3 Simple Tips for Execs from Endurance Sports

Tomorrow my husband and I will join about 1800 other endurance athletes in the Pikes Peak Ascent - a half marathon that begins  in Manitou Springs, CO and climbs 7,815 feet to the top of the 14,115 foot summit of Pikes Peak.

This race is pretty much the apex of our summer racing season. We participate in 10-12 endurance events beginning in May and winding down in September. And so by this time in the season - my fitness is usually excellent, my race-day habits finely tuned, and my confidence boosted by a few good finishing times.

But this race is something different. This will be my sixth time participating in the Ascent, and every year I approach it with respect, reverence and if I'm honest - a fair bit of dread. This storied event is arguably one of the most difficult half marathons in the United States - maybe the world. The weather is incredibly varied, and sometimes volatile - it could be 65 degrees and sunny at the top or snowing in August. The trail - while well groomed - is rocky and full of tree roots, and above tree line (when most people start to really feel the physical and mental effects of high altitude)  - the scree is loose and unstable.

So - despite the fact that I'm fit, prepared and experienced, I'm still finding myself anxious and tense about the effort tomorrow.

There are many parallels I make from endurance training and racing to work and life, but it occurred to me this morning that this habit of spending the 24 or 48 hours before an event being nervous, withdrawn and slightly sick to my stomach is a real waste of time and space. And it's something I think we all do - in life and especially in our careers.

Being a leader is very much like being an endurance athlete. In everyday "training", you get up every morning earlier than most. You schedule your time carefully. You prioritize the most important things in your day. And you continue to make and track progress on goals that won't come to fruition for months, or quarters or in some cases years.  There are intense effort periods interspersed with slower, recovery days.  And as "race day" approaches -  be it a board meeting, a big presentation, a restructuring announcement, a tough earnings call - the stress and pressure mounts, and many leaders will find themselves grumpy, withdrawn, stressed and dreading what's coming.

Now - a good leader will make sure to be well prepared, plow through and importantly knows from experience that it's all part of the job - and it will be over soon enough. But how much is that dread, worry, and stress helping anyone - your team, your family, yourself? And how much is it costing?

It's perfectly normal to have stress. When you're continually striving for improvement, setting new goals, pushing your organization to achieve better and bigger things, there's a natural tension and as you reach new levels of success and achievement, the projects become more impactful and therefore the stakes are higher. Good leaders understand their responsibilities and play their edges to stretch into new levels. But a few mindset shifts can go a long way to being a great leader who inspires and stays well balanced and fulfilled too.

1. Focus on the Best Possible Outcome

If you're constantly white-knuckling it as you roll out new programs or stretch goals into the organization, you're on the side of dread. Elite athletes (and we amateurs, too) find that visualizing their perfect race has measurable impact on their success. What if you shifted your own thought process? What if instead of worrying that the team can't live up to your expectations, you began to anticipate with excitement that they will surpass them? What if you stayed curious about what kinds of new ways of solving a problem they can come up with? When you anticipate good things - they stand a better chance of coming to fruition than when you expect that they won't. Positive, supportive leaders create healthier more productive company cultures.

2. Build Your Stress Resilience

But great leaders do that AND thrive in life. Finding a healthy balance of stress and tension and joy and ease in your journey to achieve is one of the attributes that sets great leaders apart from good leaders. One of the ways athletes measure fitness is how fast we recover from training stress. In your everyday training, consider how to build stress resilience.

3. Trust your Training

You've got this. You and your team have prepared, you triple checked the deck, and you've rehearsed your presentation. In the day or two before a big race, I suddenly start questioning my training - wondering if I should have added more strength training in, worrying about how much time I've spent on the bike vs. on my feet.

When you want to do well, and it's important, it's natural to have race-day jitters. But it's your years of experience, your resilience, your ability to be present and roll with the unexpected that makes you a really great leader. Mindfulness is the most powerful tool I know to be able to slow down and be in the moment. And being in the moment is the most powerful leadership trait you can have on game day. Trust your training. Breathe. Enjoy the ride - you'll be a better leader if you do.

Jennifer Thurman