Leo Tolstoy: Honorary Endurance Coach

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Inspiration can come from unexpected authority. My progress as an endurance coach is nothing extraordinary: a mix of formal and informal education with a reasonable amount of experience and luck. Occasionally, my coaching philosophy is disproportionally shaped by a single event. A scientific paper, a colleague, or a maybe book. One such epiphany occurred when reading the opening lines from Tolstoy’s 1877 masterpiece, Anna Karenina. With a small exchange of words, I instantly knew those brilliantly crafted lines applied to almost any endeavor, including endurance training.

“Successful athletes are all alike; every unsuccessful athlete is unsuccessful in their own way.”

In other words, there are limited fundamentals that lead to success, but there are an infinite number of ways to screw up. If athletes focused more time on the finite principles that lead to ideal outcomes, and less time on limitless distractions and exceptions…I’d be out of a job. Successful training is based on reinforcing or repeating a small number of proven attributes and methods, instead of introducing countless seductive trends and quick fixes. I don’t propose that every successful athlete is a clone. There are certainly individual strengths and weaknesses that require my successful training plan to be different than yours. But I’m confident every successful athlete shares common characteristics, which makes them all more alike than not.

In fact, I think Tolstoy wrote about at least five of those characteristics almost 150 years ago. Granted, maybe he wasn’t thinking about endurance athletes at the time. But that’s my job.

Successful Athletes Follow a Plan

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” War and Peace

Sure, I advocate my own particular brand of training reflected in an 80/20 training plan, but there are hundreds of competent systems, coaches, and training plans. Once the essential principles of specificity, progressive overload, hard/easy, frequency, and intensity balance are implemented, there’s quite a bit of room for creativity in a capable training plan. Successful athletes identify a plan, commit, and provide appropriate time for the plan to develop. Unsuccessful athletes are impatient, jump from coach to coach, from plan to plan, and expect unreasonable results. Whatever training system you choose, trust that process, set realistic goals (which can take years to achieve) and be patient.

Successful Athletes are Resilient

“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” Anna Karenina

Endurance training inevitably involves setbacks. Injury, personal and professional disasters, maybe even the occasional pandemic. Successful athletes don’t expect their training experience to be unblemished or implemented exactly as planned. They adapt, learn from the experience, have a short memory and move on. What’s more, they are better athletes from adversity. Successful athletes fuel themselves on the priceless experience that is paired with adversity.

Successful Athletes are Coachable

“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” War and Peace

Being coachable doesn’t necessarily mean another individual is coaching you. It means you are teachable and curious. Successful athletes recognize they don’t know everything, and that others have valuable information or experience to contribute. Feedback is never personal to a successful athlete. In fact, successful athletes seek out feedback.

Successful Athletes Believe in Themselves

“I don’t allow myself to doubt myself even for a moment.” Anna Karenina

Perhaps the most common trait among unsuccessful athletes is self-doubt. Successful athletes believe they can accomplish the goals they have set. True self-confidence is based on an internal compass, not by comparing yourself to others. If I were to tell you that you cannot win the Boston Marathon (and I regret to inform you that you cannot), that should not put a dent in your self-confidence because believing in yourself means you are striving to be your best, not the best.

Successful Athletes are Optimistic (with Accountability)

“Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them.” Childhood; Boyhood; Youth

No one personifies producing best-case scenarios like four-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion Chrissie Wellington. At the 2008 Ironman World Championships Wellington flatted at the halfway point of the bike and blew through her only two CO2 cartridges without success. In obvious need, she was passed by five rivals as priceless minutes ticked away. Many athletes would (and famously, have, at Kona) given up right then.

Wellington saw her tire not half empty, but half full (apologies). Eventually saved with a spare cartridge from a passing Rebekah Keat, Wellington not only continued the race, but inexplicably came from behind and won. Wellington was a three-fold accountable optimist that day. First by continuing to request that CO2. Second by choosing to continue to race at all. Third, that she believed she still had a chance to win the event if she persisted. However, as my partner Matt Fitzgerald points out, Wellington and other successful athletes demonstrate a specific type of optimism. An optimism with personal accountability and based on action, or “faith in one’s own ability to persevere in the face of an unfavorable reality.”

Successful training isn’t about picking from an endless menu of training options. It’s about eliminating those distractions and finding the limited principles and characteristics that separate successful athletes from the rest. But why listen to me when Tolstoy said it best, “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.”