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.

Expanding Our Scope, or Why Cross Training Is More Than A Side Hustle

The SAID principle – ‘specific adaptations to imposed demands’ – is undoubtedly a universal and unyielding rule of training, and human biology as a whole.

We improve at that which we practice. If you lift a load of heavy weights on a consistent enough basis, a broad range of physiological and neurological adaptations take place in your body – increased muscle fibre recruitment, increased metabolic function, increased skeletal muscle mass, to name a few – and over time, you become better at lifting heavy weights.

In a traditional sense, there’s really no getting around this specificity requirement for our training; hence why it is uncommon to see elite marathoners working on their maximum deadlift in the gym. The chronic physical adaptations in the body required to run a fast marathon time could not be more different than those required to heave three hundred kilograms from the ground.

Therefore, when employing alternative forms of exercise in our training to provide respite or variety (cross-training), we are historically encouraged to maintain a level of specificity in our actions. The cross training may be a completely different activity than our usual chosen sport, but the underlying energy systems and demands on the body remain relatively constant.

This is pretty well Fitness Training 101 material.

However, it can be argued – and has been demonstrated, both academically and anecdotally – that this interpretation of the principle is limited, and perhaps is far too definitive than it should be.

I had this exact conversation with a friend and now-retired elite Australian triathlete, who was baffled by my brazen and perhaps ill-informed choice to train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu consistently in the lead up to my first one hundred mile ultramarathon attempt.

Mixing the two vastly differing disciplines can indeed seem conflicting and counterintuitive at a glance, as outlined earlier, and as pointed out by my friend. After all – what exactly am I asking my body to adapt to, and why am I sending it such mixed signals? Do I want to adapt to be better suited for fighting in short, intense anaerobic efforts, or to be able to aerobically turn my tired legs over, mile after long mile?

I’ll completely accept that the physiological requirements of the two, when applied so literally, are not in harmony. Distance running favours high levels of muscular endurance, and a strong cardiac and pulmonary output at low effort levels – while the more intense Brazilian Jiu Jitsu calls for muscular strength and power, and an ability to function predominantly anaerobically.

But if you apply an only slightly wider interpretation of the SAID principle in training, and look at some of the perhaps more intangible elements of human performance, the choice to train both is perhaps not quite so brazen.

For one, my foray into Jiu Jitsu exposed me to constant, maximal intensity efforts over continuous hours. There was sweat and blood, and bittersweet moments of total bodily exhaustion. It taught me calmness under pressure (while an opponent is trying their best to choke you unconscious) a genuine tolerance for mild to severe discomfort, and a degree of fearlessness matched with deep humility and respect for limitations. It taught me to find reserves of energy when I thought I had reached my maximum output. It’s a pursuit in which you are constantly reminded of the ‘bigger fish’ that surround you, and are forced to make peace with that fact, put your head down and seek improvement. These are all useful tools to have in an ultramarathon running toolbox.

It’s sort of like involuntary yoga.

I’ve never experienced a more tangible and real feeling of ‘the grind’, a word thrown around like so much confetti in the realms of fitness training, than when sparring Jiu Jitsu. What we are actually referring to when we talk of ‘the grind’ is the notion of ‘work capacity’ – the amount of physical exertion that we can both perform and positively adapt to. My work capacity, my ability to function continuously under duress and fatigue, improved dramatically in my year of counter-intuitive training – and I remained injury free, healthy and motivated to learn.

Can it not be argued that the hours spent in the martial arts gym helped me to build and polish skills that actually translate wonderfully to the world of endurance sports, despite the fact that they share select few physiological requirements? Did the work capacity that I built in Jiu Jitsu not spill over into my long distance running ability?

Endurance athlete, and personal hero of mine, Ross Edgley would undoubtedly agree – serving as a testament to the body’s ability to adapt to multiple fitness components at the one time in his 2016 running of a marathon distance whilst pulling a 1400 kilogram Mini Cooper. The ‘freakish’ event highlighted Ross’ capacity for both strength and stamina, which he developed through building an absurdly high work capacity. Ross is famed for his ability and willingness to take on any challenge at seemingly any time, no matter the discipline; and as a result, has become one of the most rounded and high-performing athletes walking the planet today.

It is hugely important that we don’t write people like Ross off as freakish, but rather dissect and analyse how they became the way that they are. Ross didn’t emerge from the womb with the capacity to swim two thousand miles around the English coastline, or rope climb the height of Everest in eighteen hours (all things that he has achieved) – he developed it slowly and meticulously over time with varied yet focused training.

I suppose the take-away from this post is to not be continuously caught up in the finer points of fitness training, and to challenge and question traditional ways of thinking about our abilities. While we should indeed all learn more about existing knowledge and research in the fields of physiology and psychology, we can also benefit from being more liberal and broad in our application of said knowledge. I see a lot of athletes that I know become so obsessive and confined with their approaches to their own training, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that it may not be always necessary. It can limit the ‘wholeness’ and overall ability to perform a range of physical tasks, can limit training variety and interest, and can crucially withhold valuable skills and lessons that can unexpectedly be added to the repertoire of our pursuit in focus.

A common explanation I offered in the last year of my training was that “running an ultramarathon is hard, and so I’m just training to do hard things.” It sounds simplistic and poorly informed, but there is a mounting body of evidence that suggests that we may have been unnecessarily deconstructive and limiting in our approaches to training in the past. I lifted heavier weights, I rock climbed, I fought and swam, and ran a load of miles on the trails. My capacity for handling discomfort and fatigue increased. And I had the best athletic performances of my life, to date.

It’s important that we remember that the body doesn’t differentiate hugely between a carefully tracked and recorded track workout at the Australian Institute of Sport, or two hours of star-jumps on the spot in a hotel room at 2:00AM – it merely responds and adapts to stress and stimuli.

