Select your Secret to Read:
– Secret 1: Resilience Is Suffering Scientifically & Strategically Managed
– Secret 2: Interval Training Increases Pain Tolerance
– Secret 3: Never Neglect Strength Training
– Secret 4: Science Of A Smile
– Secret 5: Resilience Is Best Served With Food
– Secret 6: Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable & Get Outside
– Secret 7: Sleep Yourself Stronger
The bestselling author and award-winning adventurer Ross Edgley has been studying The Art of Resilience for years after he famously ran a marathon pulling a 1.4 tonne car, climbed a rope the height of Everest (8,848m) and completed a triathlon carrying a 100-lbs tree. But after 1,780 miles (and 157 days at sea) Ross believes he has finally completed his research after he applied all he had learnt and became the first person in history to swim all the way around Great Britain. Breaking multiple world records along the way, he swam through giant jellyfish, artic storms, ‘haunted’ whirlpools, polluted shipping lanes and swum so hard and so fast… his tongue fell apart.
Now, in his new book The Art of Resilience, Ross turns his attention to mental strength and stoicism. Using his swim experience and other amazing endurance feats where he managed to overcome seemingly insurmountable pain, hardship and adversity, Ross goes on to study the performance of other extreme athletes, military and fitness specialists and psychologists to uncover the secrets of mental fitness and explore the concept of resilience, persistence, valour and a disciplined mind-set in overcoming adversity. This ground-breaking book represents a paradigm shift in what we thought the human body and mind was capable of and will give you a blueprint to become a tougher, more resilient and ultimately better human – whatever the challenge you face.
Here he brings you his 7 Secrets of Strength based on the teachings of his new book…
SECRET 1: RESILIENCE IS SUFFERING SCIENTIFICALLY & STRATEGICALLY MANAGED.
Firstly, understand there is no secret to mental strength. Resilience is not some superhuman gift that is possessed by the brave and bold. It’s innate within all of us, but is realized through training and conditioning the mind and body. This is exactly why according to Naval Medical Research this idea of “Toughness” describes a range of psychological and physiological processes that enhance performance under stress1.
Therefore, please understand the main lesson from the Great British Swim (and my new book) is that I was not courageous, fearless or bullet proof. Instead, I just understood the simple truth that resilience is suffering scientifically and strategically managed. What this means is you must train the mind just as much as you train your body.
This is based on the work of Professor Tim Noakes who expanded on the teachings of Archibald Hill in 1924. Noakes developed the idea that the brain will override your physical ability to run, swim, cycle or fundamentally continue any activity and “shut the body down” before you’re able to do (what the brain believes) is serious damage to yourself. This became known as the Central Governor Theory and this is why Noakes believes that the point when you think you cannot go on is actually a response from the brain to slow down to preserve health, rather than a physiological reality. Basically, the brain quits before the body.
But why does this happen? Well for good reason. If your brain didn’t regulate physical exertion in this way you could quite literally run yourself to death, by either destroying skeletal or cardiac muscle or by starving the nerve tissue of sugar and oxygen.
This is why Noakes believes the brain is inherently selfish and only really cares about itself. It will do anything necessary to maintain balance within the body (which we call, “homeostasis”). This is why its biggest fears are that during prolonged and strenuous exercise:
– Muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrates) are entirely depleted
– Heart rate rises too high and results in cardiac failure
– Body temperature rises too high and you develop hyperthermia (failed thermoregulation)
– The brain is damaged if blood glucose concentrations are low
In many ways, the brain is a hypochondriac that babysits the body.
It serves this preventative and precautionary role that fears the worse-case scenario for every body part and every sense in the body as pain and fatigue signal that homeostasis is under threat so we should probably stop.
According to Noakes, when exercise intensity and stress to the heart, skeletal muscles and nervous tissue reaches, “The limit of what is safe, the brain’s motor cortex, which recruits the exercising muscle, is informed, and it stops recruiting additional muscle.” What this means is the sensation of fatigue (and accompanying pain) and a slowing of pace are pre-emptive and protective, yet extremely powerful actions taken by the brain to avoid real physical trauma to the body.
