Business Essentials

Eight lessons entrepreneurs can learn from endurance athletes

Eight lessons entrepreneurs can learn from endurance athletes

Wednesday, 08 June 2022

Endurance athletes and entrepreneurs share a common aim: keep moving forward until the ‘race is won’. And making it to the finish line is not just about turning up — it's about having a plan, maximising performance and keeping going when the going gets tough. Committing passion, time and determination to a product or vision is, in some ways, the ultimate endurance event; there are no short-cuts and only the determined, resilient and agile will stay the course. And in business as well as in sports, the mental is every bit as key as the physical. So, get your headset in the race and follow the eight rules that long-distance athletes swear by, to achieve an entrepreneurial personal best. 


  1. Win the race one step at a time 

A race is won step by step and business is an equally cumulative journey. Just like a race, even if you have done all the preparation you canyou cannot ultimately predict what will happen along the way. For athletes, the ‘finish’, is just one marker of success though – winning happens long before they cross the line, informed by every step and decision they make along the way. That willingness to ‘run the mile they’re in’ is crucial to success — and for entrepreneurs too, it’s vital to stay focused but also agile, and to maintain the balance between being present and reaching for longer-term goals.  


Key takeaway: popular strategy among long-distance runners is to focus on making it halfway — plus one step more. This allows them to better visualise the finish line, adjust to changing conditions and persevere — something that entrepreneurs can adapt to everything from projects to a five-year strategy when they require a psychological boost. 


  1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable  

A lot of the life of an entrepreneur will push you out of your comfort zone, whether that’s testing new products, raising funds, having to pivot, networking or engaging potential customers. Failure is also probable on your way to success. Which means that it’s essential you can get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable — and learn to not automatically see it as a signal to stop. Unless an athlete learns to push past their limits, they are unlikely to reach their potential, and as marathon runner Paula Radcliffe notes, The importance of your state of mind in determining the outcome of a race can't be overestimated. Exploring ways of lifting yourself to the next level by increasing your mental strength and, in the process, greatly building your confidence will pay dividends. 


Key takeaway: Your mindset will either be your most powerful asset or your biggest barrier. Athletes know that resilience means working hard, laying strong foundations and then pushing yourself beyond what you think you are capable of. 


  1. Look for the edge 

Endurance athletes put in the miles for their chosen sport, but also know that to reach peak potential they need an edge. Cross training is one way in which they give themselves that — adding in things like weights and yoga to work new muscles, rest others and increase overall core strength and mobility. In the same way, entrepreneurs can exercise different muscles by networking outside their industry and seeking out new or unconventional ways to broaden skillsets. In this way, you can spark original thought and open doors to opportunity and inspiration that you might never have otherwise found.  


Key takeaway: Be open to tangents and interesting and unusual networking opportunities. The performance boost that diversity of thought and experiences can bring is invaluable for innovation. 


  1. Don’t over train 

It’s tempting as an entrepreneur to overwork — especially in the early days when you are fired up, slightly panicked around finance and keenly aware that the ‘buck stops with you’. But as every high-level athlete will say, there is a point where training too much creates diminishing returns. ‘Pace yourself’ is the key mantra, and the pace at which you work should be one you can maintain: you are running a marathon, not a sprint, and no one gets a medal for burn out. Of course, there will be times when all your attention should be focused on work, but these are acceleration points at which you push forward, not the bulk of the race. At all other points, make time for decompression, a personal life and regular recovery too. Sleep, good diet and exercise are essential for high performance.  


Key takeaway: Don’t have too many priorities. Identify three short-medium goals at any one time and focus on doing purposeful things that will make significant impact on these. 


  1. Get to the root of underperformance 

Underperformance can have roots in self-defeating thoughts and beliefs. Procrastination and Imposter Syndrome feelings will impact your output, both physically and in terms of the vision for your company. Many of those thoughts that seem so ‘real’ actually just stem from stories we tell ourselves, most of which have no basis in reality.  


Key takeaway: In his book The Ultra Mindset, ultra-marathon runner Travis Macy suggests writing out the negative story around a problematic belief, then writing out a positive alternative or ‘new plot’, and what you will do to prove that the negative story is not true and that the positive story is true. 


  1. Know how to measure performance 

Endurance athletes don’t guess their performance levels — they monitor their progress, using relevant metrics to give them feedback and then use the data to make adjustments to improve. The same approach holds true in business — if you don’t know what your KPIs are or what they are doing then you can’t meaningfully track your business and understand what the data is telling you.  


Key takeaway: Building a ‘training plan’ for your business means knowing what measurements will inform you that you are making the progress you are looking for, as well as the most effective way of tracking those metrics and how often you should be doing it. 


  1. Anticipate curveballs 

Even the best-laid plans can be derailed by unexpected events — as entrepreneurs dealing with the limitations during the Covid-19 pandemic will attest. Athletes, too, know that even if they ‘cover all bases’, something could well happen during a race that is not in their plan. As such, they are used to considering all possible scenarios and obstacles and developing contingency plans for each. Doing this is also a key way to manage our own expectations and keep yourself in a productive frame of mind whatever happens.  


Key takeaway: Triathlon coach Matt Fitzgerald suggests that we’re less disappointed by setbacks when not blindsided by them. Approaching the future with a proactively cautious mindset means that you will be able to respond to unexpected setbacks with purpose and calm.  


  1. Find training partners to push you on  

Endurance athletes want to win, but performing in a vacuum can have a negative effect. Being pushed by someone in a race, or even just training with a partner is guaranteed to bring out the best in their competitive spirit and allow them to push past their own limits. Entrepreneurs, too, can benefit from this kindred spirit company — joining organisations such as everywoman will connect you with other entrepreneurs, which in turn will help encourage your own personal progress. 


Key takeaway: Seeking out groups of like-minded entrepreneurs and sharing insights, information and tips can be enormously helpful and inspire even higher performance — as well as helping you to make a network of potentially useful contacts. 


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