Swinging For The Fences

Far better it is to dare mighty things – to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure – than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much; for they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory, nor defeat.”       Theodore Roosevelt

Strategy and considerate preparation have almost always been crucial factors in most true athletic achievements to date. We collectively marvel at the perfect execution of a carefully constructed game-plan on the big stages, and rightly so. Countless NBA titles, heavyweight championship belts and Olympic medals have been won and defended due to strict adherence to a calculated strategy, capitalising on an opponent’s weaknesses or one’s own strengths.

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Alex Hutchinson raised what I thought was a very interesting point in the closing chapters of Endure (his most recent book, mentioned several times here so far), reflecting on both his own experiences as an aspiring Olympic middle-distance runner, and as a life-time spectator and colour-commentator for elite road running events. He explored the idea that, while indeed adherence to pacing strategies has been behind some of the most consistently successful distance running careers, and has prevented many an amateur runner from metaphorically falling apart mid-race, perhaps pacing in this manner places a self-imposed barrier in the way of an athlete achieving their full potential.

Logic would suggest that having minimal variance in average pace, for both elite and non-elite athletes, would produce a more even and predictable finish time – saving an athlete from the heartache of a race falling apart. With this in mind, setting out with a premeditated idea of what a realistic sustainable pace is for the individual, and adhering to it, would be more likely to produce a favourable result.

Hutchinson recounts, in his commentary of the 2011 Toronto Waterfront Marathon, that this approach is far from the ‘kamikaze’ style pacing variability of the East African champions who dominate the sport.

There is a certain ‘do-or-die’ attitude that surrounds elite Kenyan and Ethiopian distance running; perhaps motivated by national and personal pride, by the economic importance that prize money and endorsements hold in the developing world, and/or innate confidence stemming from the legacy of great athletes originating from the region.  Enormous group fartlek sessions in the thin airs of the Rift Valley are renowned for both the brutal speed at which they are performed, and the complete willingness for up-and-coming athletes to suffer, even if only briefly, alongside the established champions.

African distance athletes are known for this variance from ‘traditional’ Western approaches to running strategy – where North Americans and Europeans are typically methodical and deliberate, East Africans employ an unrelenting and seemingly unsustainable pace. When 96 of the 100 fastest marathon times in 2016 were run by athletes from East Africa, it would surely be a mistake to be dismissive of their unconventionally risky pacing strategies.

Hutchinson argues that performing in the traditional approach of carefully calculated kilometre splits may be unnecessarily confining – stating, “there is something inherently limiting about the fetishization of even pacing”. Modern sports science has for a long time distanced itself from the twentieth-century view of the ‘the body as machine’, understanding that more nuanced and often intangible factors affect athletic performance rather than just sheer measurable cardiovascular output.

Long distance races, subsequently, are more than just “plumbing contests, measuring whose heart can deliver the most oxygen to their muscles” – and yet why do we apply this old-school, limited looking-glass when discussing pacing for maximal performance? Why do we forget the very real role that abstracts like motivation, pain tolerance and sheer willingness have in such sporting achievements?

The criticism of traditional pacing, put simply, is if one decides how quickly one is going to run each mile split, then one negates the possibility of a faster finishing time – “you’ve put a ceiling on your potential achievement… if you execute the perfect race pace, that means you have effectively decided, within the first few strides, how fast you could complete the full distance.”

Certainly, over the course of a career, one might have better average finish times by sticking to careful pacing plans, but could it not be argued that the capacity for having one of those ‘run of your life’-type days is self-denied?

There is no opportunity to surprise yourself with an unexpectedly good day; you’ve put a ceiling on your potential for achievement, from the moment the starting gun fires. As a result, this approach may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers – jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times.”

I should perhaps have prefaced this article by stating that I’m not entirely sure myself what to do with this idea, rather than simply trying to rewire how we think about our own limits. Pretty stock-standard Misogi writing, undeniably.

What I found perhaps most useful in Hutchinson’s investigation, and the application of his findings to his own relatively successful running career, was his speculation that perhaps he never really reached his own physiological limits, as he had sometimes believed to be the case. After a perfectly executed pacing strategy at the 2003 Cherry Blossom 10 Mile, which saw him run impeccably-disciplined splits and surge past struggling athletes in the late stages to finish eighth place, he was comfortable in the belief that, even on his best possible day, he simply lacked the sheer speed and cardiovascular engine to ever beat the seven athletes in front of him – and he was fine with that. It was simply biological, and as much as anything is, out of his hands.

Later, following decades of research and publishing in the fields of human physiology, he questioned the accuracy of his conclusion concerning his biological limitations. What might have happened if he had thrown caution to the wind and ran to win, despite the pacing plans? Sure, if he applied this brazen attitude at every event, his career would be littered with disappointing results – but is it possible that among the blow-outs, there may have been some truly extraordinary outcomes?

