10 life & career lessons I learned from racing Ironman - Part 1

Part 1 of 2: The Commitment & Training

I first learned about "Ironman triathlons" back in 2009, when I was almost 20kg overweight.

I was having lunch with an old friend, and he just returned from Ironman South Africa.

A few Youtube videos later and it was love at first sight: I had finally discovered a "sport" I could see myself participating in for the rest of my life.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way: an Ironman triathlon is a long-distance endurance race consisting of a 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike ride, finishing with a 42.2km run (a marathon); all completed as a single event without a break.

To-date, I have completed 2 ironman triathlons, in addition to a number of half-ironman events (as the name implies), as well as shorter triathlons (Olympic distance and "sprint").

Little did I know that my journey in Ironman triathlons would yield a number of valuable lessons I would apply in all aspects of my life, including personal growth, career and many more.

I've found that over the years, these lessons have become extremely valuable to myself as well as businesses I advise, CEOs I coach, and entrepreneurs I mentor...

So, without further ado, here are the "lessons" I picked up along the way:

1. You can't do it without a strong enough "why"

Training for an Ironman triathlon is a MASSIVE commitment. Social life will take a backseat for months. Your spending on nutrition, equipment, race travel and accommodation will skyrocket. You will face "dark days" when you don't feel like getting out of bed, yet you have commitments to your job, your family and even your training.

The No1 question I put to people who approach me for Ironman coaching is: "tell me why you want to do an Ironman". In 90% of the cases, I will turn them down and refer them to other coaches. 

The reason I say no is because I know from personal experience how demanding Ironman is. It takes over your life!

The answer I'm looking for is: "I can't stop thinking about it! For months, it's the last thing on my mind when I go to bed and the first thing when I wake up. I spend hours every day looking at websites of races. I'm obsessed! It's taken over my world!".

That's the answer I'm looking for: because when you feel THAT STRONGLY about something, when you're THAT PASSIONATE about something, then you have enough FUEL to carry you through months of suffering, temptations to quit, self-doubt, and discipline.

Applications in "life": anything you plan to do and which requires months of discipline, focus, resisting temptation, and hard work needs fuel, and that fuel is PASSION and OBSESSION.

Whether you're an entrepreneur building a start-up, an artist working on a new collection, an author writing a book, etc., without a strong enough "why", you will "crack" at the most critical moment.


2. The importance of small victories / consistency wins

Training for an Ironman starts 6 months or more before the race. You have to start putting in the hours and keep pushing when the finish line is very distant. 

It's hard to find the motivation and keep it when you can't even see the "end of the road". This is why so many athletes start off well, but then their discipline and motivation start to crumble in the last 2 months before an event...

This is why it's important to have small, measurable and frequent goals along the way, and to work towards those specific goals, and let the "Big" goal take care of itself. I'm a big fan of building monthly / intermediate goals: setting a new personal best on a swim, losing xkg of weight, shaving 2min off a 10km run, etc.

The same principle applies "during" the race: if you're at the 2km mark of the run, after having swum 3.8km and biked 180km, and you think about having to run another 40km, you'll find yourself walking the rest of the way. The obstacle ahead seems overwhelming. 

Instead: you don't let yourself think about the 40km, but you focus on getting to the next aid station 2km away. And after that? The next aid station 2km later, and so on. You create small achievable goals, and you tick them off one after another.

Applications in "life": you want to build a habit of reading books? Start with 1 chapter a day rather than 1 book a week. You want to building a workout habit? Start with 30min 3x per week rather than committing to 1hr 5x per week.

You want to attract investors for your business? Start with a focused plan to boost revenues, increase market presence, and attract media coverage.


3. Accountability: a powerful motivator

"I can't stop, dozens of people are tracking me online!".

I've said this to myself countless times during the darkest moments of a race, and so have hundreds of Ironman triathletes.

You use that as a powerful motivator not to quit, to keep pushing through the mental and physical pain, to persevere!

I discovered early on that stating your goals in public acts as a mental "turbo button". And I've learned since then that "accountability" has been proven in various psychology studies to be a very powerful motivator.

But it isn't just a tool to keep you going "on the day" - stating your intermediate goals (as discussed above) and even your "training goals" makes you accountable and pushes you to complete them.