This is understood by all athletes as we will all have experienced those workouts that when midway through it feels like your lungs are on fire and you’re going to die. This is because homeostasis is completely out of balance.
Yet once the workout is over (or you stop), you miraculously feel fine. This isn’t because you have superhuman healing powers and the damaged caused to the body instantly repaired, but is because the body is returning to its normal state of homeostasis and as a result the brain knows the threat of exertion has passed which means is stops sensations of pain and fatigue.
This is why Noakes summarised the concept of the Central Governor when he said, “Fatigue is merely an emotional expression of the subjective symptoms that develop as these subconscious controls wage a fierce battle with the conscious mind to ensure that the conscious ultimately submits to the superior will of the subconscious.”
What this means is each race, adventure and training session is just a battle within ourselves and the best athletes and adventures in the world are the ones who consistently win those battles. Now worth noting is today many researchers claim the term “central governor” has fallen from favour since there is not one physical area in your brain that is solely responsible for this effect. The preferred name is now the Psychobiological Model of Fatigue.
But as an athlete adventurer and someone who’s on the “frontline of fatigue” I’m not interested in studying terminology, the concept is the same. This is why the US Navy Seals don’t refer to it as the Psychobiological Model of Fatigue but rather, the 40% rule. Put simply, they believe when your mind is telling you that you’re done, that you’re exhausted, that you cannot possibly go any further, you’re only actually 40% done.
Finally, this isn’t to say that the physiological demands aren’t real. There is no doubt that improving your physical fitness will help you run faster, swim further and cycle harder. But understand the Psychobiological Model of Fatigue posits that to truly excel in extreme physical activity you must train both the body and mind. Which is exactly what the following 7 Secrets to Mental Strength (based on the teachings of the book) teach you to do.
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SECRET 2: INTERVAL TRAINING INCREASES PAIN TOLERANCE.
Sprint. Rest. Repeat. Quite possibly the simplest training method you will ever undertake. Known as high-intensity interval training, it can be used in any sport and in any activity from cycling and sprinting to swimming and running, but it involves repeating a series of fast-paced and slow-paced running intervals to improve the body’s ability to move, train and work at a high pace when you’re not able to provide enough oxygen to the working muscles (relying on anaerobic energy production).
For swimming, interval training can be as simple as sprinting 25 m front crawl as fast as you can and then swim slow breaststroke back, allowing your heart rate to drop. Sprint and repeat as many times as you can (aiming for at least 10 sprints). Why is this such a good training method? Because studies show this type of training improves both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Researchers from the School of Human Movement Studies, University of Queensland (Australia) wanted to test the ‘Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on aerobic fitness and anaerobic fitness.’ Contrary to popular belief, they found that ‘Moderate-intensity aerobic training that improves aerobic fitness does not change anaerobic capacity and that adequate high-intensity intermittent training may improve both anaerobic and aerobic energy supplying systems significantly.’
But the power of high-intensity training doesn’t stop there. Scientists also believe such training methods not only expand the capabilities of the muscles and heart but also recalibrate the brain’s horizons and perception to pain. This is based on research which found that high-intensity training does not change your pain sensitivity (the point at which you acknowledge pain), but can increase pain tolerance (how long you’re willing to endure pain).
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SECRET 3: NEVER NEGLECT STRENGTH TRAINING.
When it comes to building a physically robust body that’s resilient to injury, never neglect strength training. This is based on research from the British Journal of Sports Medicine who emphatically stated, “Strength training reduces sports injuries”2. This is following their research to determine which training protocol (strength training, stretching or proprioception (balance) conditioning) was most effective at reducing sports injuries? After studying 26,610 participants with 3,464 injuries what they found was, “Strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved” and performed better than both stretching or proprioception conditioning routines. Lead by the same chief researcher (and again research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine) they also found this to be true in studies around the world, “despite considerable differences in populations.” They found, after analysing 7,738 participants aged 12-40 years in studies published in 2003-2016, five from Europe and one from Africa, that, “Increasing strength training volume and intensity were associated with sports injury risk reduction”3. This is because the accumulation of strength over a period of time allows all of our body’s structures to adapt and make us less prone to injury and more able to deal with the stresses and strains that we place upon it. Whether that be bones, muscles, joints, ligaments or tendons. All of these structures have the ability to adapt to the forces that are placed upon them.
