What are you really capable of? You might surprise yourself. it’s time to challenge your limits and see where it takes you. By Alison Turner and M&F editors
Instead of using your body the way nature intended – taxing all the muscles in it while exposing it to the elements – you’re probably parked in front of a computer most of the day. Even if you go to the gym four times a week, the monotony of the daily grind begins to take a toll. Spend enough time in your windowless cube and you start to feel less human and more like a pale extension of your mouse and keyboard.
It’s such a departure from crawling in the grass, running until your lungs burst, swimming for hours, climbing trees, jumping fences and coming home covered in mud – the sort of activities that defined childhood for many of us. But with the rise in popularity of endurance- and obstacle-based races like IronMan and Tough Mudder, it’s easier than ever to challenge your body the way you used to – all while feeling like a total legend.
“Setting yourself a challenge is not only a great way to stay motivated, it’s also a chance to push your own boundaries and limitations and work outside your comfort zone,” says Sydney-based personal trainer Dylan Rivier. “For many, a challenge such as a marathon or obstacle race is a big deal and often an item that’s on their fitness ‘bucket list’, so the sense of achievement can be extremely rewarding.”
Set your goal
Maybe you’ve always wanted to try a physical challenge, but never thought you were good enough. This is not necessarily the case. You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to do something amazing. And for many of us, just competing in and completing an event can bring massive rewards and satisfaction.
“You don’t have to be born brilliant to athletically achieve,” says Ben Lucas, owner and co- founder of Flow Athletic who has completed 38 full marathons and five ultra marathons. “Yes, some of us have physical limitations, but it’s more the limitations in our minds that hold us back. Push your own boundaries, don’t compare yourself to others. Stick to your plan and you can achieve great things.”
The key word here is “plan”. Once you’ve chosen your event (see “Get started here” over the page for a comprehensive list of race sites), you’ll need to start preparing.
“Get as much info as you can on your event and determine a realistic amount of time it will take to train up for it,” Lucas says.
It’s recommended that you consult a professional like a physiotherapist to make sure you’re in good physical shape and to iron out any issues. It’s also worth seeking the help of a personal trainer who can construct a training plan for you.
“It’s always better to see a trainer/strength coach beforehand,” says Kevin Toonan, a strength and conditioning expert who has spent 15 years within the Australian military and who has completed the Kokoda Track twice, (once in three days) as well as ultra marathons and half marathons. “They’ll take an unbiased, unemotional approach to your training goals and assess your weakness and strengths. It’s important to know if you have muscle or strength imbalances before increasing your training volume. This way you’ll not get halfway through your training and pull up with injuries, or worse – overtrain and crash hard during your event.”
Rivier agrees, pointing out that you need at least 12 weeks lead-up training time to compete at your best (Toonan recommends up to six months if you’re training for a marathon). “The age-old adage rings true here – you have to learn to walk before you can run,” he says.
“Talking to a trainer about how best to get you physically prepared will be beneficial, and talking to a physio about the best way to maintain or improve mobility/flexibility is a great way to help prevent injury. Listening to a professional can also help minimise risk of injury – especially if it’s not something you’re used to.”
Mind over Mudder
While it’s crucial to be physically prepared, the biggest hurdle in completing a physical challenge is often a psychological one.
“The single most important thing I’ve learned during my training and time in difficult situations is that the mind is primary,” says Toonan. “Whatever you tell yourself is true. If you think you’re tired, you are; if you think you’re done, you’re done. On the flipside if you’re positive and have a mantra repeating in your head and you’re focused on what you can do and not what you can’t do then you’ll be in a better place.”
Toonan certainly knows what he’s talking about. He once completed a solo navigation exercise while in the military – five days covering 100km plus, carrying a back pack of 40kg with no one else around.
“It taught me that pain is different to injury,” he says, “that I was capable of more than I thought, that I could always take another step, no matter how tired I was. Being alone makes you responsible for your every action. I was acutely aware that my thoughts and actions where solely up to me, that I was in charge.”
The psychological rewards an event offers are also well worth the effort. Achieving something you never knew you were capable of can boost self-esteem and help you overcome difficult situations in the future – physical or otherwise.
“Every challenge that I’ve ever undertaken has left me with an incredible sense of achievement,” Rivier says. “Aside from that – and what I think is even more valuable – is that I got to learn what my body was capable of doing. I think pushing yourself to your limits, both physically and mentally, is very empowering and helps to put almost everything else into perspective. I remember very clearly my first rowing regatta, a 2km race in a four (four rowers plus a coxswain). It was by far, the hardest physical thing I had ever done at that time. It was almost excruciatingly painful – muscles ached, lungs burned – but, afterwards I remember thinking: if I can do that, I can do anything!”
Remember that you don’t have to go all-out and run across the Sahara Desert to reap the benefits. These days there are so many different events that suit varying levels of fitness and ability.
“As we’re coming into running season, there’s a heap of fun runs including the iconic Sydney City 2 Surf race, which is a great day out and a very achievable challenge, no matter what your current level of fitness is,” Rivier says. “If you don’t think you’re up for a marathon, why not start with something like that? 14km is a lot easier to digest than 42. And if you think the Tough Mudder is a little daunting, why not try one of the shorter obstacle course races that are on the calendar?”
Forget the “F” word
What if, even after all that hard work and preparation, you don’t finish? Rather than seeing yourself as a failure, see it as a learning experience, and an opportunity to try again.