Applications in "life": boast publicly about your goals! Make yourself accountable to family, friends, coaches and social media! Whether you're writing a book, planning to lose weight, launching a new product, or whatever else.

Put your commitment "on the line" and use that accountability to fuel you. This is exactly why I keep posting about my upcoming Supplement Guide: I'm behind schedule in completing it, but talking about it keeps me motivated to finish it ASAP!


4. Get a coach, learn from others, educate yourself

Trial and error is great in some circles.

Trial and error when training 15 hours a week with a full-time job, family responsibilities and other obligations will inevitably lead to injuries, frustrations, stress, and ultimately disappointment.

Step 1: get a coach. Spend the time to screen coaches to find the one you feel most comfortable with: not all coaches are the same and different people require different types of coaches.

A coach can you give a "map to follow". It keeps you focused.

A coach can give you feedback. It minimises "wasted effort".

But a coach is not enough. As I learned (the hard way), there isn't a coach out there who knows "everything". I found a lot of value in working with a coach, and I found equal value in educating myself through research, books, articles, and talking to people with experience.

Applications in "life": whether building a business or overcoming a personal challenge, having a coach who has experience in what you're looking for is of massive value.

In addition, spend the time to find mentors, masterminds, and social groups where you can learn from other people's experiences.

Finally, buy some books, subscribe to magazines and podcasts, and dedicate time for research: nothing is going to equip you more for life's challenges like knowledge.


5. Stress is stress, and your body can't tell the difference

It took me a long time to realise this one, and only after I recurrently suffered damage to my body and health.

When I was training for Ironman, I was trying to "fit it all in": work hard to advance my career, train hard and long (15-20hrs per week), and be there for my wife.

I had a "training schedule" to keep, and come hell or high water, I was going to stick to that schedule!

There were many times when I had a "hard interval session" scheduled at the end of the day. It didn't matter if I had a very stressful day at work: I was going to do that interval session!

I have a 6-hour bike ride on the schedule for Friday. I only got to bed at midnight? No problem, I'll be up at 4am to ride!

I was struggling to build my own business. Stress was through the roof. But I had registered for another Ironman 3 months away! I'll train and race anyway!

Ultimately, I paid the price: frequent bouts with illness, injury, and most shocking of all: I was still somewhat overweight despite the tons of training and dieting.

Eventually (and after a ton of research), I understood: stress is stress, and your body can't tell the difference between mental and physical stress - it's the "total stress" that matters most.

Applications in "life": minimising stress should be your first priority. If you struggle with that (sometimes you can't avoid it), then using techniques to "lower" stress should be your second priority. 

Stress will make you gain weight, will weaken your immune system, will mess up your hormones, will reduce your cognitive / mental ability, and worse.

Do you really think you can build a business, care for your family and take care of yourself with a hormonal imbalance, weakened immune system, and lower brain function? I've written extensively about stress in the past. You can read about them at the following links:

How stress makes you gain weight.

Top 5 reasons for feeling tired all the time

The storm blew your roof off. Now what?


6. Don't ignore "other" aspects of your life

That's a biggy.

If I were to identify the single biggest drawback of training for an Ironman triathlon it's this: it takes over your life and shoves other areas out of the way.

I've personally struggled with this, and it's the most common complaint I hear from the large and growing community of long-distance triathletes.

In fact, along with stress management & health, this one is the reason why I developed my new "quality of quantity" training & coaching system for long-distance endurance events.

Do you recall what I talked about at the beginning of this post: the importance of the "why"? You have to be really committed, bordering on obsessed, to put in the training required for Ironman. 

But there is a thin line you could easily cross: genuinely becoming "obsessed" and losing track of other very important parts of your life.

I hate to say it, but Ironman triathlon has cost people relationships, marriages, friends, jobs, and more.

Applications in "life": be committed to your goal, but don't become so obsessed to the point it cost you everything else. Entrepreneurs have lost families and friends. Parents have lost their health. Bankers have lost their soul.They all lost something because of a single fixation, by being blinded by an obsession.

Always be "aware", and plan. Plan time for your "passion", but also plan time for each area of your life you don't want to lose. Don't wait till it's too late.

For Part 2, click here.

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