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Endurance Sports and Personal Growth: Ask the Experts

03/19/2015 12:14 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015
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The clinical benefits of endurance sports have long been documented and include a reduced risk of heart failure, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. Additionally, a new wave of research shows that participating in common endurance sports may be effective in treating depression and anxiety. Less studied, but perhaps just as important, is how involvement in endurance sports enhances day-to-day life by changing the nature of stress and nurturing what psychologists call a "growth mindset," which can be described as a general outlook on life that recognizes a natural human capacity to grow and evolve -- especially in the face of challenges.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss endurance sports, stress, and growth mindsets with world-renowned health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. Our conversation led to an article for Outside Magazine: "Endurance Sports Will Make You a Better, Calmer, Person." This piece generated thoughtful discussion and a handful of notes from readers asking for more. So, rather than just give my take, I asked a few other folks that live and breath this stuff to share their thoughts.

The Question: In addition to shaping your body, how has participating in endurance sports shaped your mindset?

David Epstein: Author of The Sports Gene
When I started distance running -- or mid-distance, really -- I was pretty darn bad. Sometimes in presentations, I show a picture of a medical record from a pulmonary exam I had when I started running. It says my peak flow results are consistent with early stage emphysema. Yikes! But it never really crossed my mind that starting poorly meant that I wouldn't have a great response to training.

One of the most important things I learned in reporting for The Sports Gene was that baseline ability (i.e., pre-training) and ability to improve with training are sometimes only slightly correlated, and sometimes not correlated at all. I think I sort of intuited that a long time ago, and when I improved by leaps and bounds as a runner, it only reinforced that idea for me.

I'd come into every season in college in way worse shape than guys in my training group, even after having done the same light summer training. I'd always just tell myself to be patient, wait for intervals to start, and I'd catch up. Literally, I would say to myself: "Don't worry, speed intervals and hills work like rocket fuel for you." This really taught me to take a longer view and helped me realize that the best training plan for my peers wasn't necessarily the best one for me. I took a trial and error approach to all my training, continually homing in what I felt worked specifically for me, even if it wasn't exactly what my peers or competitors were doing.

I guess I kind of adopted that approach for my professional life, too. Geology in graduate school and then working the overnight shift at the NY Daily News happened to be good journalism training for me! But I certainly wouldn't recommend it to everyone...

While this might surprise people who bucket me as "the genetic basis for talent guy," I firmly believe that you can get vastly better at just about anything with proper training. Any other mindset seems foreign to me.

Alex Hutchinson: Runner's World blogger and author of What Comes First, Cardio or Weights?
Running has played a big role in shaping how I respond to the world around me. It has taught me to be patient in the face of adversity: if things aren't going well right now, I know that (a) panicking won't help; (b) I can endure whatever adversity I'm currently facing and it won't kill me; and (c) there's plenty of time to fix whatever is wrong and change the outcome, and it's up to me to make that happen. Those sound like clichés, but I think that's what running teaches you.

Dr. Michael Joyner: Mayo Clinic physiologist
As a kid involved in running, I learned the standard stuff about goal setting, hard work, and pushing through adversity. I learned to take the long view, and that training is a process not an event.

By the time I hit my early 20s, I learned it was possible to both relax and push it at the same time. When this first happens to you it is sort of an unbelievable random out-of-body experience. However, if you pay attention to your training and focus on learning how to do this you can experience it more consistently and work to produce it in training and racing. This sort of relaxed but all-out effort -- what many might call "flow" -- is also a skill that can be transferred to other activities in life.

In middle age I have realized that endurance sports taught me a bit about managing the inevitable mental and physical suffering and anxiety associated with life. Don't get too attached to things, trust the process, stay relaxed, and let the outcomes take care of themselves.

Most people have no idea what their limits are.

Steve Magness: Coach and author of The Science of Running
Endurance sports allow for gains psychologically and emotionally that provide a far greater impact than the physical benefits. For one, when you train and race, you have to be comfortable in your own head. There's no easy distracting phone to play with or movies to watch, it's just you and your thoughts. In today's society we do anything possible to avoid the inner dialogue in our head, but in endurance sports, it's all we have. So learning how to be alone in your own head and process the negative and positive emotions that come from grinding out a long race transfers to any activity. You get comfortable dealing with anxiety, uncertainty, pain, and boredom all in one shot.

And the thing is, we fail way more then we succeed in endurance sports. There are only so many times when we can be on our absolute best and hit a lifetime PR, so dealing with the ups and downs of sport and learning how to stay level headed is a huge lesson to be learned. Dealing with failure is one of the most difficult life lessons you can learn, but with running, fortunately or unfortunately, we have plenty of opportunities to do so.

To me, these abilities -- to remain focused and composure during both good and bad times -- is a skill that directly transfers to so many areas of life. For example, if I'm in the middle of a long writing session and losing focus or getting nervous before a big talk, I simply tie it back to what I do in running. If I really mess up a project or 'fail' at a task, I relate back to how I'd handle a tough loss. It's these lessons, if you allow yourself to learn from them, that have the greatest impact.

Matt Fitzgerald: Author of numerous books on training and nutrition
In endurance races, I feel that I come face to face with my naked soul in a way that I never do in everyday life. The legendary triathlete Mark Allen called this experience "raw reality." Everything is stripped away; only bare consciousness remains. But it's a divided consciousness, an urgent desire to quit pitted against a tenacious will to continue. I discover myself in these moments. I don't know if I can intellectualize their benefits. All I can say -- as many others do -- is that they are somehow purifying. And I keep going back for more.

My thoughts: The only things I'd add to what Dave, Alex, Mike, Steve, and Matt said is that endurance sports have instilled within me a sense of individual agency. In today's super connected and complex world, few endeavors remain in which it's just you working for something with a tangible measure as objective as time. I've learned to trust myself, and to wholly own both my successes and failures, which I guess is how I'd define self-confidence.

I've also had the honor of meeting and growing close to so many fine people through endurance sports. It doesn't really matter that most of them are 10 times better than me! It is a sense of sharing in the common struggle to simply "get better," regardless of one's baseline, that bonds us. These friends, mentors, and coaches have helped me grow in many ways -- the most valuable of which have been off the race course.

Note: some responses were edited slightly for length and clarity.