What does it take to perform as best as we can? And how do we help those we train to develop their resilience as well as physical fitness?
These are foundational questions for me as an age-group endurance athlete with ambitious goals, and as a chaplain working with soldiers committed to maximising human performance.
In September 2022 I was inspired when the great marathon runner, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, broke his own world record in the Berlin Marathon in 2:01:09. Among the most exciting moments of sport spectating is when records are broken.
Moreover, among the most motivating challenges of endurance sport participation is pushing one’s own limits to break personal bests. As athletes, even those of us in older age-group categories, we ask ourselves, “What can this body do? What can these legs and lungs achieve that they have never been able to before? What are my limits? How fast or long can I go? Even when hitting a wall, how much further can we push and overcome? Which of our limits are actual and which are just perceived? What are the physical barriers and what are the psychological limiters?”
For soldiers, however, human performance is not a matter merely of hobbies and enjoyment, but of survivability and mission success. Soldiers ask themselves, “How far can we stretch ourselves to win the battle? When faced with obstacles and setbacks, how can we skirt around or battle through? What are actual physical and logistical limitations that threaten mission success, and what are merely mental limits?”
Of course, soldiers do not just face challenges on exercises and engagements, but in relationships, health, and other spheres that stretch their resilience and character. What is it that helps one person endure and overcome while another hits the wall with defeat?
I know some things about the science of training the body to go faster and longer that apply to athletes and soldiers alike. Yet I am an eager student who wants to learn more about ways to train the mind alongside training the body (and the spirit, importantly). I enjoyed reflecting on lessons of endurance, teamwork, and self-awareness in my Cove article Resilience Lessons from a Pedalling Padre.
Moreover, in my search for inspiration and research-based ideas, I turned last year to two key books and reviewed them individually for Grounded Curiosity and have enjoyed revisiting them together for The Cove.
The first resilience manual is from endurance sports writer Matt Fitzgerald’s The Comeback Quotient: Mastering Mental Fitness for Sport and Life. I have appreciated other books by Matt Fitzgerald: How Bad Do you Want It?, 80/20 Running and Racing Weight. In The Comeback Quotient, Fitzgerald underlines that achieving success in sport or work is not just about physical fitness and intellectual aptitude, but mental fitness.
We need all elements, but “physical fitness enables an athlete to do hard things, mental fitness enables an athlete to deal with hard things, and no athlete realises his or her full potential without both” (p.4).
Fitzgerald describes “ultrarealism” as the approach that can achieve astounding comebacks. The three steps of making the most of a bad situation are:
- Accepting the situation, rather than panic or denial.
- Embracing it with the commitment to “make lemons into lemonade” rather than being demoralised or apathetic.
- Addressing the reality with effort and judgment, rather than giving up.
Fitzgerald unpacks the ancient philosophy (including Buddhism and Stoicism) and neuroscience behind this. He offers summaries of reality therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that are helpful for disentangling physical sensations (e.g., hurting legs) from thoughts (e.g., “I’ll stop”).
This is not about pushing the limits beyond physical capability. Yet it is being aware that hard limits are not often reached, either because the goal is achieved, or the effort to reach it exceeds the athlete’s motivation and they back off. Fitzgerald’s advice is also not about pushing into silly levels of over-training or over-racing, nor becoming consumed with the goals rather than the process. But his wisdom is facing any situation, however bad, and focusing on solutions rather than being mentally defeated. These are lessons broader than sport yet sport offers a helpful training and testing ground.
My favourite chapter was the final “When comebacks fail”, full of stories of athletes who turned failure into success and finding meaning in other ways. Cyclist Saul Raisin had a crash that left him unconscious for a month but trained to an amazing comeback of ability, only to be told by his team doctors they could not let him race again – ever. He stood by his motto “be happy and content knowing you did your best” (p.185).
The second book is by sports journalist Alex Hutchinson into the science and art of pushing to your limits: ENDURE: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Hutchinson’s artful integration of sports science and inspiring stories is useful for any athlete seeking to break their next record, or for those seeking to cultivate performance in themselves or others in other spheres.