And what about ourselves? How often do we impose these unnecessarily low bars on ourselves? If we never swung for the fence, we might go our entire lives (safe from embarrassingly unimpressive results, but) never realising our true capacities.

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Speaking only anecdotally, I do find it interesting how improved my testing results generally are compared to my training results – for instance, when pushed to do as many strict pull-ups as I possibly can in one maximal effort test, I find myself almost comfortably doubling what feels like almost my maximum when in training. I’m not one to ignore hard work whilst training, but the difference is undeniable. Somewhere along the way, I’ve conditioned myself to feel like twelve repetitions is nearly the most I can complete for a set of pull-up exercises, as part of a training session. Although the metaphorical bar here feels appropriate, my testing results would suggesting otherwise – I’m selling myself short, and I don’t even realise it.

I suppose this is just something to think about, next time we are setting goals for ourselves – both in the big picture, and the small. Is that really as fast, or as heavy, or as as long as we are capable?

I’m now three weeks away from my first training attempt at the full, thirty-five kilometre distance for the Channel-length swim – a dress rehearsal, of sorts – so the time to put my money where my mouth is draws ever closer.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

On Failure, My Greatest Teacher

No man steps into the same river twice; for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

It seems that even speaking of the potential for failure before any kind of attempt is a bit of a taboo in many circles; as if uttering its name is some kind of ill-fated omen that brings it forth.

Misogi doesn’t subscribe to this kind of thinking. Failure is, and always should be, an inevitable facet of life. It should always be a teacher that we seek out, rather than desperately avoid.

The true possibility of failure should be present in every great attempt that we make; otherwise, what sort of goals are we presenting ourselves? A one-hundred percent success rate in personal endeavours suggests only that we perhaps are not at all as comfortable with genuinely exploring our limits as we profess to be. Rather, it would appear that the idea of a challenge so great that the risk of not succeeding is possible actually intimidates us.

If you’re hitting your mark every time that you try to, then you are simply nowhere near the outer edges of your limits. And you’re selling yourself short.

This kind of criticism can sound particularly unlikely to already established endurance athletes, who may find it easy to brush off such suggestions of intimidation or fear. After all, they may have completed events that may leave non-athletes with their jaw on the floor. I would argue, however, that just as everyone else, we also become acclimatised and familiar with certain kinds of challenges – which become our new norm. They may seem from the outside and to the untrained eye as huge undertakings, but I would wager that, typically, the ‘challenges’ that we pursue with some regularity do not truly garner our real respect, or offer much in the way of true risk.

This is another, slightly more abstract manifestation of both the SAID principle discussed earlier, as well as the training principle of progressive overload. Over enough time, we adapt to that which we practice, and what was once almost impossible for us gradually becomes our new benchmark.

The bar just gets raised to a new level of comfort. A hundred-kilometre ultra-marathon becomes your familiar territory, just as a five kilometre run once seemed. That’s not to suggest that the concept of such a task becomes easy – rather, that we are relatively confident in a positive outcome, as has historically been the case for us thus far. There doesn’t feel to be quite so much on the line as the first time we made the attempt.

Living our lives, particularly our athletic lives, avoiding failure limits us.

Failure is by far our greatest teacher. I would go as far to say that failure is one of the greatest tools in an athlete’s toolbox. When success bestows our attempts, we seldom accurately reflect on exactly what happened to get us to this point. Instead, the feelings of elation and accomplishment overshadow any real analysis of the details of the event. Critical analysis is thrown to the wind.

Is is the act of failure that actually demands reflection – it forces us to be humbled, and to closely ponder the reality of our attempt. Or at least it should. Any truly useful lesson in the athletic realm, I would argue, occurs only in these occasional moments where things did not go as we had planned.

The practice of Misogi, if nothing else, is an excellent source of failure, and an excellent provider of these moments of forced reflection.

When done correctly – in that truly audacious attempts are made and committed to, with or without ideal preparation – failure should be a very real possibility. Almost fifty percent of the time, to be accurate. Misogi begs for a rewiring of how we consider failure – it is not something to be avoided, but rather something we should meet like an old and ever-dependable friend. We ought to seek more opportunities to fail, to bite of more than we may be able to chew, in an effort to genuinely develop as athletes, and as people. That way one can be sure that you are truly nearing your limits.

Do not fear failure – not failure, but low aim is crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.” – Bruce Lee

When I step back and think objectively about my Channel swim attempt in just under three months, I can appreciate the element of something approaching delusion. The swim will be over seven times as far as I have ever swam, in one continuous hit out, in an environment in which I am extremely and profoundly uncomfortable and unfamiliar. To be entirely candid, there have already been many points during training at which I have thought about changing my plans to something less aquatic and uncomfortable; always neatly wrapped in an adequate excuse that leaves my ego intact.

