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How to become a better athlete

athlete
(Image credit: Unknown)

Joe de Sena is the founder of the globally successful Spartan Race, a series of take-no-prisoners obstacle course runs. He’s also the author of the book Spartan Up, in which he says that putting yourself way out of your comfort zone – primarily by doing an obscene amount of burpees – is the key to peak performance and a better life.

Deep down inside all of us is an ability to fight to get through obstacles in life. But this ability gets masked because of the bubble-wrapped existence most of us in the developed world live, one where everything is given to us. When we do face adversity we blow up or, if we fail, give up. 

However, every time you do something that’s really difficult your brain gets rewired to make it easier for you the next time you do it. We’ve all been through something tough that suddenly makes everything else seem easier by comparison. By going out and facing adversity and doing things that are outside your comfort zone, not only do you mentally change your frame of reference but you physically change the structure of your brain, making it a tougher organ.

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Chunky business

The way to push through something difficult is to compartmentalise it. You have to think, ‘I’ve just got to make it through the next hour’ or ‘I’ve just got to make it to the next obstacle’. Your mind is able to deal with bite-sized chunks like that. No-one can properly process 500 miles or a big personal setback all in one go. It’s just about making it through the next ten minutes, and then the ten minutes after that. Before you know it, you’ve strung them all together and got through it.

You might hate a run or race while you’re in the middle of it, but afterwards you’ve got this awesome ability to forget the exact pain you felt and just remember the good stuff. That’s part of what keeps most serious runners coming back for more, and consequently achieving more. 

This isn’t Sparta

In the cosseted society we live in, most people have a hard time understanding this. Normal now is different to normal in ancient Sparta, when hardship in pursuit of excellence was a way of life. At the moment, because we’re constantly creating new technology to make things easier, we’ve lost our inner Spartan, which means we struggle to fulfil our physical potential. I’m not saying we should live the way they did in ancient Sparta – but if we can move our idea of normal even a little closer to how they lived their lives, we’d all achieve a lot more.

De Sena’s tips for finding your inner Spartan

Train in the rain

And snow, and wind – you’ve got to go out no matter how bad the weather. Think how easy running a half marathon in the summer will be if you’ve done it in a blizzard in nothing more than shorts and a T-shirt.

Lug some logs

Carrying heavy things around is the perfect way to develop the functional strength you need in an obstacle race – and you’ll never struggle to carry your supermarket bags to the car again. 

Hurry up hills

As well as improving the power and efficiency of your stride and protecting your hamstrings, running up hills is a lot more demanding than running on the flat, so when you do the latter it’ll seem less painful.

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