To Everything There Is A Season

I was taught a valuable lesson late last year, whilst nursing heartache and damaged ligaments in the frosty city of Nantes, France.

There are genuine seasons to our lives, and the well-adjusted and resilient person and athlete is one who understands this and adjusts accordingly. Different elements of our increasingly complex lives rear their heads at different stages, and beg our time and attention – increased work load, relationship and family demands, injury and illness, to name but a few.

Unless we are prepared to lead entirely selfish lives, serving only ourselves as it suits us, then we are just bound to be faced with situations in which our limited time and energy is stretched into compartments that we might not typically choose to prioritise.

This was not something that I accepted at the time with as much grace as I might have hoped.

As a twenty-four year old aspiring athlete, with limited strings attached and no serious obligations, it is all too easy to lead, for the most part, a life that suits me just fine. I am blessed to be living in a nation in which I can readily make a liveable hourly wage, allowing me the time to train as obsessively and eagerly as I may be inspired to at the time. I am known for my relatively non-typical and seemingly care-free adult life – able to be found rock climbing, or wrestling, or ocean-swimming, or trail running during the middle of any given workday.

In Nantes, I was faced with serious, adult-life situations to navigate; carrying with them serious, adult-life emotional trauma. Despite my simmering injury, and despite the ever-mounting issues surrounding my personal life at the time, I was as inspired as I had ever been to train, and to pursue my goals (this April’s marathon swim being one of them). As the waters surrounding my life became murkier and increasingly complicated, and my mental health dipped, the meditative task of manual physical training was more appealing than it had ever been.

The problem was that I couldn’t train.

Or I could, but I felt like shit; on a physical and deeply emotional level. The direct link that my self-esteem and sense of worth has with my ability to train hard and perform is perhaps an unfortunate one, but the subject of a much longer article. Perfectionism has only recently become a word that I might use to describe the sometimes unhealthy standards that I impose on myself in the athletic realm, but it was certainly painfully obvious in my life at that point.

I would try to simply push through these painful and emotionally-arduous French workouts, blindly ignoring my screaming muscles, my consciously rising stress and anger levels, and my complete fatigue, with the hope that the act of training might dampen the heartache that I was experiencing at that moment.

What eventually became apparent to me, through a combination of my beautiful partner Julie, and my long-time podcast hero and unknowing mentor Rich Roll, was that a different paradigm of thinking was required here. I couldn’t simply keep pushing my body, with the hope that said pushing might make everything feel okay again.

It’s easy to throw around useless phrases like “no pain, no gain”, and to feel compelled to push through unpleasantness, as I often feel myself. It may seem to contradict some of my other writings, as I do sincerely believe that we are all capable of so much more – but blindly following this kind of ‘push through anything’ thinking, with no genuine reflection on the pain’s cause or the message it’s trying to send, is a great way to physically work yourself into injury or illness, and to dig a deeper mental hole for ourselves.

Sometimes we need to rethink our approach to hardship – I certainly had to here.

You can’t always push. You can’t bench press your way out of chemical depression, or outrun anxiety. I think as athletes, and maybe particularly as men, being kind to ourselves is bizarrely interpreted as being ‘soft’.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – Cree Proverb

My time and attention were truly demanded elsewhere, to more important things and to people more important than myself, and I needed to allow them to drift – crucially, with the self confidence that my time and attention would return, and I could turn them to the things that drove me once again.

Dialing it off and on,” was the phrase used by Julie and myself, in regards to my training and my lofty goals.

I needed to accept the temporary loss of control, and perhaps a temporary and slight loss in fitness and capability, and be self-assured in the knowledge that I could bring it right back whenever I had the time again. I had to make my peace with the fact that the things that I typically did on a daily basis, which brought happiness and meaning into my life, would be gone for only a brief moment – and to assure myself that I had the ability and desire to bring them back, whenever I had the chance.

After all, this was only three months of my life – God help me if something genuinely life-altering or career-ending had happened to me. I was reminded of the Modern Family line, “I don’t think I’d make a very inspiring disabled person”, and I laughed to myself.

