Mastering the Endurance Mindset - Cal Major
Having taken on some epic adventures on her stand up paddleboard (SUP), dryrobe ambassador Cal Major knows all about the mental challenges involved in long-distance expeditions. After circumnavigating the 200 miles around the Isle of Skye on her SUP in 2017, Cal then went on to become the first person to SUP from Land End’s to John O’Groat’s a year later, going from one end of Britain to the other, paddling a 1000 miles in just under two months, around the coast and along the country’s waterways.
Here, Cal shares her tips for mastering the endurance mindset - with some great advice that can be applied to everyday challenges, as well as more colossal expeditions.
One of the first questions people often ask about my expeditions is: “How do you just keep going?”
Mastering the Endurance Mindset has been, without a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to learn through my expeditions, and one that still requires discipline now, especially when I’m out of practice.
But it’s also one of the most satisfying hurdles to overcome. With a bit of practice, and a lot of mind training, taking on endurance challenges can go from a chore and a feeling of wanting to give in to a proud experience, and one which will feel all the more meaningful for the attitude you had to adopt to complete it.
There’s a phenomenon I call the “four mile syndrome”. This is, as the name suggests, four miles into the start of a day’s paddling. You’ve got out of bed, got your board on the water (often at some ungodly hour) and managed to push off and start paddling. Things are going well, and surely the hard bit is already done? You’re cracking on, getting some miles
under your belt, starting to settle into a paddling rhythm. The first time you look at your GPS watch is after what seems like hours of paddling. Surely you’ve covered a good few miles… 10 maybe, 12 at a push… Alas, you’ve done just over an hour, and made it four miles. How on Earth are you going to manage another 20?
This would always be the time that I would start to find everything a little bit difficult. Until I got to the half way mark, and I could start counting down the miles, paddling could be very tedious! Acknowledging this was the first step to actually being able to tackle it. It wasn’t that between mile 4 and mile 15 the paddling was any more difficult, in fact this should be when I was freshest. It was that my mind was distracted by thoughts of “Are we nearly there yet” and not being able to envisage ever getting back to land. I realised very early on this was going to need a mind shift to get through day after day.
Below I have outlined my top tips for mastering the endurance mindset. I’d love to hear yours!
1. Perhaps the most important: Acknowledge that endurance sports are TOUGH, that this is going to be a challenge driven by your mind and that there are going to be times when it’s hard to keep going. When you do succeed, you’ll know that it was mostly due to your mental strength.
2. Break each day’s journey down. Whether this is mile by mile, lunch stops, or the half way point, break it down into sections rather than looking at the whole beast. This makes things so much more manageable.
3. Celebrate the steps along the way. My days were broken down nicely by miles: each mile I covered would cause a vibration on my GPS watch, and I would take a couple of seconds to celebrate that I was one mile closer to my destination, and have something to eat.
4. It is important to look forward, but sometimes it’s a good idea to look back at how far you’ve come too. You did this yesterday, and the day before. You’ve proved you can do it more than once - you can do it again! And even if you’re standing on the starting line - there’s going to have been a journey to get you to that point. Be proud of that, and know that if you managed to get to where you are, you can keep going a little longer.
5. When things got really bad, I would ask myself, “Can I do just one more paddle stroke. Just one more metre? Just one more mile?” The answer was (almost!) always yes. You won’t always need this technique, but when the going gets really tough, it can be a saviour.
6. Visualisation. Before setting out each day, I would visualise what the day was going to be like, what challenges might arise, how that would feel, and how I would tackle it in that moment. It meant that if and when the going got tough I was better prepared to handle it, more accepting of the situation and less indecisive about a course of action. On particularly long days, or tedious paddles such as big bay crossings where I’d be miles out to sea with no coastline to focus on, before getting on the water I would visualise that familiar feeling of wanting to give up. I would visualise the beginnings of fatigue and then emptiness as I continued towards my destination, and relief and pride at getting to the other end. When that feeling of wanting to give up then actually arose I was much more able to acknowledge that that was normal, and there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
7. Keep moving. Every tiny forward movement helps. Watching all the paddle strokes, all the individual miles, and the days add up to 1000 miles on my LEJOG trip was the most incredible confirmation that enormous things can be achieved, if you just keep plodding away at them. Never attempting to do it all in one go, but taking each day at a time.
8. Stay well hydrated and fed. That familiar feeling of losing the will to live is multiplied if you’re undernourished and especially if dehydrated. I used Mountain Fuel in my hydration pack to keep my calories and hydration topped up.
9. Cultivate positivity. It’s easy enough to decide you’re having an awful time, but only a little bit more difficult to decide you’re going to enjoy it. I would play games with the fishing buoys I passed, racing between them and challenging myself to reach each subsequent one within a given time frame. If you feel like crying, cry - that’s a normal reaction, but also if you are just feeling grumpy, making the decision to whack a smile on your face and enjoy it. Smiling actually releases endorphins and eases stress, even if it’s a fake smile. Make your mind up to enjoy it, and to nurture a positive mental attitude as frequently as you can. There will be occasions when frustration, fear and exhaustion override your decision to have a nice time, but the more you cultivate positivity, the easier it is to slip back into it.
10. Nurture Mindfulness. Often times with hours and hours out to sea, it’s easy for the mind to start to wander, to catastrophise or slip into negative spirals, and one of my mind’s favourites, to tell me I can’t possibly paddle another 30 miles today. In these moments, mindfulness is your friend. Mindfulness isn’t just reserved for meditators - it’s available to everyone, and is just based on bringing yourself and your mind back into the present moment. You can do this by focussing on your breath, and on the scenes around you. Pay real attention to the way the water is moving, the clouds in the sky, the view of the horizon, the wildlife surrounding you, the way your body feels in each moment. Enjoy it. I guarantee that being mindful will help that smile emerge amongst the tedium. I have had the most profoundly peaceful and joyful moments when I committed to mindfulness out on the water, being truly present and focussed on what was going on around me. The mind will continue to wander, but when it does just notice that it’s crept off into its habit of spiralling, and bring it back to focus on the here and now.
There’s another really helpful concept about a safety boat - perceived or real - and I’ve written a separate blog on this and how it can affect the endurance mindset.
Although the above steps were honed through my expeditions, I often transfer them into everyday situations. If I have a long project and don’t know where to start, or a task at hand that seems so big it feels impossible - knowing that I have been able to get my head around paddling 20-40 miles a day, on repeat for 2 months, helps me acknowledge that I have all the mind tools developed, ready to be flexed, for this next task at hand.
I think it can also be related to our campaigns around environmental issues - none of them are going to be solved overnight unfortunately, but with the right mindset and determination we really can make big change from small steps.
Photos by James Appleton