Endure first explains the science of pacing, lactate threshold, and the so-called “central governor” that Tim Noakes explained is not about failing muscles but our brain’s well-meaning protection to slow us down before reaching true failure. Highlights of the book are the stories of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott’s expeditions, John Landy’s breaking the 4 minute mile, and Stéphane Misfud’s freediving record (11 minutes and 35 seconds).
Other stories narrate athletes overriding instincts to slow down, slack off, or give up. Hutchinson teaches techniques to access the reserves of energy we have when we think we are depleted (the reserve tank switch). Some of this is mental self-talk to replace negative thoughts, some is avoiding anxiety in other parts of life, and some is subconscious tricks like relaxing your jaw or simply smiling through pain which helps us feel happier and safer.
The middle section of Endure unpacks limits of performance achievement: pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst, and fuel. I learned about acclimatisation processes and why a cold shower on the morning of a hot race helps, as can self-talk of replacing “I’m boiling” with “Keep pushing you are doing so well”.
Yet the highlight was the stories of amazing athletes who faced and overcome these limits. Hutchinson says that pain is a warning sign but not an absolute limit, and that medals go to athletes who are willing to suffer a bit more than others in the race. For example, Josh Cox commented about Comrades ultramarathon: “The one guarantee in an event like this is the pain … You have to welcome it – say ‘Here you are my friend’” (p.44).
Endure’s final section is on limit breakers – the kind of brain training to foster resilience that shakes off setbacks and adapts to the unexpected. This helped me understand why mindfulness can potentially help soldiers and help them avoid developing post-traumatic stress disorder. It is why anxiety and stressors of the day can detract from training but can also be an opportunity to practice pushing on when mentally fragged.
My favourite chapter of Endure was on belief. The science of effort is underlined by the experiences of Red Bull and Nike athletes doing more than they imagined was possible. All athletes face micro decisions throughout a race – whether to speed up, slow down or maintain pace. As in other arenas of life, sometimes we need to go beyond “even pacing” and what others think is possible in order to break a record.
Eliud Kipchoge, after finishing a 59:19 half marathon, stated: “The verdict was that I’m ready to attempt the unknown through faith by believing in myself … The difference only is thinking. You think it’s impossible. I think it’s possible” (p.206). In the lead up to his Breaking2 race he said, “I’m ready to attempt the unknown through faith by believing in myself” (p.273). Though not an official race, he ran 1:59:40 in Vienna in 2019 in the climax of Nike’s Breaking2 project. Such experiences of performing optimally in sport are helpful inspiration for personal athletic goals, but also useful for performance goals and building resilience in any other aspect of life and work, in or out of the military.
Just as character is not taught in a classroom, neither is mental fitness acquired from a book. Nevertheless, The Comeback Quotient and Endure are page turner books with inspiring stories and science-based theories. They gave me areas to reflect upon where I did well and where I could do better in recent events. They offer a helpful reminder to execute best possible form in the moment and to bounce back from dwelling on the future finish line. I’ve learned the painful reality of hitting the wall, and at those physical low points mental games don’t seem to be able to get me back into the race competitively. Perfect pacing would be crossing the finishing line as I feel I am hitting the wall, a challenge to execute but one worth planning for.
Here is where The Comeback Quotient and Endure are a wealth of both inspiration and reliable advice – they offer invaluable pointers for anyone preparing for physically daunting challenges – whether it is a recruit’s first Basic Fitness Assessment or career soldiers attempting Special Forces selection.
As well as fitness and sport, Fitzgerald gives me insight into how I and others can tackle extremely complex and physically demanding challenges in other areas of life. This is part of the core of leadership, chaplaincy and Good Soldiering. As such, The Comeback Quotient is highly recommended reading for athletes wanting to sharpen their mental fitness but also for soldiers, commanders and chaplains wanting to develop themselves and others in a similar direction.