This was a difficult but necessary step for me to make, as a person and as an athlete.

I realised that I don’t comfortably cede control away from myself. I realised that the symbiotic relationship between my sense of self and my capabilities was unhealthy, and that my sense of self in general was far too limited in scope and determinate on fleeting things. I realised how fortunate I am to have found a partner as loving, as compassionate and as unconditionally supportive as I have.

Now that I am back in Australia, I look back at this three month patch of my short life as one deep in emotional teachings. At the time, it seemed that I was slipping further and further away from my goals, and that there was no conceivable end it sight. I appeared to genuinely believe that a mild reduction in training volume over the course of those months may somehow alter the course of my life irreversibly – as if a window was closing, and would never open again.

Letting my expectations of myself willingly drop feels like a distant memory now – I am comfortably the fittest I have ever been, seeing huge improvement in my strength, endurance and willpower – but the lessons are obvious and lingering.

Have some real confidence in yourself and who you are, and, for God’s sake, stop taking yourself so seriously.

Embracing A Work With No End

Strength does not come from a physical capacity; it comes from an indomitable will.” Mahatma Gandhi

The endurance world is dotted by the occasional resilient outlier – those few athletes who seem able to just put their head down and work through discomfort, without condition or complaint, seemingly indefinitely.

Those in a similar vein as famed Navy SEAL David Goggins, noted for his unparalleled capacity for suffering, enduring and succeeding; be it winning the death-defying Badwater 217 kilometre ultra-marathon in Death Valley, enduring the infamous Navy SEAL BUD/S course an unprecedented three times, or completing the most strict pull-ups in twenty-four hours (4030 repetitions).

Obviously, as I have rambled on about it in near every article thus far, we all possess this ability to some extent – and it’s trainable. I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by, and in one case raised by, a few individuals with a remarkably high threshold for resigning to a fate of indeterminate physical work. Moreover, I have slowly learnt what I believe to be a genuinely useful and easily applied method for developing this desirable trait over time.

My father has, for exact reasons largely unknown to me, held this capacity for at least as long as I have been around to see it. Perhaps the greatest example of this was when he joined me in my first dedicated Misogi attempt in early 2018 – an effort encompassing one hundred repetitions of one hundred metre sprints, followed by bench-pressing, dead-lifting and squating a barbell set to a weight of one hundred kilograms, one hundred times each. Needless to say, it was unbelievably tough for a historically endurance-based athlete like myself, and it ended up being almost six hours of maximal strength efforts.

At least I had the foresight of knowing when the event was to take place, and preparing appropriately. My father, on the other hand, arrived with little over a days notice, and without the knowledge of exactly what we were doing, or even exactly what a dead-lift actually was. He just understood that it was going to be tough for a while.

Halfway through the self-imposed ordeal, and struggling, I asked him how long he had been expecting this whole thing might take – to which he replied, “I had no idea, I was just going to keep lifting until you told me to stop.

I don’t know if he realised it at the time, but that one sentence spoken almost twelve months ago has echoed in my mind in most every training session I have undertaken since. He was just prepared to undertake a difficult task with no idea as to when he might finish it, and endure until there was simply no more work to be done. I think learning to adopt this approach may be one of the elusive mental formulas that can greatly increase athletic performance.

A long-time training partner of mine, Danny, rather famously ran a 105 kilometre ultramarathon with me (in an very respectable time) despite muscular cramping and vomiting as early as the nineteen kilometre mark. Most athletes would realise that, at that stage, they are in for at least another ten hours of unavoidably horrific exercise, and understandably pull the pin. Danny evidently is not most people, and instead put his head down and somehow managed to get the distance done while never once opening his mouth to complain.

This bizzare acceptance style of thinking very closely mirrors the BUD/S-required mindset that the earlier mentioned David Goggin’s explained in his appearance on the Joe Rogan Podcast late last year, where he simply resigned himself willingly to a new life of ice cold-water, harsh sand, mental anguish and sleep deprivation for just as long as it took.

This is my new life, this is my new home until I get this shit done.”

