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Going the Distance: Business Lessons from Endurance Sports

For many people sports is a way to unwind and take your mind off work. Taking yourself away from work, even for short periods, can give you a breath of fresh thinking and renewed perspective and focus. This is particularly true if you’ve been working on a long, complex problem. Maybe this is why so many CEO’s pursue endurance sports. Just ask Vinu Malik, founder and CEO of Fuel Belt, one of the most useful products for runners.

A few years ago, I started long distance running mostly for cardio fitness, with a goal of doing a marathon. One thing I didn’t expect was the amount of free thinking time that came with it. Training for a marathon involves a lot of long distance runs to build stamina, runs that go 2-3 hours easily. Coming up with a plan for a race is just as important as the training itself. Knowing what your fitness level is, your energy level, hydration, etc. are variables under your control. Race conditions like weather, crowds and the course are factors you have to learn to manage. The trick is optimizing the variables on race day and putting it all together. Marathons can be tricky because it’s hard to stay focused for so long. With enough experience, training and conditions, you can put mind over matter and push yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of.

I recently started doing triathlons to vary my training and work on swimming and biking, sports I had little experience in. In fact, when I was younger, I completely feared swimming to the point where I could go years without swimming and not miss it at all. I knew I’d have to learn to at least get comfortable with it if I was ever going to complete a triathlon.

One way to kick-start your training plan is to sign up for a race which forces you to train and come up with a “work back” schedule for training. While my experience is brief, I’ve learned a lot and believe you can apply some lessons from training back to your work:

Quickly assess your capabilities: One thing I soon realized is that in a lot of ways, training for a multisport event is like running a business; you have strengths to capitalize on, weaknesses to work on and a competitive field all doing the same thing. To be able to compete in triathlons, relying on one discipline to carry you just doesn’t cut it. The same thing is true in business — you need to come up with a strong product or service offering, make it competitive against others, market it successfully and learn how to make it better. If you’re deficient, figure out how to get good at it. Fast.

Get a coach: Sometimes you can go it alone, but most athletes do best when they have a 3rd party to guide and help push people to their best. Consultants can be this advisor, but be sure to clearly articulate your goals and learn to be realistic. If you exceed them, great but more often than not, getting a quantum leap in results requires a major commitment to do so.

Plan for worst case scenarios: I recently did a race in dreadful conditions: choppy open water, dumping rain, hilly courses. It’s easy to prepare for each individually, but also figure out what would happen if there is a “perfect storm” of challenges that seem to be conspiring against you. Don’t stress it, just figure out a game plan ahead of time and then execute against the plan.

Monitor and make adjustments: You can prepare all you want but sometimes life throws a wrench in the best laid plans. In racing, maybe you cramp up or get injured. Depending on the severity, you may or may not be able to continue but if you do, make the required adjustments to get yourself in the best possible position you can. In business, this can mean changing the way you compete such as how you market your offering or adjust it according to customer feedback.

Focus on details but don’t forget to look up to see the prize: It’s easy to obsess over details of your training, nutrition or equipment and yes, all of it does matter. At the same time, don’t neglect the simple things like listening to your body. At work, this means considering how the details relate to one another, how they interact and how they impact the business goals. Sometimes it’s best to keep things as simple as possible and ignore everything that doesn’t help you reach the finish line faster or in better shape.

There are probably 101 more lessons I could write up and I’m by no means an expert. But drawing on other experiences can take your career to places you didn’t know you wanted to go.

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