22 principles I have learned from being an athlete

This post is picked up from my other blog, Ironman, Marathon and more: It’s a lifestyle. The life of a masters endurance athlete…who has a life. I am posting it here because it speaks to what I see as the strategies,habits and actions taken over time that lead to improvement and success. In essence, I believe that what it takes for long-term success in sport applies equally well to success in business and other walks of life.

Over 57 years of athletics – running, triathlon, biking, swimming, spin classes, abs workouts, speed skating, golf, tennis and even some sailing – wisdom accrues. As a strategy consultant and business coach, I constantly find myself applying what I have learned from being an athlete to my work improving organizations and coaching decision makers.

Here are 22 principles that have stuck with me as a result of decades of training, competing and coaching.

  1. Limits are mostly self imposed. Time and again I have pushed at what I perceived as limits – Boston Marathon qualifying time, a sub 21 minute 5K, making Nationals in speed skating, becoming an Ironman, winning my age group in a major marathon and much much more – and discovered they were not real limits. We are capable of so much more than we ask of ourselves!
  2. We improve by training over time. I see people all the time trying to shortcut the work that’s needed to get faster, stronger, more flexible, etc. Starting with high school cross country through speed skating and into serious running and triathlon, I have learned time and again that when I map out (or have a coach map out for me) an appropriate training schedule and I follow it, great things happen!
  3. Habits matter! Repeatedly executing the daily and weekly routines and workouts that succeeding at a sport requires are the key to success. In my case now, track every Tuesday, Thursday tempo run, Saturday long run, recovery runs, weekly spin and abs classes…these are the threads from which excellence in sport is woven.
  4. You always have time for what’s important. I hear complaints and excuses that people don’t have time to train. Nonsense (excepting the true crisis)! Even for working people there are at least 28 obvious time slots each week for training: Early morning, lunch time, late afternoon and at night. Surely some of these will work if you are motivated enough to get out there.
  5. Your sports are your lifestyle. When you view your sport as something additional, extra, not necessary and optional, then there is a greater likelihood that you will not perform well and will not be dedicated to it. Flip that thinking: You are your sport and you need to embrace it! When you do that, you improve, get healthier and find the time to pursue it.
  6. Diet and sleep matter. Athletics invite us to live better, because it becomes apparent that with better diet and sleep we perform better. It’s a license to be healthier…and happier!
  7. Planning for the goal race works. Nothing is more motivating than to find a big goal, announce it to the world so you are truly committed, and then develop and execute the training plan to get there. When I announced last year I was running seven marathons I told myself that was crazy talk, but then I put together and followed the plan – and it worked!
  8. A coach ups our game. A coach knows things about your sport than you do not know. He or she has been there. And a coach not only lays out what you should do, but motivates you and holds you accountable. My coaches have made me a much, much better athlete.
  9. The competition is with yourself. Sure, when you are competing you are racing or playing against the other competitors. But, except for in-event strategy, the only competition that matters is how much you are improving and learning versus your prior self. That’s what will fuel your success in the race or the game.
  10. The athlete with the greatest assets, equipment and clothing is not necessarily the best athlete. I saw this in spades in speed skating and triathlon. The studly participant with the best equipment and the best clothing may be intimidating to the athlete without these assets, but when you cross the line before them you realize that there is no substitute for dedication, training and making the best of whatever assets you do have.
  11. The game is as much mental as physical. Mental focus and being thoughtful allow you to train and race smartly. When it gets hard, willpower can carry you. Thinking about when to push and when not to helps assure that you will persevere and have your best race or game. Staying in the moment can keep you from slacking off or going too hard.
  12. Mastery comes from embracing the sport. Don’t just think that training is all it takes. Learn the history of your sport. Identify with the best athletes and see what it took them to reach the top. Learn the rules and protocols. Read your sport’s publications and blogs. Watch competitions. If you run, learn all about running and be the best runner you can be. That’s the way to get the most out of it and to master it.
  13. The greatest happiness is not winning but is being able to compete. Yes, for sure, winning the race or at least your age group is sensational. But that’s episodic and transitory. What is constant is working toward competition and being able to compete. That is constant and what I find so satisfying.
  14. We are privileged to be athletes. Jim Spivey, the three-time Olympian who was my running coach for years, used to point to the commuter train passing next to the running track and say, “Look at those people on the train. They are so jealous that they are not out here running with us.” It was his way of saying that being able to train, race and get the joy and improvement that our sport brings is a deep privilege to savor. Training and competing amp up our lives!
  15. Most athletes are great people. Sure, there are exceptions, but most of the time the selfish or abusive athlete gets marginalized and does not stick to it. As a whole, the athletes I have trained and raced with over the years are a cut above, because they are dedicated, goal oriented, healthy people. Who would not want to hang with these kinds of people?
  16. Training with others is better. Over the years I have recognized that I train and race better – and enjoy it all so much more – when I do it with a friend or a group of people. Sure, I have logged many miles and many workouts solo. But I can tell you that the hard track workout or 20 mile run is so much more enjoyable and usually better executed in the company of other like-minded souls. We motivate one another, support one another, challenge one another and make one another laugh!
  17. I have always said that I have never regretted a workout when it is done. I feel worse when I skip a workout rather than making an extra effort to get out there and do it when I would rather not for whatever reason.
  18. Don’t imagine yourself losing! Visualization and positive thinking make a big difference in results. I became a much better hill runner and bike climber when I decided that I would embrace hills. My motto now is, “Hills are your friend.” Likewise, ahead of a big race I envision myself running the course and doing so very well. One year a time trial expert psyched me out and got a jump on me in a triathlon and won our age group. The next year I returned and did the same to him: I had envisioned it and indeed, it happened as I had seen it time and again in my mind’s eye!
  19. The end is harder than the beginning but ending is what matters. I used to offer a magazine start-up seminar in which I used mountain climbing as a metaphor for successful entrepreneuring. That is, the deeper you go in the effort to succeed, the harder it gets, just as climbing the mountain gets harder the higher you get and more tired you are. In the race or the game, the same thing applies: Miles 21-26 of the marathon are the hardest, but you are so close to success that this is exactly the time to maintain physical and mental effort, and persevere and push across the line.
  20. Not winning teaches us more than winning. When we win, we celebrate, and that’s great. Winning can be a medal, improvement or a PR. But we are much more introspective when we don’t win, I find. That’s when the inner drive arises to learn more, work harder, be smarter and figure out how to improve.
  21. We can come back. In my athletics career, I have had two major interruptions which took me back to square one and no training for an extended period. I destroyed much of my body in a major bike crash in Ironman Canada in 2005 and nearly died from blood clots four years ago. Both times after a long hiatus I ran that first mile again and found it difficult. But as the weeks and the training rolled ahead, I found my game again. We humans are so resilient! Don’t give up if you have a major set-back!
  22. Athletics keep you young! Most of the time, people think I am younger than I am. My running club named me Runner of the Year last year: I surmise that’s because I am a role model for life-long commitment to the sport and working for continued success at it. I go to my high school reunions and see so many classmates who are obese and in ill health. For me, my sports are my path to better health, fitness and happiness.