Why Joy is Important for Successful Endurance Training

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

Lighthearted joy is not my strong suit.

In fact, I am the one who, several years after retiring from professional racing, replied to my loving dad’s comment, “I just want you to be able to have fun,” with “I don’t WANT to have fun, Daddy, I want to accomplish something!”

We thirty-somethings are a real treat to parent.

My own over-eager sense of drive aside, to achieve longevity in sport you must allow yourself to find joy in what you do. Joy doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that requires a guidebook, but I know that during my career, I frequently needed a gentle push in the direction of enjoyment.

If, like me, your instinct is to regard joy as an awfully floofy training aid, remember: Happy athletes are the ones who last. Sometimes, in matters of sport and the heart, my father knows best.

Keep pressure in perspective


It can come after a big personal victory, after you realize how much you have financially invested in your sport, or once your realize that “athlete” has become a tough-to-separate part of your identity – at some point, many of us face a moment where sport suddenly becomes very serious.

That’s not all bad – in fact, I’m a huge advocate of devoting yourself to the things you care about. At the same time, when sport takes on elevated importance in your life, don’t lose sight of why you became involved in the first place. Typically, it is because the activity is something you enjoy (if not, you might indeed want to reconsider your priorities.)

We all respond differently to pressure, so pay attention to how it affects you. Identify the moments when you need to dial it back, and consider making a hard-copy list of the people and practices that can help you access levity and joy. Some ideas include taking the kids to the backyard, popping in a funny movie, trading in your TT machine for a cruiser bike, or scheduling a happy hour with a few of your oldest friends. Use that list as much as possible.

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Celebrate your efforts

Perfectionism does not beget joy. Allow yourself to celebrate small victories and maintain a balanced view of challenges – particularly if you are balancing your training with a career or family obligations. It is possible (though not easy) to hold yourself accountable for not completing a two-hour workout while also celebrating the fact that you at least got in one hour on a challenging day.

Training accomplishments rest on a spectrum, all the way from staying at home in your cozy chair to having the workout of a lifetime. Striving to be perfect all the time will not only limit your ability to celebrate smaller victories, it can prevent you from taking risks when the pay-out isn’t assured.

Personalize your motivations

I am now several months into my youth swim coaching career. Daily, the position demands I work hard to understand what makes swimming an enjoyable and worthwhile activity for kids with individual ages, athletic backgrounds and goals.

Last weekend, I watched a coaching webinar produced by USA Swimming. I learned: According to a USA swimming survey, letting your young swimmers play games every day at practice isn’t necessarily what will make them think that swimming is “fun.” Rather, swimmers reported working toward reasonable goals, improving their times, and being part of a team as their favorite parts of the sport.

As adults, we still have equally diverse reasons for loving our sports. Whether you get excited about numbers and trackable metrics, competition at the local crit night, group rides with friends, or challenges that help you maintain a sense of play, make sure you integrate those elements into your training program. In the long run, happy athletes go faster, play longer, and have a much higher likelihood of actually finishing their workouts.

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Comments 5

  1. Hi Mara,
    I glean many little nuggets from your articles. Thank you for your transparency in your struggles and sharing the lessons you glean, from yourself and others. It is so appreciated.
    I lean toward the perfectionism side and your insights have often struck a cord in me to lighten up on myself and enjoy the journey for the journeys sake.
    I love pushing my body. And I don’t want to lose that enjoyment as the years tick by.
    So, thanks for the encouragement and nuggets of wisdom.

  2. Being an obsessive perfectionist this line hit me the hardest: “Striving to be perfect all the time will not only limit your ability to celebrate smaller victories, it can prevent you from taking risks when the pay-out isn’t assured.” So true, and guilty as charged. I admire you so much, not only for your phenomenal cycling achievements but equally for your transparency in your writings about your journeys and your visibility in your community activities. You are so real, believable and down to earth. And happy to hear you are coaching young swimmers! They are lucky to have you!

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