Why Happy Athletes Are More Successful (And How to Be One)


“If I run happy, I run well.” – Kaci Lickteig, Western States Endurance Run Champion

Kaci Lickteig is one of those people. You know, those people who can still smile when everyone else is grimacing, who has the presence of mind to thank course volunteers while climbing steep grades, and whose happy countenance and petite stature belie her fearsome competitive drive. I used to hate those people, until I realized they were having a lot more fun than I was, at which point I endeavored to figure out how to be more like them. Here’s what I learned.

You Control Your Inner Voice

We all have a conversation going on in our heads during training and events. It’s that voice telling you how much this intensity hurts, how much your legs are screaming for relief, and how there’s no way you can keep up this pace. The thing some athletes know and the rest of us need to learn is we not only control our responses to that voice, we also control our inner voice itself. It’s not that athletes like Kaci and others who seem interminably happy are immune to the strain of intense efforts, even as conditions become extreme. It’s that they are prepared for that eventuality. They know they can withstand that strain and have faced it before and prevailed. More important, they have learned to disassociate the painful physical feedback from their positive state of mind.

NBA Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Walton is another athlete who has mastered the control of his inner voice. Bill loves his bike and is the inspiration behind the “I Love My Bike” graphic on the back of CTS jerseys. He really does love his bike, and no matter how hard the climb or hot the day or hard the rain, when you ask Bill how he’s doing he’ll respond, “I love my bike!” He knows it’s cold and hailing sideways 50 miles into a 110-mile day on the bike; he just doesn’t let the physical reality drag down his positive spirit. The body is a lot tougher and capable than most people give it credit for; it’s often the mind that fails first, betrays the body, and pulls it down into defeat.

There are a lot of different types of athletes out there, but in my experience one of the fundamental differences between athletes is that there are those for whom exercise is a means to an end and those for whom exercise is joy. That’s not to say you can’t be somewhere in the middle, but I still maintain this is one of the primary differences in how athletes approach sport. These two groups respond to stressful situations in different manners, and recognizing those responses is the key to changing your mindset and performing as a happy athlete.

When Exercise is a Means to an End

Many athletes exercise as a way to relieve stress. A hard ride or run is a more socially acceptable way to deal with lifestyle stress than getting drunk, yelling at coworkers, or breaking things. Running a business is stressful, and I can’t count the number of times I have gotten on my bike frustrated and come back in a much better frame of mind. For other athletes exercise is the pathway to specific performance or health outcomes, and training provides structure and/or progress they might crave in other areas of their lives.

When athletes who approach exercise as a means to an end aren’t performing up to their expectations they sometimes develop a negative inner voice that seeks to reinforce the notion they are not good enough. Instead of relieving stress, exercise itself becomes a stressor; the positive sensations you seek to balance the stress from other areas of your life are missing. The progress you desire from the structure of training seems like a step backward instead.

Pushing harder is the most common response from these athletes, but that only makes the workout – and its impact on your mentality – worse.

When Exercise is Joy

At the other end of the spectrum are athletes for whom exercise is a primary way they experience joy. These are the athletes who don’t understand the concept of a rest day because it means a day without running or cycling or swimming, and why would you want such a day? They’re the athletes who work so they can enjoy their sport, rather than participate in a sport to deal with the stress from work. When you ask one of these people to name the top 5 happiest moments in their lives, at least two involved efforts above lactate threshold.

When exercise is a primary source of joy, underperforming can have a profound effect on your outlook. Over the years I’ve developed a theory. I think there’s a minimum performance threshold at which exercise switches from making people feel better about themselves to making people feel worse about themselves. I think the breakpoint is different for everyone, but that fundamentally there’s a pace, perceived effort, or competitive ability that flips a switch to say, “Yes, I’m fit. I’m good at this. I enjoy this.” But when athletes fall below that threshold, they hear the opposite feedback: “I’m slow. I’m no good at this. I hate this.” You can imagine the tailspin that occurs when exercise is a primary way you experience joy and you fall below that threshold.

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Harnessing the Power of Happy

Is smiling going to give you the 20 watts you need to stay with the front group in a road race? Is thanking aid station volunteers going to make Kaci Lickteig run faster at Western States? No. But ain’t gonna hurt! What is going to diminish performance is letting negative physical feedback drag your mindset into the dumps. I’m not advocating denial of physical reality; this isn’t a case of “just keep swimming” or “let it go” (parents of young children will get the references…). Instead I’m advocating a proactive decision to be happy despite evidence to the contrary.