The idea for me is not to pretend that the likelihood of failure is not high – as it undeniably is – or that success is assured. Instead, this kind of attempt is designed to genuinely explore the limits of that which I can perform, while acknowledging that said limit may be far closer than I might have hoped or planned for.

The outcome doesn’t matter so much; what is far more important is the sincerity of the attempt. There is something to be said, I believe, for going down swinging.

One thing that I am slowly learning to accept is that failure does not always come as one might expect it to. It’s surprisingly right there in the title of Alex Hutchinson’s earlier mentioned book Endurance; Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance – I just missed it the first time around.

Elastic. Failure is flexible, but not only in the way that I might hope it to be. Sometimes our limits are actually closer than we may realise, or closer than they may have been at other times. When you set out to explore your outer limits, you will eventually find them, and they will not always be in the same place. This can be due to countless intangible variables – from sleep, to diet, to external stresses, to emotional struggles. I’ve failed at things I once found easy. I’ve relatively coasted my way through certain hundred-kilometre trail runs, and at other times found myself face down on the trail, thirty kilometres into a training run, desperately exhausted and wondering for the life of me ‘what the hell is going on?’

It sounds obvious, but it requires an acceptance of the fact that we are humans, and are not robotic, to properly understand. We do not improve and develop on an unwavering upwards trajectory. We’re not better and better, everyday. The river is never the same, and the man is never the same. To me, this idea is at once both humbling, and empowering.

A curious cognitive balancing act is required, as this acceptance of potential for failure should not have any real impact on confidence, going into a Misogi attempt. When I’m toeing the start line of the Channel swim, I will need to be holding both this aforementioned acceptance of failure’s potential, as well as an unshakeable confidence in my own ability to perform and to endure hardship. It is rather difficult to explain this apparent double-think, and I suspect you might have to have lived it before to properly understanding its topography. Coming to terms with limitations does not equate to lack of confidence. The swim will be an ode for my willingness to attempt what is possibly more than I am ready for, while at the same time trying to maintain complete faith in my ability to get the task done.

The practice of Misogi is not some sort of golden-ticket solution for ensuring that you can truly achieve anything that you put your mind to, every time. It it is the opposite of that. It is a very real tool for putting yourself into situations of looming failure, and developing the techniques and mental and emotional agility to cope with such a scenario.

It will teach you that you can indeed do far more than you may think you are capable of – but more importantly, it will teach you how to deal with the occasions when you can’t.

The Central Governor Theory, and The Science of Suffering

It’s so very easy to toss around the idea that “we are all capable of so much more than we realise” with little critical evaluation but exercise physiologist Tim Noakes’ Central Governor Theory offers genuine scientific credibility to the mantra.

Noakes’ summation that the human body stores levels of endurance and strength that are seldom (if ever) truly called upon is foundational to this modern interpretation of Misogi. Central Governor Theory details that the brain acts primarily as a regulator of the physiological system as a whole, limiting exercise output to safe levels of exertion in an act that was once a powerful evolutionary survival mechanism. The brain ensures its survival by limiting potential risk factors such as core body temperature, blood lactate levels, muscle recruitment and available fuel stores to non-debilitating levels.

If a hunter-gatherer on the Serengeti were able to push themselves, in the chase of a kudu, to such levels of heat exhaustion that death was a very real threat, then the human species may have been severely hamstrung in their efforts to feed themselves. Imagine how many tribesmen would run themselves into an early grave in the pursuit of a meal – or in modern times, how many Olympians would drop dead in the pursuit of glory?

Noakes argues that, in the tribesmen’s instance, the brain itself deliberately restricts the body’s ability to produce excess heat in a range of methods – by restricting muscle fibre recruitment, or by redirecting blood flow away from demanding skeletal muscle – well before a critically dangerous level of core temperature is reached. This theory is often used for an explanation as to why the occurrence of heat exhaustion is relatively common, and yet death from heat stroke is markedly more uncommon. The body is far more likely to ‘fail’ well before such a truly mortal threshold is crossed – with passing out from heat exhaustion serving as the brain’s last ditch attempt to get you to respond to its hints.

Body temperature is only one of countless variables that the brain seeks to restrict, in an effort to preserve the physical body. Noakes argues that the subconscious mind enforces similar ‘overrides’ in efforts to control maximal heart rate, the strength and power of muscular contractions, and the function of the pulmonary system in the event of lowered oxygen saturation.