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SECRET 4: SCIENCE OF A SMILE.
Whether running, swimming, cycling or training in the gym never underestimate the power of a smile. To test this theory scientists from the UK Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance (in a study published in the Journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience4) had athletes cycle to exhaustion as they were shown “subliminal visual cues” of happy vs sad faces. Subliminal visual cues are words and pictures that are unidentifiable to your conscious brain (since it doesn’t have time to process and interpret) and instead happen so quickly (a few milliseconds) they’re only absorbed at a subconscious level. Results, “Revealed that individuals cycled significantly longer when subliminally primed with happy faces.” They also added that the athletes rating of perceived exertion (RPE) during the time to exhaustion (TTE) test was also lower in the athletes, “primed with happy faces”. Worth noting is these, “experiments are the first to show that subliminal visual cues relating to affect and action can alter perception of effort and endurance performance,” therefore more research is needed. But this is something the Royal Marines have been practicing for years. So much so it’s actually part of their ethos, “Cheerfulness in the face of adversity”.
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SECRET 5: RESILIENCE IS BEST SERVED WITH FOOD.
Long distance swimming events are so often an eating competition with a bit of swimming thrown in. The same is true of other endurance sports too, take adventure racing for example. A sport where competitors compete over 10 days in various disciplines ranging from mountain biking, running, kayaking, climbing and mountaineering over a rugged, often remote and wilderness terrain. Scientists wanted to establish evidence-based nutritional recommendations for competitors and found, “Energy expenditures of 365–750 kcal/hour have been reported with total energy expenditures of 18 000–80 000 kcal required to complete adventure races” which means, “Large negative energy balances during competitions have been reported”5.
Basically, competitors were not able to eat enough.
This is supported by a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism who wanted to monitor the calorie intake of adventure racers during a 67 hour simulated lab experiment where athletes covered a total distance covered 477.3 km. Food intake was recorded throughout the experiment and they found that even within the safe and controlled environment of the sports lab, “Athletes’ total energy expenditure was greater than their total energy intake (24,516 vs. 14,738 kcal)”6.
That’s a calorie deficit of over 9,000 calories.
This is why for all the advancements made in technology and sports supplements, scientists concluded, “Athletes competing in ultra-endurance sports should manage nutritional issues, especially with regards to energy”. Adding, “Such a negative energy balance is a major health and performance concern”7.
The Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care agrees too, stating, “Despite much current debate regarding central (mind) and peripheral (body) mechanisms which may be responsible for the onset of fatigue during prolonged exercise, maintenance of nutritional and hydration status remains critical for successful participation in ultra-endurance exercise”8.
For all these reasons (and more) I consumed 10,000 to 15,000 calories per day when swimming 1,780 miles around GB. Since I understood even the fittest athletes in the world cannot optimally function if they’re not eating enough. In summary, resilience is best served with food.
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SECRET 6: GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE & GET OUTSIDE.
Similar to the concept of “getting wintered” is this idea of getting comfortable being uncomfortable through voluntary discomfort. We can do this by removing home comforts and high-tech clothing and instead learn to face the elements equipped with nothing but our physical and mental fortitude whether that’s in the form of a barefoot run or ice-cold shower. Based on the teachings of the ancient stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus who said, “It is a mistake to bundle up the body in a lot of clothes or envelope it in shawls or wrap up hands and feet in felt or heavy cloth– unless, that is, one is ill. It is a mistake for people to dress so that they never experience cold and heat. To the contrary, they should be somewhat cold in winter, get out in the sun in summer, and stay in the shade very little”.
Also related to a theme present in the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1837–1861) too. Considered to be one of America’s great modern philosophers, on Christmas Day of 1856, he wrote about his daily practices and said, “Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary”.
Days later in his diary he expanded on this point and wrote, “We must go out and re-ally ourselves to nature every day. We must make root, send out some little fibre at least, even every winter day. I am sensible that I am imbibing health when I open my mouth to the wind. Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always. Every house is in this sense a hospital. A night and a forenoon is as much confinement to those wards as I can stand. I am aware that I recover some sanity which I had lost almost the instant that I come outdoors”.
