Chrissie Wellington is the world’s No. 1 female Ironman athlete and a four-time World Ironman Champion. To earn those titles, she had to do some pretty tough stuff.
During her time in Nepal, for example, she cycled across the Himalayas, through snowstorms, sandstorms, horrendous wind and sickness. Yet Wellington doesn’t think of herself as superhuman. Quite the opposite. “In every Ironman I’ve done, I’ve wanted to quit at some point,” she admits.
It was her mind that ultimately carried her past the finish line and helped win all those big races. “All the physical strength in the world won’t help you if your mind is not prepared.”
So how exactly does she prime her mind and body for the toughest competitions in the world?
The answer is in her new book, “To the Finish Line: A World Champion Triathlete’s Guide to Your Perfect Race.” In it, Wellington shares lessons that transcend sport and can be applied to all areas of life, such as setting goals, nutrition, race strategies, strengthening your mind, coping with eating disorders and exercising while pregnant.
Wellington agreed to chat with us about what is like to juggle a career as an athlete with parenthood. Below is an edited transcript.
How do you develop mental endurance — how much of an impact does it have on your performance?
All the physical strength in the world won’t help you if your mind is not prepared. The mind can be trained just like a muscle so practice and patience are required in order to become mentally strong.
I believe that the mental strength from encountering and overcoming challenges always stays with you. This means that deep inside yourself, you carry the knowledge that you have faced your fears and conquered challenges. In terms of techniques, positive visualization is extremely important, but so is visualizing problems and mentally re-enacting your strategy for dealing with them. I also mentally divide training sessions and races into portion to avoid a more daunting whole, as well as recall all the times I’ve overcome discomfort and adversity in the past.
That’s not to say that I don’t suffer self-doubt.
In fact, in every Ironman I’ve done I’ve wanted to quit at some point. There’s that little voice in one ear that says “pull to the side, it’s not going to be your day”, but I manage to push through by utilizing the strategies I’ve honed to help me overcome these mental and physical hurdles.
Positive visualization is extremely important, but so is visualizing problems and mentally re-enacting your strategy for dealing with them.
Would you say that your career as an athlete prepared you for parenthood? How do you balance the two?
As an athlete I was selfish and single-minded in pursuit of my own goals and was able to control most aspects of my preparation and performance. As a parent I have learned to be much more selfless, to put someone else first and to accept that I can’t plan or control everything, or anything. Instead of worrying about what I can’t do, I try to alter the perception to focus on what I can do or am doing well.
With a young daughter I try to focus on ‘bang of buck’ sessions, which give me a great workout in less time. Sometimes it’s far more beneficial to do a 45-min run with some harder efforts than a long, slow 2-hour slog. A skipping rope can be a very handy way of doing a quick burst of exercise. For parents, a running buggy, a bike seat or bike trailer can be a useful investment. In the very early days I found that doing long walks with my daughter in the baby carrier was a great way to be active outside.
I have also exchanged childcare with sporty mothers; they look after my daughter while I run and vice versa.
Let’s talk nutrition. What are some of your food staples?
For me, becoming an athlete was the springboard I needed to overcome unhealthy eating and, subsequently, an eating disorder. To achieve my life dreams meant overcoming the desire to be thin and focusing instead on the need to be HEALTHY.
If time is short I try to prepare large batches of food that I can also freeze. I also eat easily transportable, nutritious grub – muesli bars, smoothies, bananas, rice cakes with peanut butter, sweet potatoes in foil – that I can grab and eat on the ‘fly.’
I opt for poultry and fish. I eat a bucket load of nuts and seeds, legumes, eggs and also throw in tofu or tempeh (made from soya beans) as alternative protein sources. I stick to more complex, unrefined carbs such as quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat or really dense, delicious wholemeal bread.
My favourite food ever has to be avocado.
How do you deal with disappointment, like injury? Do you ignore it/learn from it and move on?
We are all successful because of setbacks and not despite of them. It’s these tough times that make us stronger and more resilient, even if it doesn’t seem like that at the time.
I always try to take control by learning about the injury and preparing myself for the road ahead by alleviating the frustration, confusion and fear that come from the unknown. I lean on others for support when the going gets tough, surrounding myself with positive, cup-half-full people. It’s also good to use the injury as a window of opportunity to do something you may not have otherwise made time to do.