Endurance sports are beautiful and cruel. Even in the middle of the biggest races in the world, at some level every athlete is alone. You’re the one doing the work and making the decisions about how hard to go, what risks to take, and how much you can take. It’s that experience of surrounded isolation that every amateur athlete – and every endurance sport competitor – has in common with the top pros, especially when the going gets tough. When have you had enough? Do you have the strength to continue? When is it time to quit? Is continuing worth the effort or the risk?
Did you think you’re the only one that has had those thoughts during a race or event? Did you think that once you reach a certain level in a sport, once you’re riding in the Tour de France or the defending champion of the Western States Endurance Run, those thoughts go away? They don’t. Endurance sports always remain an exercise in mental calculus.
Every athlete, from novices to pros, has wrestled with the decision of stop vs. continue. We have all had bad days when it takes every ounce of willpower to keep from quitting. At the Western States Endurance Run a few weeks ago, defending champion Kaci Lickteig started out strong and then struggled in the 100-degree heat later in the day. At mile 74 out of 100 miles, Kaci sat down in an aid station and declared she was going to drop out. Once an athlete announces that decision, it is almost impossible to get him or her to continue. Normally, the only way to keep an athlete in a race is to make sure they never flip the mental switch to “Quit”.
As recounted in a great blog post from Stephanie Case, it took a village to get Kaci out of that chair, but once she was on her way there was no more stopping her. Unfortunately, not every drop decision has a happy ending, and I can provide the example for the other side. Back in 1986 I eventually abandoned the Tour de France because of stomach problems. Abandoning was the last thing I wanted to do, and I fought with everything I had to stay in the race. But I wasn’t getting any nourishment, couldn’t recover from day to day, and on the bike I was weak as a kitten. I finally reached a point where I had to face the reality that abandoning was the only option.
Working Through the Worst
Failure is an unpleasant but necessary learning experience for athletes. Yes, it helps with developing mental fortitude, but perhaps just as important it teaches athletes to be problem solvers. You have to work the problem, remove emotion from the situation, and try everything you can think of before pulling the plug. Quitting is easy. It happens in an instant and brings immediate relief, which is very enticing when everything is going wrong. Having worked with a lot of athletes, from amateurs to pros and across many different sports, here are some of the strategies my coaches and I use with athletes who are struggling during events:
1. Remove the pressure
Athletes are goal-oriented. They want to win or maintain a specific pace or achieve a goal time. Then they add deeply personal goals like racing in support of a charity or to honor the memory of a loved one. At the pro level it’s the pressure to do your job and the desire to not let your teammates down. But when athletes are on the brink of quitting, removing those pressures enables them to address the situation more rationally. Inspiration is absolutely necessary for keeping an athlete going, but that’s different than feeling an obligation or pressure (real or perceived).
If you’re the Athlete: Let the goal pace go. Don’t worry about your overall standing. You’re not letting anyone down. Take it one step or one kilometer at a time.
If you’re the Crew: It’s important for an athlete to know they’ll be supported whether they choose to continue or not, and that it’s their choice. Rather than making it easier for them to quit, most athletes feel liberated by letting go of those real or perceived pressures and choose to continue. Remember, quitting takes an instant. Many times all you have to do is get an athlete past that instant and they can get back on track (or closer to it).
2. Work the problem
The problems that cause endurance athletes to slow down or stop moving forward don’t typically solve themselves. You have to actively work the problem. We’ve seen athletes get into deep nutrition and/or hydration crises during endurance events and dig themselves back out to finish strong. But it takes focus and skill and being proactive. Working through the tough spots is what teaches you how to persevere in the future.
If you’re the Athlete: Ultrarunning Coach Jason Koop developed a 5-step crisis-management system we call A.D.A.P.T., and the principles apply across multiple sports.
If you’re the Crew: Your critical thinking skills and ability to keep a level head are most important in this scenario. Work quickly but don’t rush. Help your athlete make good decisions and feel confident about those decisions.
3. Keep moving
To borrow from Newton’s First Law of Motion: an athlete in motion tends to stay in motion and an athlete at rest tends to stay at rest. When athletes are feeling strong and confident stops that last too long can be just enough to throw them off their rhythm or out of their flow. On the other end of the spectrum, when athletes are struggling it can be very difficult to get them moving once they stop.
If you’re the Athlete: Moving forward slowly is better than standing still. Ideally, get in and out of aid stations quickly, but not rushed. If you know you’re going to continue but need to stop for a bit longer, aim to stay standing or with your bike. If you’re at the decision point between dropping out or continuing, take the time you need.
If you’re the Crew: When my coaches and I are in aid stations during endurance events like the Western States, Ironman triathlons, or the Leadville 100 (MTB and Run), we want to help athletes and then get them out of the aid station quickly. We’re nice about it, but we try not to let athletes get off their bikes or sit down. It’s better to be moving forward, no matter how slowly, than to be stationary. Moving helps to keep an athlete’s head in the game and that is what keeps their body in the game.
4. Don’t be stupid
While the goal is always to keep an athlete moving forward, you also have to recognize when it’s time to pull the plug. When athletes are likely to endanger themselves by continuing, are no longer capable of making good decisions, or are going to put other competitors/participants/event staff in danger, the right decision is to stop.
When you’re the Athlete: Trust your crew. Of course, that also means you want to have people you really trust in your crew! You’re likely to be disoriented, as well as conflicted about what choice you should make. Who is the person you would trust most in that situation to understand what you’re going through, how badly you want to reach your goal, and yet have the courage to stop you from hurting yourself?
Earlier this year Cannondale-Drapac cyclist Toms Skujins, who worked with CTS Coach Kevin Todd while he was riding for Holowesko-Citadel, crashed heavily while riding in a breakaway during the Amgen Tour of California. Nearly anyone watching the race live on television instantly realized Toms was a danger to himself when he struggled to stand up, fell over again, almost walked in front of a group of chasing riders, and nearly hit a curb immediately after remounting his bike. Race fans breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced his team vehicle caught up with him several kilometers later and pulled him out of the race.
When you’re the Crew: Ideally, you want athletes to make the decision themselves. No one likes to drop out, but in my experience athletes often feel better about the choice when they make their own decision. When the decision is made for them there is sometimes a lingering doubt about whether it was the right call (even when it definitely was). Crew members, coaches and team directors need to be the voice of reason, especially when athletes are exhausted, disoriented, and passionate about not giving up. We never want to see an athlete give up, but sometimes it’s the appropriate choice.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS