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Triathlete Blog

The Power of Stillness

By October 24, 2011July 21st, 2015No Comments

You are now entering…

The off season.  Or, the place where you magically lose what feels like a year’s worth of fitness and gain a shitload of weight in less than 2 weeks.

I’m kidding.  I think.  It’s been nearly 2 weeks since Kona and so far….please please let’s not say this too loudly…I feel good.  Doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and race any time soon (though I did have thoughts of competing in the local cyclocross race this past weekend until I figured it would probably be much more fun to heckle – drunk – instead) and doesn’t mean I’ve ramped back up my training (unless you call 2500 yards of swimming in the past week “training”).  I’ve been enjoying lighter activities and taking a nosedive into anything that has calories (the more, the better!).

We’ll see how long this lasts.

In years past, I’ve felt absolutely wrecked from Ironman.  As in, needing to take 2 to 3 weeks off to regain my desire to do anything swim, bike, run again.  This year that did not happen.  Perhaps it was better fitness going into the event, better recovery after the event, the IVs or just that I’m not as psychologically wrapped up in the results of sport.  Don’t get me wrong: I love the sport and it’s a big part of me.  But not the only part.  It took me a long time to reach that level of clarity.

Once you let go, you find the freedom to reach peak performance.  Clarity makes everything seem simple.  It’s funny how much we can overcomplicate the easiest things.  The best races come from executing your plan, going on “autopilot.”  In other words, trusting your stuff.  The more demanding the event, the more this freedom and trust is required.  Without it, you just don’t see things for the way they are and get easily distracted.

I read a lot of race reports – both from my athletes and just randomly on the internet.  Something I’ve noticed is the difference between satisfied versus dissatisfied athletes.  When an athlete has a satisfying performance, the report is often about them – their execution, their confidence, their joy.  It is very free.  When an athlete is less satisfied, they recount a lot of distraction, worry and things beyond their control – other competitors, weather, terrain.

A few months ago, I found a quote that resonated with me is: our mindset in the moment creates our experience.  It’s no secret that one of the hardest things about training and racing is weathering the long miles in our head.  100 miles is a long way to ride.  Worse yet – 20 miles is a really, really long way to run.  I’m not sure I will ever love running long though I absolutely love running.  During that time, you have hours upon hours of time to fill in your head.

Or should you?

Earlier this year I found a great blog and the author wrote an even better book, Stillpower by Garrett Kramer.  The idea is that rather than forcing your “will” upon the outcome of events, you need to be more “still”.  In other words, quieting your mind and letting things be.  Stillpower.  I practiced this approach on every single long workout and let me tell you – the difference was amazing.

What is stillpower?  Kramer explains it in a recent teleseminar:

Stillpower is the opposite of willpower.  Most of us are taught that the road to success is based on how hard we work, how much we grind, how much we exert our force of will.  The opposite is actually true.  The more quiet, the more still we are, the more success we’ll have.  This does not mean effort isn’t a good thing.  Stillpower is the psychological perspective from which the effort comes.  When a child runs around, it looks like they have unbounded energy, that they are exhibiting effort but in truth – they are just playing.  They are just free.  That’s the source of success.  That’s the answer to following your passions.  The opposite of what most teachers/coaches think – they want us to work, the only thing you can control is your effort but that is not so.  You cannot control your effort nor would you want to. The more you try to work through the lows and control your effort, the more revved up your thinking gets and the more failure you find.  Stillpower is a simple word that says the more clear we are, the more still we are, the more success we’ll have.
How did I put this into practice?  How many times have you been out on a long ride hating yourself.  Your coach.  Your bike.  Your head is filled with negative chatter about everything.  You start writing the bad story about yourself.  About how you’re too ____ for this (tired, busy, old, detached) for all of this triathlon bullshit.  What you need at that moment is your coach to step out from the shoulder, slap you and say “get over yourself.”  Unfortunately, us coaches don’t get paid enough for that.  You just have to find a way to get over your own bad self.

