The Art of Resilience for Trail Runners

Written by Jeff Kidahl for the Spring 2021 issue of our quarterly Trail Times newsletter.

The beauty of trail running is that it teaches us awareness.

This awareness delineates reality from perception – even though perception drives reality.

The essence of being endurance athletes is our ability to withstand prolonged hardship, difficulty, stress, arduous situations, and events in extreme conditions – even virtually.

We are cognizant of the salient variables requisite to avert DNFs or worse scenarios on the trails. Tweaking fitness, nutrition, supplementation, periodization, recovery, wearable technology, metrics, and the rest of it is a never-ending proposition. The importance of mental tenacity is well-documented when it comes to its inevitable showdown with physical pain.

Life-changing events, stress, adversity, or a global pandemic have a way of piercing our coping mechanisms and testing our resolve while offering the option to heighten our awareness or infuse fear-based illusions.

“Mastery is the natural result of mindfulness.” – Ron Kurtz

Time to change, adapt, and grow.

Resilience is the process of thriving amid adversity, misfortune, trauma, and extraordinary sources of stress – exactly what makes trail runners salivate.

Mastering resilience is a delicate, in-depth understanding of the complex human system. Life and sport are unpredictable – like human behavior – under an array of circumstances or environmental stressors. Though this subtle art flits amid our subconscious; it must be a bold, conscious, unfettered commitment to excel.

Mindset is the key.

In order to thrive on the health and performance continuum – and the trails – it is imperative to confront adversity with a different perspective. We must embrace it.

Growth has no endpoint. We must first realize that adversity happens for us…not to us. Setbacks are unavoidable and represent our impetus for growth – whether a rattlesnake bite, poison oak, or COVID-19.

Resilience teaches us to view hardship and adversity as opportunities to create, shift the paradigm, thrive, become limitless, and beyond. Setbacks must be viewed as catalysts for optimal health and enhanced performance. Find a few traits of resilient trail runners below:

  • Acceptance of what is not desired
  • Hardship represents your personal trainer
  • Expect rejection and setbacks
  • Nothing is impossible
  • Embrace pain and suffering
  • Exchange immediate gratification for long-term fulfillment
  • No obstacles – only opportunities
  • No problems – only solutions
  • Internal locus of control
  • Resourcefulness
  • Unprecedented fortitude
  • Social connection

Find additional information on the power of your mindset in the 2015 gem, “The Ultra Mindset,” by Travis Macy that offers eight core principles for success in business, sports, and life applicable today.

“Ready, Fire, Aim…” – Michael Masterson

Reinforcing Resilience

Building resilience means rethinking what appears to be a negative event – a lackluster performance, virtual events, masks, social distancing, and the test of it – and realize it is a seed for growth and success. The resilient trail runner looks past short-term setbacks and focuses on long-term missions. Find a few traits of resilience below:

  • Define your purpose
  • Believe in yourself
  • Develop a strong support system
  • Embrace change
  • Develop goals
  • Honor self-care
  • Remember your mission
  • Learn from the past
  • Enlarge your vision
  • Take action

Our mindset affects our homeostasis. One of the most insidious yet impactful elements to your resilience is your autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The state of the ANS determines whether the body is in survival mode or in regeneration mode. There are two branches of the ANS: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS – “fight/flight”) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS – “rest/digest”).

The SNS compromises normal bodily functions and negatively impacts our health and performance proportionately when prolonged. Research has indicated most people reside in the SNS zone – which has been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Find some compromised areas below:

  • Suppressed digestion – especially gluten and other common allergens
  • Decreased tissue hydration
  • Compromised immune system
  • Reduced lung capacity
  • Poor circulation
  • Diminished blood flow | stroke volume
  • Impaired cognition
  • Body structure compressed – leading to joint inflammation and chronic pain

PNS – engage!

PNS allows the body to function optimally in the spirit of repair and regeneration. A healthy nervous system has an optimal balance of activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Prolonged stress negatively impacts health and performance. The benefits of stress reduction via resilience are equally broad. The following are some of the areas where function is greatly improved by a healthy nervous system:

  • Premature aging
  • Blood circulation
  • Tissue hydration
  • Brain function
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Digestion | food allergens
  • Cognition
  • Lymphatic system
  • Pain relief
  • Posture
  • Respiration
  • Immune system
  • Stress reduction

Simple breath work will perform wonders to balance your ANS. It is based on a concept termed Cardiac Coherence. The key is to activate your PNS to slow your heart rate and enhance heart rate variability (HRV). It is a synergistic approach to homeostasis via Pranayama.

A soft diaphragmatic pattern utilizing a 4-count nasal inhalation, 7-count hold, and 8-count nasal exhalation multiple times per day will optimize your resilience. Full-blown HRV testing is also an option. Find a few benefits of breath work below:

  • Nitric Oxide production
  • Mental clarity
  • CO2 retention
  • Optimized aerobic capacity
  • Enhanced sleep
  • Mitigated salivary and plasma cortisol
  • Boosts immunity
  • Expands creativity
  • Reduces stress | fear
  • Tissue and organ oxygenation

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” – Sir Edmund Hillary

Other options to enhance resilience include self-talk, meditation, yoga, guided imagery, and so forth. When we view each adversarial event as a puzzle to solve it becomes a key performance indicator (KPI) of our growth.

Retired Navy SEAL and ultra-endurance athlete David Goggins lives by the 40% rule. This rule states you are only 40% done even though your mind has waived the white flag. Said rule is applicable in life and sport and hinges on mindset.

The 40% rule helps you tap a tank of resourcefulness most people do not use because of their mindset. It is necessary to go to the next level of mental endurance for those desiring resilience. Envision you have plenty in the tank when you feel tapped – whether in life or on the trails.

Trail running can be as difficult as it is meaningful because it takes incredible perseverance to experience the reward at the end of the trail. The same is true for life experiences. Enter resilience – what seems to be your breaking point may only be your 40% no matter the adversity. Mindset is the lynchpin.

Fear represents insecurity, presupposed limiting beliefs, and irrational thinking. The moment you decide to realize your inexpressible resilience – no matter the level of volatility – is when your potential in life and sport becomes limitless.

This changes everything…

Resilience is ATRA’s 2021 theme

Jeff Kildahl is an author, publisher, epigenetics performance visionary; and ultra-endurance philanthropist leveraging technology to propel limitless performance and potential in life and sport via modifications to gene expression.

Performance Medicine® is a visionary consulting firm providing ultra-endurance athletes synergistic solutions to genetically transcend wellness, performance, and potential in life and sport.

Kildahl is credentialed in bioenergetics, biomechanics, metabolic efficiency™ testing, sports nutrition, epigenetics, and natural medicine. He is a dynamic member of CUBE™ ~ a professional speaker group ~ empowering others to harmonize the “Keys to Living in the Song of Life.” He is the publisher of SYNERGY™ | Performance Medicine® Magazine – a cutting edge magazine app designed to impart the innovative principles of Performance Medicine®. Kildahl is the creator and president of Performance Medicine®