Stoicism is an ancient philosophical system developed by the Romans in the early years and centuries A.D. It is non-religious and can be paired with any major religion, or, appreciated by atheists too. There has been a recent upsurge in its popularity due to writers like Tim Ferris etc.
With that in mind, I want to take some of the basics and apply them to any form of training. You will get the drift quickly; the same principles could be applied to any life situation.
1. “Life is long if you know how to use it.” – Seneca.
The stoics philosophized a lot about death. They felt that it was pointless worrying about death because you are going to die in any case. Too much thought given to it robbed you of life in the present. Secondly, they believed that your past already belonged to the realm of death. Therefore, you are left with the present: that’s all you have.
What would you rather do, live 80 years in front of a TV set, drinking beer and looking at Facebook, or living perhaps a shorter more focused life? You can’t control your death day, so, you might as well live to the max now.
I find that training- my favorites include swimming, biking and running – helps me to focus. I am fully alive when I sweat it out. Not only that, but it’s as if my day falls into place when I have trained in the morning. I am far more effective post training, thus, the stoics would say, far more alive.
2. The stoics believed that you should only focus on what you can control and not fret about what you can’t control.
Epictetus said this, “Of existing things, God has placed some within our power, and others not within our power.”
In Victor Frankl’s must read book, “Mans search for meaning”, (Frankl ended up in 3 different concentration camps over a period of three years), he wrote these words, “Everything can be taken from a man but this, the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
One of the central beliefs of stoicism is that you can only work on that which you can control. Endurance sport introduces you to that concept too. Weather, injuries, tiredness, races, punctures – a host of challenges get thrown up at you. The quicker you work on the controllable challenges, and flow with the uncontrollable challenges, the better. What do most athletes do, 20 times a day as they approach race day? Yes: check the weather. Do you have any influence on the weather? Rather, check your equipment, sort out your injuries and then cope with what is thrown at you.
Those who are aware of the work of Alcoholics Anonymous will know that a prayer penned by Reinhold Niebuhr is used at many of their meetings.
This summarizes the stoics’ way of tackling problems.
3. Negative Visualization.
You have probably heard a talk at some stage by a motivational speaker who told you to visualize your goal and make it real in your mind. This is a good practice. However, negative visualization prepares you for what can go wrong.
It fascinates me what people go through at the turn of a year. My social media time lines fill with people who mention how terrible the last year has been, and then at the same time, how super awesome, fun and prosperous the New Year will be. It just doesn’t work like that. Each year throws up challenges. That’s the nature of life. The stoics were strong on thinking through the worst-case scenario beforehand. Their logic was as follows, if you can cope with the thought of the worst-case scenario you-
a. can get through it if it happens
b. will be pleasantly surprised, as most of the time the worst-case scenario very seldom happens.
It’s pointless to go into an endurance event and not expect pain or exhaustion. Something will hurt and something could go wrong. If you think clearly about it before hand, you can even lessen the impact by preparing differently.
I have just done my 6th 8 Mile event at Midmar. I inflamed the inside elbow, where the triceps inserts, last year. This year, I managed to remember the area of pain and took steps to reduce the inflammation that comes from swimming too long. The steps included massage, strengthening and kinesio tape. I am glad to say that it worked. You are either going to trip over the step or use it to climb up.
This is what Epictetus wrote, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
Injuries, illness, punctures, hot days, cold days, rough water – it’s best to be mentally prepared.
4. Running and Meditation.
The stoics believed in the importance of mindfulness. Endurance sport has a way of focusing the brain. The extra oxygen and the absence of cell phones, computers, Facebook, Twitter, blogs – (although this blog is good to read), the list goes on.
I find that the three different triathlon disciplines have different effects on my mind.
– Swimming keeps my mind busy. I count laps, strokes, check my hand and arm position, decide when to launch into a tumble turn, the list is endless. My mind takes a total break from planet earth.
– Cycling is exhilarating. The ups, downs, corners- I cycle with a smile on my face. Well, until I hit a hill., that is.
– Running focuses my mind. I think clearly about my life, strategies, blogs – lots of them are written in my mind while on the run. Running is a form of meditation for me. I just love it.
So, I hope to see you sometime soon on the road, lapping up the miles with a stoic smile on your face.