“If you don’t reach your goal you need to assess your training, your conditioning, your time preparing for the goal and then look at yourself,” Toonan says. “If you set your goals too high to start with, you’re setting yourself up for failure. But this isn’t a bad thing – failure is part of life. You need to be honest with yourself and then move on. It’s okay to fail but it’s not okay to give only 70 percent of yourself to the process. It’s all or nothing – otherwise it’s not a goal, it’s a hobby.”
While reassessing your approach is smart, being hard on yourself is the last thing you want to do. The most important thing is that you tried – more than can be said for most.
“Failure is always a possibility,” Lucas says. “What should you do if you don’t reach your goal? In my opinion, don’t be hard on yourself. Reassess and try again.
“But what is failure, really? If you learn about yourself and if you did your very best, even if you didn’t cross the finish line, it’s not failure.”
Rivier agrees, stressing that it’s important not to blame yourself, but rather to take stock and think about what you might do differently in future. Because once you’ve started, it’s unlikely you’ll want to stop. And you may well come back even hungrier next time.
“Believe it or not,” he says, “sometimes getting over that metaphoric line after you’ve been unsuccessful once, twice, three times is even sweeter than killing it on your first try.”
1. Stay hydrated
Before you decide to engage in any endurance sport, you need to make sure your body is properly hydrated. Failing to do so can lead you to run the risk of muscle cramps and muscle fatigue. This is caused by depleting some of your mineral stores, in particular your electrolytes (sodium and potassium). Make sure to drink at least
500-750ml of water before you work out.
2. Perform a dynamic warm-up
Many endurance athletes will start their workout with a quick jog or light pedal on the bike. But the body needs more than that to properly prepare for a tough road race or hard training run. Instead, perform various dynamic stretches and body weight drills, such as squats, lunges, push-ups, star jumps and dynamic planks. Studies have shown that by performing a proper dynamic warm-up, you improve mobility, reduce the risk of injury and stimulate the nervous system to improve movement.
3. Wear proper footwear
Just buying a workout shoe you found on the sale rack is not always the best option. You need to find a shoe that fits your foot correctly and that’s right for your respective endurance sport. Instead, find a shop that has someone who can help you get set up with the right shoe. Depending on your training level, you may need anything from a minimalist shoe to a stability shoe. In order to optimise performance, make sure the shoe fits you.
4. Include strength training
A common belief among endurance athletes is that they don’t need strength training. This is far from the truth. It’s common for endurance athletes to dump their strength workouts in order to get all of their endurance training. But, studies have shown that when endurance athletes include strength training in their workout programs, they see increased energy, speed and less injury. Make sure to perform three strength training workouts each week, for about 30-40 minutes, while you train for your respective endurance sport.
5. Eat more protein
A well-balanced diet is a critical component for any successful endurance athlete. Many athletes increase their carb intake to replace all of the glycogen they’re burning up, but forget to bump up their protein intake.
Just like strength athletes, such as bodybuilders, endurance athletes are breaking down a significant amount of muscle tissue. Make sure to consume two grams of protein per kilo of body weight, to ensure you have enough amino acids (protein broken down in the body) to rebuild. Your protein sources should come from lean animal protein sources such as beef, turkey, chicken, eggs and Greek yoghurt.
6. Do interval training
Your body has three energy systems (ATP-PC, glycolysis and oxidative). You can simply think of this as short, medium and long distance training. In order to properly prepare for endurance sports, you need to train all three to be well-rounded. Interval training is the perfect complement to your long runs and bike rides. Research has shown that performing regular bouts of interval training (about 2-3 times a week), can improve your VO2 max (improved oxygen utilisation uptake) and reduce the risk of overuse injuries, by helping keep overall training volume down.
7. Quality over quantity
When engaging in an endurance sport, don’t fall into the trap that more is better. Don’t increase your training volume just because you think that by adding more will result in improved performance. Instead, make sure you map out a detailed 8-12 week training program and track your progress. This will insure that you don’t overtrain and will reduce the risk of overuse injuries.
8. Eat loads of colourful fruits & vegies
When training for an endurance sport, you put a great amount of stress on your body from the increased workload. This causes added oxidative stress within the body. This causes increased free radicals to cascade through your system, reducing the body’s ability to recover. Colourful fruit and veg such as blueberries, raspberries, beetroot, broccoli and spinach contain high amounts of antioxidants that help rid the body of free radicals. Make sure to eat at least 3-6 servings of colourful fruits and vegetables each day.
9. Refuel with quality carbs
The more you train, the more energy you’ll need. Your glycogen storage (energy) in your muscles, brain and liver will become depleted, if you train hard and don’t refuel. By refuelling your body with carbohydrates, you replace your depleted glycogen stores. Make sure to consume four to six grams of carbohydrates per kilo of body weight. Choose high quality sources such as oatmeal, sweet potatoes, beans, fruit and vegetables.
10. Maintain a strong immune system
If your immune system is compromised from training hard, it could sideline you from your training regimen. While having a solid diet will help keep your immune system running strong, sometimes that won’t be enough. This is where supplementation comes in. Ingredients that include selenium, vitamins A, C, E, B and coenzyme Q10 prove helpful. This variety of nutrients helps provide the body with critical antioxidant defence and cellular protection mechanisms.