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Inside The Endurance Athlete's Mind

Forbes.com—September 22, 2008

While the rest of us are rolling over in our beds, Bob Whitman, CEO of the Salt Lake City, Utah-based Franklin Covey, is fitting in a few hours of biking, swimming and running before work in preparation for next month's Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

Considering that the majority of Americans have trouble finding the time or energy to work out at all, let alone train for a grueling triathlon while juggling a C-suite position, it begs the question: How does he do it?

Much of it is mental. While many endurance athletes say there's nothing special about their physical abilities, clearly people who are drawn to and are able to accomplish feats such as marathons, triathlons and challenging ultra endurance events differ from the rest of us somehow. A big piece of the puzzle is how these athletes think about their lives, goals and the obstacles they face.

A Certain Personality

Just as they tend to have a specific body type (i.e., lean, not too tall), many endurance athletes also have common personality traits, says Jenny Susser, a clinical health psychologist specializing in sports psychology at the Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. These traits include persistence, endless curiosity, a lack of fear when it comes to failure and a sense of boldness.
Persistence is particularly crucial in helping endurance athletes stick to a training schedule, which they know can't be compromised no matter how much work is waiting for them at the office or how sore or tired they may feel. The benefits of showing up every day for a workout aren't just about being physically prepared on the big day. They can help an athlete feel like he or she has done everything possible to meet a challenge, ultimately translating into confidence at the starting line, Susser says.

Pain Management

While specific techniques vary, endurance athletes rely on methods of distraction to get through painful or difficult patches. Susser counsels people to focus on the technicality of their sport by zeroing in on their strides, or to play games, such as coming up with an animal for every letter of the alphabet.

"It might be a little like a pingpong game--this type of distraction is never 100%," Susser says. "But if you can swap your focus enough you can get yourself through it."

Read the full story at forbes.com.


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