We all know the benefits of exercise on our mental and physical health – more energy, improved mood, reduced stress, weight loss, effective sleep, increased concentration and focus. The list goes on.
What’s talked about less are the parallels between sport and work and life and how achieving fitness goals – however small they may seem – provides so many metaphors for work and life.
I first came across this idea when I worked for @thresholdsports, a small business which organised ultra-marathons and cycling sportives – for everyone regardless of their age, size or ability. There were elite athletes who ran 100km in eight hours but many took 48 hours to complete the course on their own terms.
The overweight woman in her mid fifties who had lost five stone and achieved her goal of walking the course after a lifetime of failed diets and exercise avoidance was celebrated as much as the elite runner.
I was lucky enough to meet some incredible women who could run very long distances very well – an ability they discovered accidentally. These women weren’t natural runners. They took up running slowly for very personal reasons; to overcome severe anxiety, to improve their mental health, to lose weight, to recover from chronic self-doubt, lack of confidence and stress. Their early runs were agony – it was hard work, uncomfortable and sometimes painful – but they persevered, chasing the beneficial side effects. As their fitness increased, they found they could run further and some discovered that they were very good at long distance, often a lot better than their fellow male competitors.
I remember one female winner telling me, “I’m not fast, but I manage to dig in and I’m good at running up hills. That’s what gives me my edge.” Another, who was inspired when her brother ran the London Marathon but could only manage two or three minutes continuous running when she started, told me after she had won the men and women’s race and beaten the course record, “I love running. Achieving my running goals has taught me that I can achieve my goals in life too.”
I am no sportswoman or ultra-runner – mostly I think I hate running – but I know that I need to exercise. I frequently find lessons that help me with my business.
As I run – or stagger – up hills, I tick passing trees off like a to-do list. In one go, the hill is too daunting. Broken down, step by step, I can reach the top.
In yoga, where connections between on and off the mat are frequently made by Adrienne, I’m taught to find focus and balance – and learn to accept that I will lose focus and balance.
The only way I can tackle the 5°c January lido is to walk resolutely from the safety of my towel on the side of the pool without stopping. Shutting down the voice in my head, I can’t allow myself to look left or right for distractions. I ignore the icy pain as it cuts through and launch myself. The first length is always piercing, but then I adjust to the cold, the voice in my head calms down and find my rhythm. It’s like tackling any task I’m desperate to avoid.
There are so many similarities between sport, work and life. As you get into exercise, you find flow, rhythm and ease; you build strength; you get better; opportunities and perspectives open up.
Consistency is key. The more you practice, the more you improve. The more you do, the more you know what is right for you and what you enjoy. The more you achieve, the more you want to achieve.
And the more you overcome your limits and fears, the more you realise they are illusions.