We don’t always need to over complicate it.

Channel Swimming, An Introduction

 


It is with some level of anxiousness that I begin writing this first post. I try as best as I can in my daily life to maintain a foundation of humility and to do away with my own ego as much as possible – and so the notion of dedicating a website largely to one’s own athletic pursuits can, at first glance, seem to fly in the face of that.

This being said, I hope that Misogi Team can be far more than just another Instagram fitness account in a market that is already heavily saturated. Rather, the site intends to document both the physiological and psychological science behind endurance and our often self-imposed limits, as well as articles on the achievements of men and women far more interesting and accomplished than myself. I hope that at least one person following the site feels to some extent inspired to raise their own bar for themselves and to try and see just exactly what they are capable of, just as the practice of Misogi has done for me.

Obviously, the site will also serve to document my training (ideally in an engaging an non-egotistical manner) and preparation for the seemingly endless physical and mental challenges that I have chosen to lay out for myself – but to a larger extent, it will focus on the mindset and psychological exercise that I am convinced are the keys to achieving one’s objectives.

 


The deep ocean scares the absolute shit out of me. I honestly wish that this wasn’t the case, but it would be a lie to say anything else. In my own defence, it is not so much the depth but rather Australia’s Great White inhabitants that I have such struggles with. I have spent my entire life in and around the ocean, but the further I have tried to venture into open water swimming with comfort, the more readily apparent my genuine fear has become.

Open-water training in the South of France

I hear romantic stories from other triathletes and long-distance swimmers about the pure bliss and euphoria they find in the open swell, and the remarkable beauty of the wild ocean. I’m sure that it’s there, and I deeply wish I felt the same – but the looming threat of a fish-related death seems almost undeniable to some fight-or-flight part of my brain.

It may indeed seem trite and overused, but I do sincerely believe that there are wonderful times to be had over the borders of your comfort zone – as a thousand online personal trainers can tell you, with any number of nice motivational posters. Most of the meaningful experiences I’ve had in my relatively short life thus far have been as a result of medium to severe discomfort and unpleasantness. Both physically and mentally.

As well as that, on a personal level, I really do not like something so intangible having such strong control over me. Such a thing as fear will just stand in my peripheral, as an unwavering testament to that which I cannot do.

So it seemed suitable to orient my next big athletic goal around the bountiful aquatic sphere of the Australian ocean.

On March the 23rd of this coming year, I will be attempting to swim the equivalent thirty-three kilometres of the English Channel in the open waters of South Australia, while fighting a very tangible fear pretty much every stroke of the way.

I’ve been a strong swimmer, but never a wonderful swimmer – having come from a traditionally long-distance running background with the odd triathlon thrown in. Comfortingly (?), the reading I have done on the matter reinforces my suspicion that you don’t necessarily have to be fast – you just have to be able to continue, all day long, against an ever-mounting desire to stop. This attempt would be nearly seven times as far as I have ever swum before, in open waters, with the very real possibility of having to swim in darkness at either end of the day. Two rather daunting elements for me to mentally adjust to, and to prepare for.

Despite my lack of a swimming pedigree, the foundational skills towards achieving something like this are deceptively intuitive, and are techniques that I have practiced in other arenas, for all of my life. Someone swims the English Channel is very much the same manner that anyone does anything seemingly difficult.

You strip the task down into manageable components, and tackle them individually on the micro level. What starts as an insurmountable distance is broken down into several, smaller pieces that seem within the realms of possibility. This is one of the central rules of Misogi – ‘process over outcome.’

If every single process ( in this case, each stroke) is delivered with maximal intention and efficiency, and continuously delivered, then the outcome is inevitable – the Channel will be crossed. So attention needs to be stripped entirely from the far-away objective of finishing the swim, and rather placed wholly on being fully present for each individual stroke. The beach at the end really shouldn’t be on my radar until it is absolutely safe to let my mind wander, and instead I should resign myself willingly and intentionally to the possibility of sixteen hours with my head facing the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

These are techniques that we all use at some point in our lives – be it at school, or at work, or with raising children. We take a huge project and we strip it down to a more palatable size, and focus on what we can handle right now, rather than the overbearing big picture. You don’t spend the first year of medical school stressing over your internship several years later. For some strange reason, I have the impression that very few people apply this some school of reasoning to their own physical capacities. We are truly all capable of far more than we ever ask of ourselves, we just tend to focus on looming goals rather than the actual body of work itself.

That is the theory, at the very least. What remains for me is obviously a huge amount of time between here and now spent progressively overloading swimming distance and time, in an effort to induce chronic changes in the body to adapt to different movements and endurance-swimming specific demands. Perhaps more importantly for me, there will need to be a lot of time spent mentally preparing for dealing with what is a very real personal fear – as I will explore and write of in the coming training weeks.

At the very least, I do not have any fear of failing – despite failure’s very real presence here – or a fear of the proverbial ‘biting off more than I can chew’. I will happily go down swimming, even if it means being dragged from the water into a support kayak, a mere seven kilometres into the attempt in March. There is glory in failing in great attempts, as Bruce Lee so eloquently spoke.

I really, sincerely believe that there are countless benefits to my life brought on by attempting to do things that fully extend my perception of my abilities, or my abilities themselves – even if that means falling well short of my target. Process over outcome, once again.


If you’re interested in reading about the coming months and my experiences of trying to get into Channel-crossing shape, then stay tuned for following articles. I’ll explore the physiological requirements and science behind moving from my current state of fitness to a more aquatic one, as well as my experiences training and the experiences of other men and women who inspire me. As much as it fascinates me, I will try to prevent the sports science components from becoming overly dry – and similarly try to keep a more grounded approach to talking about myself and my experience than the “me, me, me” attitudes that can easily come with this territory.