This sentiment was again further echoed by Ross Edgley, when he explained how he came to terms with five full months spent swimming around England – six hours on, six hours off, for every single day, without fail. Ross peacefully came to terms with a new established base-line; mild to severe physical pain and cold temperatures were his new home, and pain a welcome and expected friend.

It’s all well and good to stand back and marvel over those few who truly hold this capacity, but the truly useful thing to do would be to learn how to acquire this for ourselves. Such unconditional and unwavering resilience surely reaches further than just the athletic realm, spilling over into our personal and professional lives.

I have found the simple task of training around the hour, rather than a target like distance or energy expenditure, to be unbelievably beneficial in building the capacity for mental resilience. At a glance, it may seem overly simplistic, but my experience in training has found that sessions based around a time-oriented goal facilitate an adaptation to sheer work capacity and endurance better than any other method thus far.

This works for the exact same reason that I have dreaded the idea of a 24-hour race for the entirety of my young sporting career. Simply, there’s nothing you can do. There’s absolutely no control that you can influence over how long a task will take anymore. A late-stage push to the finish line, like in a conventional race, is futile – time waits for no one.

Instead, these difficult races call for a different kind of head-space – the acceptance mindset. You can’t just dig deep, ramp up the intensity and get home before it’s dark and your headlight drops out. Rather, you have to make your peace with such a sudden absence of power, put your head willingly down, and just work until it’s done.

Swimming around the hour, rather than by a distance goal, has so far done wonders for my ability to ease into a three hour swim as if just getting into the bath. I don’t even look at my watch to see how my progress is going anymore. I just swim, and try to relax and let my mind drift where it wants to, until my wrist starts buzzing and the session is complete. The process becomes much more like a form of meditation than athletic training, but the physical results are similarly undeniable. It takes a (fortunately brief) adjustment period, but I have found this kind of mindful training to be unparalleled in its endurance building capacity.

Evidently, ceding control over the outcome of a task to the inescapable passing of time, like the SEALS do, is a very useful way to getting use to suffering without an end insight.

Isn’t that what this is all about?

Mother Nature’s Teachings on Humility

And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.” – Holocene, Bon Iver

I think that we can understand a lot about ourselves – or at least our hopes for ourselves – when we take the time to consider those that we look up to or seek to emulate, and what specifically it is about them that draws us in.

At a surface glance, it is very easy to understand why I am so enthralled by the likes of such remarkable athletes as Kilian Jornet, Alex Honnold and Ross Edgley. Anyone who knows me in person is painfully aware of my eagerness to discuss their numerous merits, usually at great length and great detail. Each of their individual and athletic achievements are surely bordering the edges of human potential.

Six-time Skyrunner World Series champion Jornet is widely regarded as one of (if not) the greatest living endurance athletes, holding the fastest ever ascent and descent records of Mount Everest, Mount Denali, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn – as well as course records and convincing wins at several of the world’s most prestigious ultramarathons.

Rock-climber Alex Honnold’s 2017 record breaking free-solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, performed entirely without the aid of ropes, was referred to as “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever” by the New York Times, and likened to an elite marathon athlete one day breaking the inconceivable one-hour barrier (which would be a full hour and one minute ahead of the current 2:01:39 record).

Ross Edgley, as discussed on numerous earlier occasions here, became the record holder for the longest distance ever swum consecutively, when he circumnavigated the entire two thousand miles of Great British coastline in a five month mammoth endurance effort.

These unique men are similar in their freakish levels of athleticism, resilience and strength, and the staggering nature of their various accomplishments. Far more importantly, in my opinion, is that they are three of the most truly humble and centered athletes one could ever hope to read about.

I read about these men as a teenager the way others might read about Superman or Batman.

And as much as I might love to discuss the mind and body-bending athletic resumes of the three, on closer inspection it is undeniably the unpresuming manner in which they conduct themselves that most appeals to me. In candid interviews and major press events, they are always quick to downplay the importance of their own physical strengths, and stress the elements of combined teamwork, the role of fortune and their own limitations. The fact that they might remain so incredibly humble, despite the fact that they all truly push their limits far beyond what was once considered even physiologically possible for a human, is truly astounding.

