I ask this question broadly (as it can apply to everything we do in our lives). At face value, it looks like such a short and simple question. But I know from experience asking this question that the answer is often complicated. And when I ask athletes this question in the context of endurance sports (i.e. why they’re setting a particular goal or why they want to train regularly), it’s definitely a complicated answer.
There are so many reasons why someone might set a goal within the endurance sports realm. The most common answer I hear is tied to health reasons; people want to participate in endurance sports because it promotes a healthy lifestyle. (This then snowballs into desire to engage in other healthy supporting behaviors, such as nutrition, sleep, etc.; people want to eat right, get restful sleep, and engage in other similar behaviors because they know it’s good for them.)
However, as crazy as this might sound, doing something for health reasons often isn’t good enough. (The only exceptions I’ve seen to this include major health scares such as a heart attack or a cancer diagnosis.) If we want to reach our potential, be consistent, and successfully reach our goals, we need to have a “why” that is STRONG. In addition to it being STRONG, our “why” must be tied to our core values if we are going to have the highest probability of success.
The “easiest” illustration of this that I can think of is to discuss this idea as it relates to food and dietary choices. Our individual relationships with food are shaped by so many things, including our family, our religion, where we live, and more. As all of you reading this undoubtedly know, the food industry (to include diet plans, weight loss programs, etc.) is BIG business in the United States and adds an extra layer of complication to it. The people who eat the way they do because of their ethics - their core values - have an easier time sticking to a diet than those who seek to eat things because they’re good for them.
For instance, there’s been a lot of buzz around going plant-based in the last several years. Many documentaries and books have come out touting the environmental and health benefits of eliminating animal products from one’s diet. In my experience, the folks who are eating this way because they don’t think it’s ethical to consume these items (animal flesh or animal byproducts) are able to adhere to this diet. Folks who seek to eliminate animal products for health reasons are often tempted by items that they like the taste of, have an emotional connection to (cheese is a big one ;) ), or out of convenience, and then find themselves unable to stick to it.
The folks who don’t consume animal products for ethical reasons generally aren’t as tempted because consuming the food in question would be a violation of their core values. For them, eating plant-based foods isn’t just something they do. It’s who they are.
When I talk to the athletes I coach, this theme is something I try to get to the heart of. Is participating in endurance sports something you do, or is it part of who you are?
And that’s my question for all of you reading this this week:
Is your participation in endurance sports something you do? Or is it part of who you are?
The distinction is subtle, but so important. Something that we do simply isn’t as important or significant as who we are. As such, when athletes ask me how to be successful at reaching their goals and avoid yo-yoing and being inconsistent, I tell them the truth:
No matter what anyone sees on social media or at races, success isn’t something that just happens. It’s not easy. It requires work. And if reaching their goal is something they’re serious about, they have to tie the process to their core values for the highest probability of success. They need to make this more than just a goal on a checklist; they need to make this lifestyle part of who they are, and not have it just be something that they do.
Think about it. Can you hear names such as Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods, Venus Williams, Eliud Kiphoge, or Tom Brady without immediately associating them with their sport? They are successful at their sport of choice precisely because of what I’m talking about; their participation in it became part of who they are.
Now, I’m not saying that you need to make endurance sports your entire life, have it become all-consuming, or take over everything else. But if you really and truly want to be successful, see progress over time, and be consistent within the world of endurance sports, it does need to be higher than bottom on your list of life priorities. As such, what you do have to do is decide where it falls.
I have found it helpful to list out my list of priorities. Yep, in writing. And to rank them in order. I’ve talked before about how putting thoughts into writing is extremely powerful. It takes something intangible (a thought in our brain) and makes it tangible (since we can now see it on paper). This may seem scary; as a species, we humans do tend to shy away from things that force us to take a hard look in the mirror. Forcing yourself to put down what is most important to you in writing and in order will show you (for better or worse) where your priorities lie. And by extension, it may very well show you where your values lie. You may not like what you see.
But that is also what makes this exercise so helpful; by drawing this self-awareness, even if we don’t like what we see, it gives us an opportunity to make changes. For instance, if you write out your list and realize that work is your top priority over everything else (a common theme for many people over the last two years since the pandemic began) and you don’t want it to be, you can start to make changes to your daily priorities/activities to more accurately reflect who you are. Or, if you see that exercise is at the bottom of the list behind other things that aren’t actually as important to you when you’re staring them in the face, you can make changes to move it up on the list.
Over the years, I’ve observed that tying what we do to our core values is the most effective and sustainable way to establish long-term, keystone habits, which snowballs into long-term progress. This applies to endurance sports or any other endeavor or practice that we take up in our lives. Sometimes, we cannot specifically articulate what our core values actually are, and that’s okay. This is where the aforementioned writing process can help us again; write down who you are. Yep, in your own words. Who are you? Not what do you do. (Americans love to make the connection between our jobs and our core selves, as if our jobs actually can completely define who we are.) Who are you?
We are the things we do; we are the actions we take. If we want to do things differently, we must look deep inside ourselves and decide what things on our lists will be changing priority. Life is a zero-based budget and saying yes always means saying no to something else. Contrary to popular opinion, we cannot have our cake and eat it too. We must decide what is really and truly important to us. Tie what’s important to you to your core values to see both short-term results and lasting change.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.