Lessons in grit for endurance
All endurance sports demand a lot physically, and they also demand just as much mentally. This mental side is where grit comes in, the ability to push on when the body says enough. At the heart of it, that grit is endurance sport in a nutshell. But how do you develop it? Can grit for endurance be trained, or are you born with it? Are we all capable of going further than we think, or are our limits already set? To answer this, we’ve got lessons in grit from legendary explorer Ranulph Fiennes, Will Smith, and a brace of boffins.
The answers are illuminating in the extreme.
A few years back, at 33Fuel we were fortunate enough to have lunch with Ranulph Fiennes and over coffee we finally plucked up the courage to ask him the biggest question in endurance:
How do you keep going when you want to stop?
Fiennes after all is a man who knows more than most about conquering in the face of adversity.
After eight years in the British Army and special forces (SAS), he forged a life as an explorer and set the mould for job.
He was the first person to reach both South and North Poles by surface, and the first to cross Antarctica on foot.
In other news he once ran seven marathons, in seven days, on seven continents just four months after a heart bypass operation, has cut off his own frostbitten fingers after an Arctic expedition back at home having tired of waiting for doctors to do it, and most recently summited Mount Everest aged 65 and completed the Marathon Des Sables at 71.
The Guinness Book of records lists him as the world's greatest living explorer and, in short, he is as tough as they come.
Ranulph Fiennes: hard as nails
Having dropped the bombshell and asked him how he keeps going when the body says stop, we waited with baited breath.
And as we waited, the look of confusion on Fiennes’ face was growing as it became quickly obvious he had no ready answer to the question for the simple reason that giving up, ever, is not in his DNA. It just doesn’t occur to him.
This alone was more than an answer and for the rest of us it can play all too easily into us placing Fiennes in the superhero category. The problem with doing this though is that it puts such toughness and grit beyond the reach of the rest of us.
Something that can easily create limits, as the philosopher Nietzsche warns:
“If we think of genius as something magical then we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking… To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here is no need to compete’”
But these limits are wholly unnecessary.
While Fiennes may have a more natural predeliction than most for pushing himself to the edge and beyond, the ability to do so is inside all of us. Which is where Will Smith comes in, summing up brilliantly the twin values of work and focus, and their part in creating what others see as natural talent.
As he explains:
“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. You got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is pure grit in full effect. And it is completely learnable for anyone who wants to do so.
The American sociologist Dan Chambliss did a fascinating study on just this, following elite swimmers over a six-year period.
He discovered “greatness is doable”.
It’s not reserved for outliers, it’s within reach for anyone who wants to work hard enough to achieve it.
Grit is a muscle - keep working at it to build yours
Digging deeper, Chambliss explains:
“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit… There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of them, only that they are done consistently and correctly and, all together, produce excellence”.
In her excellent book on grit (Grit: the power of passion and perseverance) psychologist Angela Duckworth says of the conclusions Chambliss drew:
“If you had a time-lapse film of the hours and days and weeks and years that produced excellence, you could see what Chambliss saw: a high level of performance is, in fact, an accretion of mundane acts”.
Summing up, to go longer, harder, faster, better - all you need is two things:
- A goal that motivates you
- A load of hard work focused towards this goal
Rinse, repeat, until you break through
Fiennes did finally come up with an answer once the confusion had passed in case you were wondering.
As he put it, “you just need to man up really”, neatly summing up grit in just seven words.
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