Mountain biker riding uphill in desert
Our brains are built to keep us alive and retain a good physiological buffer in reserve, in case we find ourselves in a true survival situation. (Photo: ikick/iStock)

The Key to Resilience? Open-Ended Workouts.

The secret to pushing past your mental limits could be a handful of coins

Mountain biker riding uphill in desert

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It’s incredibly difficult to break a body—to hit the true limits of what our muscles and energy systems can do. But our minds are rarely in sync with this, and for good reason: our brains are built to keep us alive and retain a good physiological buffer in reserve, in case we find ourselves in a true survival situation. If we played at the edge of physiological catastrophe every time we went for a run, we wouldn’t make it very far as a species.

This mind-body disconnect is part of the reason why anywhere from 55 to 85 percent of people who start Special Operations selection courses—schools that candidates graduate to become Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, or Air Force Pararescuers—fail or quit. But most of these people aren’t carted off in an ambulance. They still have blood sugar and oxygen to spare. The pain they feel, while excruciating, will fade quickly. It’s their mind that falters: it no longer believes that the body can keep going.

Yet for the past ten years that my colleague, Jonathan Pope, and I have been training people for these courses through our company, Building the Elite, rarely has someone we’ve worked with failed. Our success rate has hovered at around 90 percent, and the reasons for this go beyond VO2 max and push-ups.

While the infamous Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL program looks (and is) physically brutal, that reputation is perpetuated by an interesting dynamic: the majority of attrition is not caused by injury—the program is not physically breaking people; instead, over 80 percent of those who wash out of the course do so voluntarily, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Special Operations Medicine. They quit. Only 10 percent of dropouts occur for medical reasons, and just 6 percent of candidates are released for performance failures.

2018 analysis that looked specifically at Air Force Special Operations skills training found that even if a person’s physical performance was in the top 95 percent of their class, their odds of passing were still only about one in three. Once physical standards are met, much of anyone’s performance comes down to mental and emotional factors.

This provides us with some useful information on resilience under stressful conditions. There is an art form to getting people to their breaking points without injuring them. You let them believe that they cannot do any more, that if they finish this one sprint or this last set of push-ups, then they can finally catch a break. You give them hope. And then, just as the goalposts are within reach, you move them. The light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a trick.

Outdoor adventure sports don’t generally take things as far as Special Operations selection, but you still might run into some of these make-it-or-break-it situations:

  • You tell yourself that you can keep pushing on your mountain bike just long enough to finish this last climb, and then you crest the hill and realize there’s another one.
  • You’re partway through a hike, deeply exhausted, and the only way for it to be over is to keep going anyway.
  • You get to the bottom of a backcountry ski run on trembling legs, with nothing on your mind but a warm car ride to your favorite burger place, and everyone in your group starts transitioning to go back uphill for one last impromptu lap.

These are the same sad-trombone moments that crack people in Special Ops selection, and anyone who recreates in the outdoors has felt them, too.

But just like the ability to quickly transition from the swim to the bike in a triathlon, imperviousness to these moments of heartbreak is a skill that can be practiced. Whether you’re a mountain biker or an aspiring Army Ranger, you can build this skill by retooling some of the workouts you’re already doing, to develop your tolerance for ambiguous conditions. We do this with open-ended workouts.

Traditional workouts use fixed, known quantities: you do five sets of five reps, run for 30 minutes, or swim ten laps. You come to believe that the duration of your workout represents roughly the most that you can or should do.

In contrast, open-ended workouts leave you blind to the duration. They go on until they’re over. The association you’re building is that you can sustain this output for as long as you have to.

The design of these workouts is only limited by your creativity but should include three criteria:

  1. Compound, “high-fidelity” movements like lunges, kettlebell swings, dumbbell rows, or push-ups that can be done safely under fatigue, with minimal injury risk.
  2. A means of concealing the duration of the workout from yourself, while also keeping the workout within reasonable limits.
  3. A structure that keeps you predominantly in your submaximal aerobic zone (easily breathing through the nose is a rough rule of thumb).

One of our favorite methods for this is known as the coin game.

The Coin Game Workout

To start this workout, grab a handful of loose coins. Don’t look closely at them, and either put the coins in one pocket or set them in an opaque container.

Next, pick up to three compound exercises. We often use three reps per side of a reverse lunge paired with a single-arm dumbbell row.

Now take a coin out and put it in your other pocket or another jar. That coin equals one set of lunges and rows. After the set and a 30-to-60-second rest, take another coin out. That’s one more set.

The idea is that you never know for sure how many more sets you have left, and with the coins disappearing into another pocket or container, you can also easily lose track of how many you’ve done. You just keep going until you’ve run out of coins.

Over time, with these kinds of workouts mixed in to your training, you’ll begin to build a different sense of your capabilities. You’ll learn that even when the environment throws you a curveball, you have what it takes to continue—for as long as you have to.

Lead Photo: ikick/iStock