Thinking about New Year’s fitness resolutions? You might want to train for them with “The Champion Mindset.”
That’s the title of a book published this year by Jewish triathlon champion Joanna Zeiger, 47. The US Olympian and National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inductee exhorts readers to not only think about the physical aspect of fitness goals, but the mental aspect as well. In fact, the book is subtitled “An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness.”
Zeiger has learned about mental toughness in ways that would make many shudder. Almost a decade ago, in 2009, she was pedaling her bicycle through Clearwater, Florida, looking to win her second straight Ironman 70.3 world championship, also called a half Ironman: a combined 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
During the bicycle portion, a thirsty Zeiger grabbed a water bottle from a volunteer. But the volunteer did not let go, sending Zeiger sprawling off her bicycle. She broke her collarbone and several ribs.
The accident has required multiple chest wall surgeries over the years, continuing to this year. It ended her triathlon career, which included a fourth place at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Not only did it cause recurring physical pain, it inflicted psychological pain as well.
But Zeiger met these challenges like a champion. She refocused her energy from triathlons to marathons, and qualified for the US Olympic Trials Marathon in both 2012 and 2016. Now she’s sharing the lessons she learned in her comeback.
Headstrong and body strong
“People who think about the concept of mental toughness have a very narrow view of it,” Zeiger said. “To athletes, if you ask them what is mental toughness, they’ll say, ‘Getting up early at 4 a.m. for a run; still being out there [running] in a blizzard; being so tired in a race that you wanted to quit, but you kept going.’”
But, she said, “It’s so much bigger.” Zeiger encourages readers — athletes and non-athletes — to think big-picture, choosing realistic goals and training incrementally (for non-athletes, this might apply to business or hobbies).
“Setting goals is a pretty complicated province,” Zeiger said — beyond wanting to qualify for a marathon or achieve a certain race time and willing away at such a goal. “You need an understanding of what your potential is. We overset goals a lot of times, goals that are beyond our means.”
This causes athletes to “quit a sport, not enjoy what you’re doing, run around in circles,” she said.
Proper goal-setting is difficult but achievable, she said. She recommends goals that are both attainable and desirable. Once an athlete decides upon such a goal, Zeiger said, they must train gradually.
“For a long-term goal, set short-term goals,” Zeiger advised, “set a very short-term goal on a daily basis. The long-term goal is way off in the future. Achieving goals is very motivating. You’ll keep on [doing it].”
This approach will instill mental toughness for the adversity that inevitably appears. Once an individual possesses mental toughness, “when you’re faced with a problem, you don’t stop,” Zeiger said. “You still forge forward, have success.”
Ups and downs
She knows what it’s like to experience success. She qualified for the US Olympic triathlon team for the 2000 Summer Games — the first time triathlon was offered as an Olympic sport. Zeiger finished fourth and, as the top American, carried the US flag across the finish line.
Qualifying for, and participating in, the Olympics was one of the highlights of her career — along with winning the Ironman 70.3 world championship in 2008, which she did in record time at age 38.
“Winning that race was amazing,” Zeiger said. “It was something I’d always wanted, to win a world championship.”
In 2012, the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inducted her in recognition of Zeiger’s achievements.
“Any time you are inducted into a hall of fame it’s an honor, but particularly the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, it’s a double honor,” Zeiger said. “Being Jewish is a very important part of my life, my culture, history. There are so few Jewish triathletes. To be recognized on that level, it’s a true honor.”
By then, Zeiger’s triathlon days had ended, and she was learning the very lessons on adversity that she would impart in her book.
“The Champion Mindset” resulted from a blog that Zeiger began when she attempted to return to triathlons after her accident. She ultimately walked away from the sport, but continued blogging. And she found herself drawn to one subject: mental toughness.
Using her diverse background — she holds a PhD in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins and is also a coach for endurance athletes, including those with chronic pain — Zeiger found myriad ways to discuss mental toughness, from interviews with fellow elite athletes to analytical data (a 2009 study concluded that “swearing can actually relieve pain”).
