other side can be reminisced for the rest of your years, and shine brighter than any polished trophy.  
And thankfully, once you start the journey, you will find there are in fact many MANY others just like you - the Endurance Athlete.

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The Mind

Some might say, you are born with the desire to push your limits for longer, that you have the gift to endure.
Is it nature or nurture?  No matter the answer it is the choice of a mindset that allows the endurance athlete in choosing to be uncomfortable.  
Most of us can handle a short period of this, knowing it will be over soon and we can sit down on the couch later after our 30 minute HIIT gym session at the other end of the extreme.  

I think that once any athlete, any aspiring person that wants to learn how to enjoy the process, relinquishes some control and accepts they are in it for the long haul, that is when the mind can start to work for you and almost turn the unknown into a piece of meditative escapism from life.

No longer are you fighting the fear of what it is going to be like to do the longest bike ride of your life so far, you have now entered into the journey. This process becomes a metaphor for life, light bulbs will go off, epiphanies and solutions come to the forefront of your mind and a sense of warmth fills you.

Instead of resisting you learn that the pain and suffering is valuable feedback that you are now on the right track.  You know get to focus on some simple processes and checklists, to keep your body doing its job.
Eat, drink, stay engaged, maintain good form, think good thoughts, take action, move forward, ride the highs, ride the lows.
Time passes and thoughts come and go, your primary goal is to keep progressing forward and how you do that is now up to you and your most basic instincts.

The mind controls the engine room, the longer you go the more important the role it has.

  • Be willing to relinquish some control to the unknown
  • Embrace the challenge of engaging your mind into an action state
  • Feed your mind the Best Case Scenario knowing you have already worked out the worst
  • Greet the pain and suffering as a friend you were expecting to meet along the way, thank it
  • Let go of your fears and just take the step forward into the action phase
  • Keep fueling the mind, to think you need fuel, if you get brain fade feed it!
  • Create Cue Points and mantras, rotate through these to keep mind aligned with body and actions
  • Welcome the bad times, for on the flip side there will be magical awesome times of clarity

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The Body

Invest in a body that is strong and able to withstand the longer duration of hard work.

A body that can recover well, even during an endurance event, there are opportunities for micro rests and utilising your efficiencies to fatigue later.  
A body that can ride the roller coaster of pain, accept feedback and respond with action instead of stopping. This could be a sore knee, that is linked with a weaker left glute that requires you to focus on using it and instantly you can feel that knee pain has subsided.  
Body awareness takes investment in time, investment in linking your intimate knowledge of self and be engaged in the process to take the correct action.
One of the best ways to gain this expert knowledge is to ride more and to gain the expert opinions from health professionals in the know.  
Arm yourself with the tools to allow your body to ‘stay in the game’.

A long distance endurance athlete very rarely goes through an event pain-free.

It’s a tug of war between mind and body in trying to tell you to slow down, change position, please stop, to refocus on correct technique and this cycle of messages will continue most of the event.

Your aim to create the perfect Endurance Body is to:

  • Nail your technique so that functionality on the bike is 2nd nature, pedaling a bike for hours on end is like you were born this way
  • Work on your musculoskeletal imbalances and be aware of the cues that bring them back in line
  • Be aware that the mind will try to protect the body well before you have reached the breaking point
  • Strengthen all weak points with preventative strength and core work, including stretches
  • Ensure you have a near perfect bike fit, with saddle, hand and cleat positions working to align you correctly on the bike
  • Ride the pain wave, and learn to respond with action

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The thing I fear most about endurance events is nutrition. The very thing that is the essence of life, the joy of eating good food, soon becomes more chore-like and can even make you feel a little ill.

When you are tired, or mentally fatigued, or feeling a bit queasy, it's very challenging to ask yourself to eat something, and especially a sweet energy bar or gel or to drink your sweet electrolyte drink.  This all just seems like too much and I along with many others have made the mistake of avoiding taking on food and drink because of this.

To move forward using your own steam, you need fuel.

Our body can store up to 2 hrs of energy in the form of glycogen in our muscles and liver for use without us fueling it but after that our energy system can convert fat and muscle into glycogen, but its a process that takes time and extra resources.  
When you have bonked (ran out of energy), you will have noticed you can keep going but only slowly, maybe 20-22 kmph instead of the 30 kmph you were doing, as your body is now converting your fuel sources to useable energy.
It is not very efficient but you can crawl home and your recovery post-event will be longer. In endurance events real food is ideal.

This is my rule of thumb for endurance riding:

100 km and under you can get away with gels and a bar or two and maybe a peanut butter sandwich. I would use the recommended solution of carbs and electrolyte mix, not weaken it down.

100 - 200 km - 1 gel as an emergency. Normal solution for electrolyte/carb mix in drinks. More real food and a mix of savory and sweet.

200 + Km - 1 gel as emergency only. A weaker solution of drink mix. More real food and a mix of savory and sweet and some shorter stops to get off the bike and ingest food properly which might include stopping at a bakery for a vegetable pastie with tomato sauce or something like that which really satisfies you without overdoing it.

  • Eat Often
  • Drink Often
  • Even when you’re not thirsty, even when you’re not hungry
  • Food is fuel, fuel runs your body, endurance events require regular food and drink delivered throughout the event.

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The non-tangibles - the essence of ‘enduring’

It’s a willingness to enter another realm, even your first 100km event will take you to a higher place of self-esteem and self-sufficiency.
There is nothing quite like getting from A to B over a period of time that often equates to a day at work, knowing you did it by yourself.
We’re humans designed to endure.

Is it not in our nature to search for these challenges? Have we forgotten to be brave?

We should search for opportunities to escapism. To get lost in the simple act of survival.

Ride, Eat, Drink, Take Action to Move Forward. Consistent persistent effort over a longer period of time.

Endurance events are on a Micro level a reflection of a life lived, with highs and lows and facing up to hard work that no one else will do for us, we must get there with our own steam and drive.

Through events where we Endure we learn:

  • Resilience
  • Flexibility - Doing life on the fly, being ready to adjust plans
  • We are capable of much more than we allow ourselves
  • Our bodies are stronger than we know, it's our minds we have to convince
  • Through suffering comes enlightenment and perhaps “cracking the code of life”
  • To ride emotional highs and life, they come and go and are often not a reflection of the reality of our situation, they are just emotions. We can choose how we respond.
  • Endurance creates great strength and we all need this in our lives

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“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Theodore Roosevelt