Recently in this space I wrote about a study in which French researchers looked for associations between “psychosocial factors” and the likelihood of failing to complete a 140-km ultramarathon. My focus then was the finding that runners who scored high on measures of self-efficacy were more likely to reach the finish line. What I did not mention is that another factor, “intention to finish,” was determined to be an equally strong predictor of actually finishing.
At first blush this finding seems almost laughably uninformative—almost tautological. Who the hell starts a 140-km ultramarathon without intending to finish it? But the truth is that there are degrees of determination to finish, and it is an important fact that those athletes who bring the highest degree of determination into a race are most likely to see it through. As my brother Josh told me on the eve of the 2017 Modesto Marathon, “I don’t care how ugly it gets tomorrow—I’m going to finish that f—ing marathon.” That, folks, is intention to finish! (And, yes, it did get ugly, but yes, he finished.)
Every athlete depends on two things to complete a race or achieve some other race goal: his or her effort (controllable) and luck (not controllable). It goes without saying that all the determination in the world won’t enable an athlete to finish a race if he goes down halfway through it with hyperthermia or a broken ankle. But some athletes rely on luck more than others do, often without realizing it. A runner who wants to finish a race but who stops short of saying, “I don’t care how ugly it gets—I’m going to f—ing finish!” is counting on things to go more or less his way during the race, and will drop out if his luck is too poor. By contrast, a runner who is maximally determined to finish accepts in advance that things might not go his way and has decided in advance that he will finish regardless (unless his poor luck takes the form of force majeure—hyperthermia, a broken ankle, etc).
What we’re talking about here, essentially, is a no-excuses mindset. An athlete who adopts this mindset says not “I will achieve my goal unless [fill in the blank]” but “I will achieve my goal no matter what.” Now, the athlete could very well be wrong, falling short of her goal for any of a number of reasons. But that’s not the point; the point is that an athlete who takes a no-excuses attitude into training and competition is more likely to achieve her goal.
To the athlete who is not accustomed to it, the no-excuses mindset seems scary. After all, no excuses means no one and nothing to blame but yourself. But in fact the no-excuses mindset is very freeing. When you’ve truly embraced it, everything just kind of rolls off you. An old shoulder injury flares up in the thick of your triathlon training? No biggie. Just swim with one arm for a while. Heat wave hits during your peak training period for an early fall marathon? Fine. Do it anyway, albeit a little slower and a lot less comfortably.
To embrace the no-excuses mindset is to be tough on yourself, but not in a brainless, macho way. Nothing is more reassuring than believing in your own strength, trusting in your ability to figure it out, whatever “it” may be. In banning excuses from your thoughts you are treating yourself as a strong individual who can figure it out, and it’s actually quite a pleasant place to be.
Can I persuade you to make 2019 your Year of No Excuses? I’ve already made the commitment, and I’d love it if you joined me. My big goal for the year is to qualify for the Ironman World Championship at Ironman Santa Rosa on May 11. To give you a sense of what my no-excuses approach looks like with respect to this goal, I will share an anecdote.
A couple of weekends ago I did a long bike ride with a local friend, Keith, and about an hour into it we got to talking about my goal.
“How many Kona slots are available in your age group?” Keith asked.
“I don’t even know,” I told him. “All I know is that the guy who won the men’s 45-49 category last year went 9:29.”
“I figure there has to be at least three,” Keith mused.
“Honestly, I don’t even care,” I said. “I’m focusing on myself, acting as if there’s only one slot and it’ll take something close to 9:29 to claim it. I want to get as fit as possible and try to beat everyone. I figure if I do that, the rest will take care of itself.”