Honnold’s nickname is, famously, ‘No Big Deal‘.

In a world increasingly rewarding of acts of ego and vanity, these men stand out as examples of real people to emulate – for me, both as an aspiring athlete, and a man ever-so slowly growing into a fully functioning adult. They carry themselves with a palpable level-headedness and sense of humility that very few on such a stage seem to possess.


I would speculate, as did Rich Roll in his recent podcast with the aforementioned Edgley, that a likely reason for this is the countless hours each of these athletes have spent in training and performing in some of the most hostile and demanding environments that the natural world can offer.

It’s hard to properly regard one’s self as powerful and indomitable whilst being slapped in the face by the icy swells of the unforgiving Atlantic ocean, or at the mercy of the unpredictable and wild climates of the high-altitude alpines, or suspended five-hundred feet up a sheer and unrelenting granite rock-face. Or at least it should be hard.

When faced with the prospect of a rapidly approaching ocean storm near the Northern tip of Scotland during his circumnavigation attempt, and encouraged by the hollow social media claims of “you’re a beast!” and “show this storm what you can do!”, Edgley was forced to explain to his followers that “you don’t swim through a storm – the way that you beat a storm is that you hide, you hope that it maybe lets you for a brief moment – and if it lets you, then you go out you are allowed to swim. You don’t beat a storm.”

Even for a powerful man with ludicrously high bench-press and dead-lift numbers in the gym, the sense of human limitation is apparent. Ross clearly had an excellent understanding of just how insignificant he is when compared to the overcoming vastness and strength of the ocean; despite his best efforts, he was at its mercy.

Kilian Jornet repeated a similar message, captioning a photo of his scaling of the iconic and formidable Matterhorn, “we are only a tiny dot in the immensity – we can’t battle, race or conquer mountains… we can just pass as lightly as possible, trying to be just a caress.”

Time spent enduring in nature should be a constant reminder to us of our relative scale in the universe. We can’t out-wrestle the ocean and tides, or truly ‘conquer’ mountains and ridge-lines. The Sierra Nevada doesn’t care about your lactate threshold. The Pacific isn’t moved by how much you can press. We can merely do all that we are capable of, on any given day, whilst holding a real appreciation and respect for the forces of nature and the possibility of them derailing our ambitions.

Why is any of this important? Why is being humble important?

Maybe it’s not. I suppose someone could argue that.

There is no golden rule, after all, about how we should conduct ourselves as people or as athletes.

To me, it simply seems to be a better way to live. To favour genuine respect and quiet-confidence over arrogance and self-assurance. I would argue that it perhaps set us up to better deal with the occasions in which we don’t successfully conquer our goals – when we are beaten down by the unrelenting elements of the natural world. I think it is also easier to work ‘with’ nature rather than to fight against it – to “roll with the punches”, as it were. If you can peacefully come to terms with a slower swimming speed when faced with unexpected ocean swells, rather than violently struggling forwards in protest, then I suspect your chances of success are incrementally higher.

The punches are inevitable – our success is not always.

The likes of Jornet, Honnold and Edgley have forged a template for the twenty-first century aspiring athlete – one of eagerness, discipline, humility, resilience and an innate respect for the powers of the natural world. They lead by example, and I hope to one day follow.

While the finer details of my athletic future are not mapped out, I know exactly the kind of values that I hope to carry with me throughout my career.

Mindfulness (Could Be) Everything

I would argue that the application of mindfulness is the one thing that separates ‘training’ from ‘exercising.’

What do we mean when we talk about mindfulness – or more accurately, what do I mean when I talk about mindfulness? In this training-oriented context, mindfulness refers to two distinct components:

  • Possessing a clearly identifiable purpose for every single workout, whilst having the ability to adhere to the parameters necessary to achieve said purpose.

And perhaps more holistically,

  • Building a connection between the conscious mind and the active body, where useful biofeedback is processed in a neutral, non-emotive manner.