She shares her own experiences and insights. Once, she was kicked in the head during a race, suffering a concussion that caused her to pass out. Entering the water for a triathlon, a woman next to her stepped on her foot, leaving her left pinky toe jutting out at a right angle.
“My athletic life is littered with setbacks, chronic conditions, injuries, and disappointment,” she wrote.
But every time she’s been sidelined, she’s gotten back up. Her transition to marathons is illustrative.
“I adopted a new philosophy,” she wrote. “If I can’t run fast, then run slowly. If I can’t run slowly, then walk. No matter what, keep moving.”
Sticking to the plan
Zeiger could still run fast, possibly qualifying for the US Olympic Trials Marathon in 2012 and 2016. But injuries continued to battle her. Struggling with rib pain, she dropped out of the 2012 Olympic Trials at mile 20.
“The pain got worse over the years,” she recalled. “I had several surgeries to repair rib fractures from the accident. I ended up with nerve damage to the intercostal nerves. The nerve pain hurts all day, every day, a sharp, stabbing pain between the ribs.”
This happened today. I had my 8th, yes 8th, chest wall surgery today. The surgeon cut 7 intercostal nerves and implanted the "stump" under muscle with the hope of alleviating the pain and other noxious symptoms from the nerve damage. He confirmed what I thought; the nerves were damaged from getting stretched when I crashed. Nerves seems to get pissed off when they are stretch too far. He even thinks I had torn some intercostal muscles at the time causing a large separation between some of my ribs. From the looks of the bandage, it's going to be a helluva scar! Onward…#intercostalneuralgia #surgery #illbeback #runner #mentaltoughness #chronicpain
A post shared by Joanna Zeiger (@joannazeiger) on
By 2015, she felt desperate. “Twice during that summer — indeed, the only two times in my life — I verbalized my desire to throw in the towel and just give up,” Zeiger wrote. “Give up on sports, which always kept me grounded in even the worst circumstances. Give up trying to find a solution. Give up on life.”
Zeiger credits her family with bolstering her morale — she encourages those in similar circumstances who do not have “such a caring and equipped network” to seek out professional help. In 2016, she qualified for another Olympic Trials.
She said she “really did not want to repeat” her dropout of 2012. So she developed a plan to get to the finish line “at any cost,” even if she had to walk half the race.
She knew there was a “high probability” that she would finish in last place. But this was where mental toughness kicked in, staying focused on a goal and pursuing it to completion, regardless of where you finished.
On race day, Zeiger said, “I stuck to the plan.” Running at a comfortable pace, and walking when necessary, she did indeed finish last. But she finished.
“In terms of race finishes, I would have to say [it’s among the] ones I’m most proud of,” she said. “I struggled to the finish line. I was very happy. I had surgery a few days later.”
This year, Zeiger has even been able to return to triathlons. In June, she participated in the running section of both the Orange County Triathlon in Mission Viejo, California, and the Buffalo Springs Lake half Ironman in Lubbock, Texas.
On December 3, she celebrated another milestone: She “managed to run 3,000 miles since the beginning of the year,” she posted on Instagram. “This total doesn’t include the hundreds of miles I’ve walked. And, this is not the first time that I’ve run over 3,000 miles in a year; I’ve surpassed that milestone every year since my accident.”
“The difference this year,” she added, “is that I ran that far despite feeling mostly crappy. I’ve had two surgeries with another planned on December 7. I’ve had dozens of injections. There were plenty of days I could hardly imagine getting out of bed, let alone go for a run. But, I understand that exercise is medicine, and without my daily dose of it, I feel markedly worse.
“So, with that in mind, I ran through whatever the elements provided. I ran through pain and nausea. I ran fast. I ran slow. I ran as if my life depended on it, because it did. Running brings me comfort, normality, lots of endorphins, well-being, pain relief, and a sense of accomplishment. My ability to run has confounded the doctors in my care; but, since I can run, I do,” she wrote.
She closed with a series of statements that might just sum up “The Champion Mindset.”
“I don’t believe that anything is possible,” she wrote. “I do believe that you can do a lot with a little [to] make a lot of things possible. Open your mind, get creative, ease up on self-inflicted pressure to perform at a certain level — that is when you can turn the impossible into possible.”