“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?