The lack of clear and decisive focus is undoubtedly a common pitfall for countless training protocols. This is one of several explanations as to why so many endurance athletes hit a vast plateau of physical training, where, despite their seemingly best efforts, little improvement is seen for months or years.

If, at any given moment, an athlete cannot simply explain what they are trying to get out of each workout session, and then perform in such a way as to achieve that goal, then they are simply exercising, rather than training.

And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

But with only a very basic understanding of anatomy, physiology and psychology (as I admittedly possess), any athlete should be able to stroll into a gym or onto a track and have a general idea of exactly what they are hoping to cause their body to adapt to, and how said adaptations will be brought on. That can be as basic and broad a concept as just sheer work capacity; the volume of physical work that the body is able to perform and positively adapt to. The desired outcome could be any number of things.

What is important, if an athlete wishes to be far more efficient with their progression, is that said concepts can be positively identified, and training is carried out in a manner that builds improvement in these areas.

This is the mindful training approach.

An all-too common area in which this kind of mindfulness is typically not applied is pacing and heart-rate zones, when training in distance sports. The now-retired American triathlon super-star Mark Allen referred to heart-rate specific training – one of many methods of training with specific focus – as “the single most potent tool an endurance athlete can use … that will allow for long-term athletic performance. He built a legendary career by utilising unwavering diligence in his approach to cardiovascular training, that allowed him to ‘turn it up’ and still remain operating aerobically, even at far greater intensities than most other elite athletes could muster.

Most of us non-superstars are prone to performing our low-intensity distance training at far too high of an intensity to see genuine adaptations to working aerobically, and similarly perform our high-intensity training at too low of an intensity to see real developments in the anaerobic realms of exercise.

What results instead is a blurred mash of competing energy systems and contrasting physiological requirements vying for prominence in all of our workouts – the infamously grey ‘zone three’ – in which no real clear adaptations can take place. The demands on the skeletal muscle and cardiac and pulmonary systems are too great for the body to be able to operate aerobically with relative comfort, while simultaneously not great enough to induce chronic adaptations in the anaerobic function of the body.

In such an instance, the specificity of training is a crucial element that has gone ignored; there is no distinct purpose to each session, and we are able unable to identify what it is that we are asking our body to actually adapt to. Hence, it does not adapt to anything particularly well, and improvement stagnates.

Whilst it might seem to at first glance, I do not believe that this contradicts my writings earlier on the benefits of cross-training in disciplines that differ greatly in physiological requirements. Certain research genuinely supports that the body can adapt to multiple fitness components at the same time, so long as there is adequate time to recover between workouts, and that each workout is delivered to optimally target a certain development. Here, however, I am discussing the pitfalls of individual workouts being performed sub-optimally, with each session not clearly focusing on a specific fitness component and therefore inducing no positive adaptation.


The second, earlier mentioned component of mindful training is the establishment of a deeper connection between the body when under stress, and the conscious brain.

Building a strong capacity for accurately interpreting biofeedback markers from the body – in the form of shortness of breath, a rising heart rate, or increasing muscle fatigue – is arguably the hallmark of successful endurance athletes.

We hear stories of Olympians who can reliably estimate their current heart rate, or pace, or power output, with no electronic gauge to provide feedback. Rather, the information is accurately perceived in the mind, using information provided by the working body. Any reasonable collegiate swimmer would be able to swim a lap of a 50-metre pool blindfolded, and yet execute their tumble-turn at the end perfectly; so ingrained have the pathways between physical action (swimming) and required mental task (turn) become. They would also most likely be able to provide a close estimate of their current heart-rate and lap-speed, with no external monitoring.

Being in tune with your body’s immediate requirements under exertion, as well as predicting its potential future requirements, is a delicate relationship that requires real concentration, honesty with oneself, and practical application.

Aspiring athletes are frequently discouraged from subjectively training by ‘feel’ in this way – in favour of the more ‘scientific’ approach of collecting and analysing training data from electronic gauges and tests, then adjusting workouts to maximise improvements.