One of the most glaring anecdotal examples of this theory in action can be seen at the thirty-to-thirty five kilometre mark of any urban marathon.

Observe closely the now-slowed pace of the average long distance runner at this point. While a limited pace and feelings of exhaustion are fairly typical here, as the body begins to switch its primary fuel source from muscle glycogen to stored lipids (fatty acids) – something remarkable occurs next.

The running speed is reduced dramatically, and the runner may feel as if they cannot continue – and yet soon the forty kilometre mark is reached, and friends and family begin to line the road to the finish line. All of sudden, a surge of energy shoots through the formerly struggling marathoner, and they find themselves blessed with a brazen restoration of stamina, and able to muster a quick finish into the chute. What has happened here at a physiological level, to cause such real struggles and desires to quit a mere five kilometres earlier, and then a staggering return to form near the end of the race?

Noakes argues that this is Central Governor Theory at work. The athlete’s brain, sensing varying and potentially alarming levels in the body of various crucial measures – including low muscle glycogen stores, a high core temperature and high blood lactate levels – unconsciously begins to enforce its own will on the body. This causes the intensity of exercise to unwillingly drop, bringing the aforementioned biological measures to safer levels – followed by a resurgence in intensity as the finish line, and biological safety, nears.

Crucially, this occurs on an unconscious level – meaning the whole process takes place autonomously, with no willing input from an athlete. Central Governor Theory is explored in depth in Alex Hutchinson’s aptly titled Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. The book offers consistently fascinating insight, with strong scientific credentials, into the sheer power that the brain yields over the human system.

One notable experiment explored in the book sees a team of research scientists in Chile evaluate the effect that altitude has on the production and accumulation of lactic acid in the skeletal muscle at high efforts. The theory was that, as lactic acid is produced and accumulates at an exponentially increasing rate with lower levels of oxygen in the body, then working at a high intensity at altitude (where the oxygen in the atmosphere is less dense) would surely see a rise in measurable blood lactate.

Despite this intuitive assumption, the results were rather astounding. Rather than a predictably higher level of blood lactate in the muscles of the cycling athletes in question, a surprisingly low (almost non-existent) level of the byproduct was produced. This was later found, in subsequent tests, to be due to the fact that fewer and fewer muscle fibres in the large muscle groups of the cyclists legs were being recruited with each contraction, the lower the saturation of oxygen became – despite the cyclists’ own conscious efforts to work at a maximal intensity. The research team concluded that the brain was unconsciously limiting the ability of the muscles to function by restricting their output, to the point that lactic acid simply could not be produced at a ‘dangerous’ (unable to be dissipated) level.

This sort of research, and that comprising Noakes’ theory, lend genuine credence to the infamous Navy SEAL maxim – “when you think you’re done, you’re about forty percent done.” The brain will call for us to stop and rest, or to slow down, or to get warmer, well before is is truly necessary to do so.

While the restrictive processes of the brain are, as stated, unconscious and occur without any input, the allure of an early finish can clearly be avoided and ignored – as any endurance athlete can attest to. We have all felt the very real sensations of “hitting the wall” – nothing more than our body both changing fuel sources, and encouraging us to rest – only to continue for hours past this point.

This is, in essence, the science behind the concept of Misogi – there is a huge well of untapped endurance and physical potential within us, protected by well-intentioned survival mechanisms, that we are slowly learning to carefully and temporarily ignore in the pursuit of loftier goals.

It is a balancing act, for sure, as the risk of true overuse and overexertion can be real – yet we seldom ever find ourselves nearing that point.

We rarely make demands of our physical bodies that genuinely push the limits of its capabilities – often for good reason. When a person makes contact with a high voltage of electricity, they may be launched across a room. There is no explosion taking place, and no external source of acceleration – rather, every muscle in the body is being forced to contract, and the victim is essentially jumping a huge distance of several metres, entirely unwillingly. Obviously, tendons and ligaments will rupture, and entire muscle groups may be torn – but it highlights the sheer kinetic potential stored within the skeletal muscle.

Misogi reminds me of this, every time I am faced with the inevitable pangs of “what the hell am I doing?” The will to stop at the eighty mile mark of an ultramarathon, or the unshakable desire to get the hell out of near frozen water, can seem unstoppable. Now, however, I take five minutes when on the brink of throwing in the towel to do a deep and thorough assessment of my hierarchy of needs. Am I developing frostbite, or kidney failure, or muscle cannibalism, or am I simply just uncomfortable and my brain is prompting me to make an adjustment?

This is a learnable skill.

We can learn to become more enduring, and more resilient. By throwing ourselves into difficult situations, we can build the necessary neuro-pathways to develop a level of familiarity with them.

We can improve our capacity for discomfort, and Misogi is the best way I have ever been shown.