Mental Stamina for Athletes

I got an interesting question from one of my friends / readers that applies to both athletes and entrepreneurs.

Can you share with me what kind of mental “training” you undertake before, during and after competing in a marathon? I understand that training for a marathon involves a lot of physical training. But how do you mentally prepare to run 26.2 miles? And how do you maintain your mental “stamina”during such a long run? Finally, how do you mentally “cool down” after competing?

Anyone that knows me, or has worked with me, knows that in addition to being able to cover a wide range of things simultaneously (dare I use the overused phrase “multitask”), I can also go very deep on one thing for a long period of time.  It’s this second trait that I think is so important for both serious athletes as well as great entrepreneurs.

I’m not really sure how I’ve “trained” for this.  I’ve always enjoyed going after stuff with great intensity – often single-minded – although the normal ebb and flow of most of my life has always involved numerous interesting things going on at the same time.  Being able to quickly shift between the two modes – and recognize which one I’m in – has always been relatively easy for me.

The “pre-event” training seems straightforward – I spend deep, isolated time on my running.  I usually run alone (although I’ll do some long runs with other people), I have a routine I go through before each run, and I set my goal in advance and stick to it.  Building up consistency is key – when I’m resting from a marathon I just run whenever I want to.  When – like now – I’m in a training cycle (I’m running a marathon on Labor Day) – I do my pre-determined schedule whether or not I feel like it.  Occasionally I’ll find myself punting on this schedule – whenever I do I think hard about why and adjust accordingly.  Being rigorous, consistent, and deliberate, while studying any deviations, is the basis for my mental preparation.

Leading up to the race, I have a ritual that I’ve now settled into.  Unlike a baseball batter tapping the plate in the same place (or – if you are a tennis fan – Nadal adjusting his underwear between every point) to focus his concentration, I try not to have them become obsessive tasks that I repeat over and over again.  Instead, I focus on the macro – Amy and I go to the city I’m running in at least four days before the race, we stay at a comfortable place, I eat pasta with marinara sauce and lots of bread for the two days before the race, we drive the course the day before the race, and we go to bed early – even if I don’t feel like it – the night before.

During the race, I break my run into four section – (a) miles 1–6; (b) miles 7–13.1; (c) miles 13.2–20; (d) miles 21–26.2.  Having run seven of these things, my experiences have become very similar.  Section (a) is uncomfortable – too many people, not warmed up, over excited – but I just get through it.  Section (b) is the best – I feel great, I’m warm, I’m happy, and I always feel like I’m in a groove.  Section (c) is the hardest – I’m lonely, I hate this part, I have doubt, my knee feels funny, why the fuck am I doing this again, man this is taking forever.  Section (d) is hard, but satisfying – I know I can run 6 miles any day of the week.  Defining the general parameters of the experience in advance takes away a lot of uncertainty for me – I can concentrate on doing my best within the parameters I’m used to.  And – when the unexpected invariably comes up, I can quickly shift my attention to it.

After the race, I just chill.  I don’t plan anything for two days, I don’t travel, I lay in bed all day the next day (if I feel like it) or I walk around and play with friends (if I feel like it.)  My recovery time has averaged three to five days – it’s getting faster with each marathon.  However, I’ve learned that I shouldn’t run a step for three weeks – I don’t lose any meaningful fitness and – when I start running again – I’m reading to go.

Entrepreneurship has a lot of similar characteristics.  It’s fascinating to watch (and work with) successful multi-time entrepreneurs – create a metaphor around what I’ve described above, stretch it out in time, and it maps pretty closely.  No wonder the cliche “entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint” is so popular.