Interestingly, a study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance suggests that ‘subjective’ assessments of effort – perceived effort – in an athlete could be just as, if not more, valuable as training data than external sources like Vo2Max measurements and heart-rate monitoring. The argument, closely linked to Noake’s Central Governor Theory, is that the brain enforces limits and regulates physiological output based on its own perception of effort rather than actual maximal capacities, and so therefore perceived effort in an athlete was a useful unit of measurement. This internal perception picked up on more intangible factors like mood and levels of motivation, as well as obvious physical markers like core body temperature, muscle glycogen stores, heart-rate and blood-pressure – and therefore potentially painted a more ’rounded’ picture of an athlete’s current state.

Furthering this, Zen-practitioner and academic Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research into the application of mindfulness practice in the 1970’s found that both endurance athletes and hardened Marine Corps veterans possessed a more active insular cortex – the part of the brain tasked with monitoring sensory signals from within the body – than an untrained control group. He extended his findings into the development of an eight-week training course, funded initially by the US Department of Defence, that sought to improve athletic performance and further develop body awareness by “cultivating non-judgemental self awareness…. to learn how the body actually feels, while suspending judgement about it.” This was to be achieved through daily meditation exercises, the documenting of regular physiological messages to the brain for pattern analysis, and bizarre exercises like plunging the hands into ice cold water whilst staving off the mounting desire to stop.

Kabat-Zinn’s research results may run both ways – suggesting both that endurance and resilience training can assist in building stronger neurological pathways for monitoring the body, and that building stronger neurological pathways through self-assessment techniques can assist in the capacity for endurance.

Developing the ability to apply mindfulness in training – specifically, how to turn inwards and neutrally assess our needs – enables us to more intuitively recognise our body’s signals, to better manage pace and intensity output, to better respond to unexpected events, to take action sooner when warned of the risks of injury and over-training, and to learn to strip negative emotions away from useful information.

This last factor is key for me, personally. It can be so easy to find myself frustrated by the traditionally ‘bad’ news of muscular fatigue and fuel depletion, or similar late-stage occurrences in an event. A mindful approach to training encourages us to view this information as nothing more than useful information to which we have no emotional connection – and then to act effectively to remedy the situation.


So what do we do with this information? What do I do with this information?

Areas in my own training in which mindfulness can fall by the wayside are pretty apparent, on close inspection. A common experience for me, as previously mentioned, is performing countless swim sessions at far too high an intensity than I should be hitting – purely because someone in the lane over is lapping me. As much as I might aspire to be one day, I am certainly not immune to ego.

Arrogance can overrule discipline, and what began as a targeted workout becomes something of a waste of time. I might have begun the session with a clear idea of the various aerobic and muscular endurance related adaptations that I was seeking to implement, and the necessary levels of intensity to build them, but then ended with nothing more than ego-stoking to show for my efforts.

It is a remarkably easy trap to fall into.

By employing mindfulness techniques, by properly engaging in each and every process, and distancing ourselves from external sources of motivation or distraction, a far more efficient state of training can be reached. It takes diligence, honesty with ourselves, and constant practice, but it is attainable for all of us.

This ties us nicely to the Misogi-central adage “process over outcome, both in the small-picture and big-picture.

In the long term, many focused and diligent workouts (process) bring us gradually closer to our own grand goals (outcome), in a far more efficient manner than can often be experienced.

In the short term, executing every element of each workout with a real connection and genuine attention (process) causes each workout to be far more useful to us (outcome). Nailing the delivery of every stroke or dead-lift, and carefully maintaining the appropriate levels of effort, intensity and technique ensure that the scope for potential improvement is maximised, every day.

So now I’m putting these methods and approaches into play more than ever. I’m starting a workout with a heart-rate monitor, closely observing how an intensity feels – what my mind, lungs, heart and muscles are communicating to me at such an effort – before ditching the monitor and training on intuition. I’m performing a mental breakdown before every session – “why am I in the gym today, and what am I trying to achieve here?” I’m being far more diligent on pacing, and paying less and less attention to unnecessary external distractions during training.

Here’s hoping.