Mastering the Endurance Mindset

One of the first questions people often ask about my expeditions is:

“How do you just keep going?”

Mastering the Endurance Mindset has been, without a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to learn through my expeditions, and one that still requires discipline now, especially when I’m out of practice!

But it’s also one of the most satisfying hurdles to overcome.

There's a phenomenon I call the “four mile syndrome”. This is, as the name suggests, four miles into the start of a day’s paddling. You’ve got out of bed, got your board on the water (often at some ungodly hour) and managed to push off and start paddling. Things are going well! You’re cracking on, getting some miles under your belt, starting to settle in to a paddling rhythm. The first time you look at your GPS watch is after what seems like hours of paddling. Surely you’ve covered a good few miles… 10 maybe, 12 at a push… Alas, you’ve done just over an hour, and made it four miles. How on Earth are you going to manage another 20?!

This would always be the time that I would start to find everything a little bit difficult. Until I got to the half way mark, after which I could start counting down the miles, paddling became tedious! Acknowledging this was the first step to actually being able to tackle it. It wasn’t that between mile 4 and mile 15 the paddling was any more difficult, in fact this should be when I was freshest. It was that my mind was distracted by thoughts of “Are we nearly there yet” and not being able to envisage ever getting back to land. I realised very early on this was going to need a mind shift to get through day after day.

Below I have outlined my top tips for mastering the endurance mindset. I’d love to hear yours!

  1. Perhaps the most important: Acknowledge that endurance sports are TOUGH, that this is going to be a challenge driven by your mind and that there are going to be times when it’s hard to keep going. When you succeed every day, you’ll know that it was mostly due to your mental strength.

  2. Break each day’s journey down. Whether this is mile by mile, lunch stops, or the half way point, break it down into sections rather than looking at the whole beast. This makes things so much more manageable.

  3. Celebrate the steps along the way. My days were broken down nicely by miles: each mile I covered would cause a vibration on my GPS watch, and I would take a couple of seconds to celebrate that I was one mile closer to my destination.

  4. It is important to look forward, but sometimes it’s a good idea to look back at how far you’ve come too. You did this yesterday, and the day before. You’ve proved you can do it more than once - you can do it again! And even if you’re standing on the starting line - there’s going to have been a journey to get you to that point. Be proud of that, and know that if you can get to there, you can keep going a little longer.

  5. When things got really bad, I would ask myself, “Can I do just one more paddle stroke. Just one more metre? Just one more mile?” The answer was (almost!) always yes. You won’t always need this technique, but when the going gets really tough, it can be a saviour.

  6. Visualisation. Before setting out each day, I would try and visualise what the day was going to be like, what challenges might arise, how that would feel, and how I would tackle it. On particularly long days, or tedious paddles such as big bay crossings where I’d be miles out to sea with no coastline to focus on, I would visualise that familiar feeling of wanting to give up, and not knowing if I could just keep on going indefinitely, before I’d get into that situation. When I found myself there I was much better prepared to acknowledge the feeling and just roll with it, rather than become it.

  7. Every little helps! Watching all the paddle strokes, all the individual miles, and the days add up to 1000 miles on my LEJOG trip was the most incredible confirmation that enormous things can be achieved, if you just keep plodding away at them. Never attempting to do it all in one go, but taking each day at a time.

Although the above steps were honed through my expeditions, I often transfer them into everyday situations. If I have a long project and don’t know where to start, or a task at hand that seems so big it feels impossible - knowing that I have been able to get my head around paddling 20-40 miles a day, on repeat for 2 months, helps me acknowledge that I have all the mind tools developed, ready to be flexed, for this next task at hand.

I think it can also be related to our campaigns around environmental issues - none of them are going to be solved overnight unfortunately, but with the right mindset and determination we really can make big change from small steps.

Cal Major