Seasoned endurance athletes are known for their Zen-like aura and ability to stay cool, calm, and collected under pressure—on and off the race course.
Where other people panic, the endurance athlete tends to be even-keeled and mobilized, and will work toward a solution. How do we know? Science says so. Turns out the more you push your physical limits, the more you improve your psychological ones.
Endurance sports cultivate a growth mindset, or an overall perspective that “recognizes the natural human capacity to grow during times of stress,” says Kelly McGonigal, a world-renowned health psychologist whose forthcoming book, The Upside of Stress, challenges the prevailing wisdom on the topic. Instead of seeing stress as something negative and to be avoided, McGonigal says that we should learn how to embrace it.
“The most toxic thing about stress is not stress in and of itself,” she says, “but rather, stress avoidance and the subsequent angst and rumination of always trying to avoid stress.” In contrast, she says, if “you build the inner resources to deal with stress, confronting it can lead to personal growth and add meaning to your life.”
According to McGonigal, one of the best ways to get good at stress is practice, and endurance sports offer many opportunities to do just that. “Through endurance sports, you are learning to see yourself as someone who can choose to engage in difficult things, get through them, and evolve in consequential ways,” she says.
When someone signs up for an endurance event, they are signing themselves up for adversity. An endless list of things can go wrong, and the longer you participate in endurance sports, the more of these things you’ll experience. Think: dropping your fuel 40 miles into a century ride; making a wrong turn in a trail race; going out too fast early in a marathon and paying dearly for it later.
Because stressors are inherent to endurance sports, over time, athletes learn to assess them as challenges rather than as threats. This outlook, which McGonigal calls a “challenge response to stress,” is characterized by proactively focusing on what you can control in the face of stress, and quieting negative emotions like fear and anxiety. A challenge response carries over into other walks of life, and “is a huge positive,” says McGonigal.
In The Upside of Stress, McGonigal points out that, of the many hormones at play when we are stressed, two are particularly important: cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). While neither is categorically “good” or “bad” and both are necessary, chronically elevated cortisol levels are associated with inflammation, impaired immune function, and depression.
In contrast, DHEA has been linked to a reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, neurodegeneration, and a range of other diseases. DHEA is also a neurosteroid, which helps your brain grow. When under stress, you want to release more DHEA than cortisol. This ratio is aptly named the growth index of stress. Sure enough, studies show that people who react to stress with a challenge response have a higher growth index of stress versus those who perceive stress as a threat. In other words, if you see stressors as challenges, you’ll release more DHEA than cortisol when they come up.
Endurance athletes also often experience a strong sense of community, an element essential to a productive relationship with stress. While races may pit people against each other, most endurance athletes compete primarily for self-improvement.
“When you are feeling stressed, one of the best things you can do is help someone else,” McGonigal says. In doing so, “you’ll get a flood of the hormone dopamine which will make you feel better and motivate you to keep going in tough situations.”
For all these reasons, a growing number of organizations are turning to endurance sports to cultivate a growth mindset in individuals facing big challenges. Back on My Feet, for example, uses running to help the homeless. The organization’s mission: “Not to create runners within the homeless population, but to use running to create self-sufficiency in the lives of those experiencing homelessness.” Of the over 4,500 members that have run with Back on My Feet since 2009, thirty-five percent have gained employment and 25 percent have obtained housing.
Other organizations teaching a growth mindset through endurance sports include the Challenge Athlete Foundation for people with physical disabilities, the Achilles Freedom Team for veterans wounded during their service, and Sole Train for inner-city youth.
In the end, endurance sports don’t change anything about stress. They change athletes’ reaction to it. By learning how to view stress as a challenge and strengthening your social ties, you can foster the inner resources needed to effectively confront stress in all areas of life—and become a happier, calmer person in the process.