I used to be one of those people that was always trying to turn every negative into a positive.  Think positive thoughts!  Focus only on the good things!  You know what – when I’m out there and the winds are gusting to 30 mph, I’m ready to lick my own arms for salt and my legs shout NO with every pedal stroke, the last thing I’m thinking is positive sunshine, cupcakes and puppy thoughts.  And when I did try to fill my head with positive, it felt like I was fighting myself. I felt even worse.  If I’m not supposed to fix it, what was I supposed to do with my head instead?


That’s right – nothing
Accept that negative thoughts are just that – thoughts…that will pass. The same strategy is true for “time” in Ironman.  Whenever I’ve felt like I was going to be out there forever, I snapped myself back into reality – no one really rides their bike forever.  At some point it will end.  I always tell myself: the time will pass, it always does.  That brings me back to reality! So too shall negative thoughts pass.  Just give them time.

The difference in doing this was immediate.  No longer was I having long, overdramatic battles with my head.  I was just letting things be.  Rolling with the punches.  Let things pass in and out of my head.  Telling myself, that’s just a negative thought.  I don’t have to accept it or believe it.  I don’t have to do anything.

Kramer said it best in a recent teleseminar:

Negative thoughts are just that – just thoughts.  Negative thoughts are productive.  They are our body’s built in defense mechanism that tells us we’re not seeing life clearly.  Those thoughts are telling you that you need to pull back; you don’t need to act from that place.  When you try to over-ride and fight through the negative thoughts, that’s when you make bad choices.  You don’t need to control or fix negative thoughts (you can’t).  If you’re thinking negatively, let it be.  What you think is not necessarily so.  There is no reality to them.  They are an instinctive sign you are not seeing clearly, just look in a different direction. 

In doing this (or not doing anything!), I can’t say that my head ever filled with positives but what it did was empty.  It was not uncommon then for me to go on a long ride and honestly – think about nothing.  There is great freedom and pleasure in going out for 100 miles with a quiet mind.  We live in such a world of clutter and distraction that for a few hours on a Saturday, having peace and quiet – especially as a parent! – was a luxury.  I didn’t have to make every training ride an exercise in thinking positive.  No longer was my mindset a factor in determining if the workout was a success.  Did I hit my watts?  How was the execution of my fuel plan?  All that really mattered was what really, truly mattered.  Following my plan.  Getting the work done.  Not waging a battle in my head.

The result of this is freedom and clarity.  You start to see things for what they really are.  That wind in your face – it’s just wind.  Not a deal breaker, not something which will last forever.  It’s wind.  Let it be.  See how that works?

A funny thing happened in Kona.  When I was on the ride – I didn’t think about anything.  The only word I can think to describe what was going on in my head was: stillness.

It was awesome.


Whereas in the past I needed mantras, mind tricks and “crisis management” plans to manage my head during the ride – this time, I just let my mind be.  I didn’t even need to do that – I was riding along and was already there.  I was surprised at how quickly the ride passed, how effortless it felt.  Not once did I have a thought about it’s long, hot, windy.  When it mattered most, my mind was quiet and free.

I had a stillness about the entire race experience.  Because of that, I don’t feel the need to jump back in to do anything, fix anything or prove anything because the race was what it was supposed to be.  I always feel like a weeks after Ironman should be a “no-zone” – no puppies, no haircuts, no babies, no race registration, no major life decisions.  For a few weeks, just let yourself be.  Let the dust settle and then once you’re in a state of clarity figure out the next big thing.

Until then – my “big” things are active recovery, enjoying the weather and trying new things.  A local yoga studio has a free week of yoga deal that I’ve been trying.  And the idea of “stillpower” is carrying over.  In the past, I’ve deplored yoga for all of its “quiet the monkey chatter” uppityness.  What if I like chatter?  What if I like freakin’ monkeys!?  Nowadays, my mind in yoga is more still and quiet.  I can even fall asleep in shavasana.  This is a big step!

Other “big” things I’m tackling: eating bad things and drinking good wine.  Yes, for a few weeks each year, fun Liz emerges from deep within her cave and her power animal is…wine.  My new iPhone just told me there are 13 wine bars nearby my home.  Siri even sorted them by rating.  (by the way: it’s nice to finally be able to talk to something in my house during the day and have it talk back to me in logical, complete sentences)  Looks like I’ve got some off season training to do – visit all 13 bars and confirm the ratings.

I’m going to need more down time.