The unifying solution to all the scenarios above is simple. It’s going to sound corny and hippy-ish, but pursue happiness and let performance follow. If exercise is a source of stress relief, recognize it as such, so that when the performance isn’t where you want it to be you can back off and avoid grinding yourself into the ground to meet a performance expectation. I live at the base of a 2000-foot climb. There are days when I want to attack the climb to relieve stress, but my body doesn’t respond. I could push harder, but that’s going to make the climb miserable… and probably slower. On those days I’ve learned to recognize what I need from that climb, and that may mean adjusting my outlook and backing off the intensity so I reach the top in a better mindset than I had at the base.

Similarly, when I was riding with Bill Walton a few years ago during the USA Pro Challenge Race Experience, he taught me the art of deciding to find joy in adversity. We were nearing the end of a roughly 100-mile stage that finished in Beaver Creek, Colorado. With about 10 miles to go the typical Rocky Mountain afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. The temperature dropped about 30 degrees and in a matter of minutes we were riding in an ice-cold torrential downpour. I just wanted to be done. I looked over at Bill. Surely, even the eternally happy Bill Walton would think this was a miserable way to end the day. He just smiled broadly and yelled, “I love my bike!” We laughed like idiots, and the misery of being cold, soaked, tired disappeared.

Next weekend Kaci Lickteig will toe the start line of the Western States Endurance Run as defending champion. Her coach is Jason Koop, noted in his book, “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”, that contenders for major ultramarathons come to the start line with very similar physical abilities. On paper it’s a race of equals, but in reality it’s often a race between mentalities. Who can smile through adversity? Who can resist or work through the dark thoughts to push forward with a positive outlook on what they could do in the miles to come? Pursue happiness and performance will follow.

Maybe we need to change the old adage from “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” to “When the going gets tough, the tough get happy!”

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 12

  1. Pingback: Are You a Magnet? | Athletes Devotional

  2. Since you have a 2000 foot climb outside your front door, how many minutes do you warmup riding before doing it when you go it for a ride?

  3. Thanks for the timely article. I see myself in both scenarios. Having once been a joy-filled athlete, and winning races, I made a decision to try to be competitive. And gradually the stresses in my life over took the joy of training and I started placing lower and lower and underperforming even in training. I struggle to give up that competitive side now and just enjoy the ride. But with a huge goal just around the corner (Haute Route Rockies), I think I will write “ride happy and smile through the hard times” on my top tube as a reminder. I’m not there to compete with anyone but my own psyche. I have confidence I can do it physically but the mental side is scary and you have provided me a way to get through the dark. Thank you for the timely reminder!

  4. I just finished a light 5 day tour led by an 80+ yr old club rider on his motorized recumbent, which he’s been using since he broke a vertebra while training for another tour a few years ago. Talk about mental toughness! His slowdown has created opportunities for riders who are working up to his level to join him on his tours.

    Which recalls your comment about deciding not to push harder up a climb on a hard day. My coach Renee and I have been working on figuring out the “just right” amount of exercise for as long as we’ve been working together, because it constantly varies. There’s a book called Diet for a Small Planet which helps people to think about food consumption, a precursor to Michael Pollan’s admonition to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. I’m ready for a book called “Exercise for a Small Planet”. Coincidentally, one of my ultracycling friends who experiences plenty of joy on her crisscrossing-of-the-country tours is nicknamed “runs on plants”. Little by little it’s all coming together. Sustainability happens on many levels. The point is to continue, having once begun. Beyond that, ????? Couldn’t say. Thanks for prompting this reflection.

  5. Thanks Chris. This is especially relevant for those of us who aren’t going to win national championships and have other “day jobs.” It describes the very helpful attitude adjustment that is inferred by the serenity prayer. I love my bike, and most days, I think it responds in kind.

  6. Your article made me reflect back to those times when something (usually cycling or sitting on a spin bike when there is 2 ft of snow outside) was difficult, but when I was ‘happy’ it didn’t seem that hard and didn’t last as long. I know in group rides when there is that playful competition and bantering, the sufferfest wasn’t suffering all, just exhaustive fun. Thanks for helping me to remember how to do that again and more and make it more of a habit.

  7. Very well put and for me personally, well timed. Find appreciation and gratitude wherever you can. Thanks

  8. This article was so timely for me. I was experiencing a real low and feeling like I just want to quit training for my ultra. Well the article made me realize the tools I have within and gave me a choice to be happy or not. I choose happy and am looking forward to my long run today, and I promise to smile and enjoy the run today. Thanks for the article

    1. You are being pretty hard on yourself! Your long run is considerably more challenging in the fact that it is at your job site and probably will be on treadmill or track! I have no doubt that you will find that place that makes you “soar” and you will elevate both mind and spirit in focusing on the big picture!! Maybe today that run is the WCT>with you in spirit…love you!

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