In summary, the gym is an ideal environment to get stronger, leaner and quicker. However, don’t underestimate the power of mother nature and try to ensure you get outside and battle the elements as much as you battle the barbells.
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SECRET 7: SLEEP YOURSELF STRONGER.
Studies show you’re stronger with sleep. Something I learnt during a 48-hour training swim which friends of mine at the Royal Marines training centre in Lympstone, Devon, were kind enough to supervise and mentor me through. This is because research published in the Journal of Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine states, “Military operations, especially combat, expose individuals to multiple stressors, including sleep loss, food deprivation, and sustained physical activity”9. Basically, the Royal Marine PTI’s were foremost leading experts in sports done under stress and sleep deprivation. This is because you’re no longer mentally functioning at your full capacity as studies show you can suffer from hallucinations (perceptual distortions)10, mood disturbances11, biological stress12 and impaired motor skills meaning you can’t even control your arms, legs and limbs properly any more. Which brings me onto the biggest lesson I learnt from friends at the Royal Marines: although when sleep deprived you cannot perform at your best… at least you can still perform. This is why the following quote always stuck with me:
“Athletes are taught to perform at their best,
When they feel at their best.
Royal Marines are taught to perform at their best,
When they feel at their worst“.
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1 O’Donnell, A, Morgan, CA, Jovanov, E, Andrasik, F, and Prevost, MC. The warfighter’s stress response: Telemetric and noninvasive assessment. Naval Aerospace Medical Research Lab Pensacola, FL; 2002.
2 Lauersen JB, Bertelsen DM and Andersen LB (2014) “The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2014 Jun;48(11):871-7.
3 Lauersen JB, Andersen TE and Andersen LB (2018) “Strength training as superior, dose-dependent and safe prevention of acute and overuse sports injuries: a systematic review, qualitative analysis and meta-analysis.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2018 Dec;52(24):1557-1563.
4 Blanchfield A, Hardy J and Marcora S (2014) “Non-conscious visual cues related to affect and action alter perception of effort and endurance performance.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2014 Dec 11;8:967.
5 Mayur K. Ranchordas (2012) “Nutrition for Adventure Racing” Sports Medicine November 2012, Volume 42, Issue 11, pp 915–927.
6 Ioná Zalcman Zimberg, Cibele Aparecida Crispim, Claudia Ridel Juzwiak and Hanna Karen Moreira Antunes (2008) “Nutritional Intake during a Simulated Adventure Race” Human Kinetics Journals, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, Volume 18 Issue 2, April 2008.
7 Nikolaidis PT, Veniamakis E, Rosemann T and Knechtle B (2018) “Nutrition in Ultra-Endurance: State of the Art.” Nutrients. 2018 Dec 16;10(12).
8 Peters EM (2003) “Nutritional aspects in ultra-endurance exercise.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 2003 Jul;6(4):427-34.
9 Lieberman HR, Niro P, Tharion WJ, Nindl BC, Castellani JW and Montain SJ (2006) “Cognition during sustained operations: comparison of a laboratory simulation to field studies.” Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 2006 Sep;77(9):929-35.
10 Babkoff, H., Sing, H. C., Thorne, D. R., Genser, S. G., & Hegge, F. W. (1989). Perceptual Distortions and Hallucinations Reported during the Course of Sleep Deprivation. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 68(3), 787–798.
11 Scott JP, McNaughton LR and Polman RC (2006) “Effects of sleep deprivation and exercise on cognitive, motor performance and mood.” Physiology & Behaviour, 2006 Feb 28;87(2):396-408. Epub 2006 Jan 3.
12 Eleonora Tobaldiniab, Giorgio Costantinoa, Monica Solbiatia, Chiara Cogliatic, Tomas Karade, Lino Nobilif and Nicola Montanoa (2017) “Sleep, sleep deprivation, autonomic nervous system and cardiovascular diseases” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews Volume 74, Part B, March 2017, Pages 321-32.