Going through the course map and visualizing how everything will feel when I’m racing is another great technique. I like to imagine what the grass will smell like, how my body will feel and how I will tackle certain sections of the course. Sometimes I even finish this sweaty and amped up!
As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Atkins.
Hailing from Canada, endurance pro Ryan Atkins is a multi-sport threat. The Spartan pro team member is obstacle course racing’s reigning Spartan Ultra World Champion, the second-place team finisher in “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji,” and most recently, Atkins set the unassisted record for ascending the height of Mount Everest on foot. Back in June, he made the 8,848-meter ascent in 11 hours and 30 mins at a ski mountain in Sutton, Quebec.
Atkins now has his sights set on “The Spartan Games presented by Harley Davidson,” which is now streaming on Spartan’s YouTube channel. The first-of-its-kind competition features 24 athletes from varying disciplines battling for a 100,000 dollars price purse across a variety of challenges, from obstacle course racing and ultra-running to wrestling and functional fitness (and so much more) to determine who is the fittest of the fit.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thanks! I grew up playing hockey, soccer and football. In high school, I did a lot of unicycling and was multiple time World Champion in unicycle trials and mountain unicycling. I also played rugby, football and wrestled in high school. After that, I started racing mountain bikes and even competed for Canada in a few World Cup level Cross Country events. After cycling, I got into Ultra marathon running and finally OCR, where I find my niche.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
For me, the concept of being good enough at a sport that you could make a career out of it always seemed like a good indication of “making it”. I didn’t really have specific people who inspired me. I always believed in myself and wanted to just get the most out of myself that I could! I often had the opportunity to ride with older athletes and learned a lot from them and their experiences along the way.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I had two people who helped me out while I was a student. I was going to school for Engineering and training as a cyclist at the same time. I was dead broke and usually exhausted. These two people would sometimes buy me healthy dinners, or even groceries, and they take me out on training adventures. One of them taught me how to cross-country ski and the other taught me a lot about how to train and be a successful athlete.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
When I was training as a cyclist, I was led to believe if I could train more and eat less, that would ultimately lead to success. What I didn’t realize was the affect it would have on my hormones, and loads of other things, which would cause my performance to suffer big time. This was a big lesson learned. You need to eat well and train hard!
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
I’d say to believe in yourself and make yourself an expert in your sport. The most dedicated and trustworthy person when it comes to your own success is YOU, so don’t let other people steer the ship. Surround yourself with positive people to make up your team, but always come back to trusting in yourself.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Competing in the Spartan Games was super exciting and lots of fun. It was amazing and inspiring to see all the other athletes competing in sports that were outside of their comfort zones. On top of that, I’m really looking forward to the end of the pandemic and being able to travel and go to some cool places to go on adventures. I’ve been doing lots of cool stuff from home but big multi day adventure projects are always on the horizon.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
1. Break down all the individual components of the situation/race/event that you can and practice them. By recreating the demands in training, you will get a great training effect and also be mentally prepared for the competition.
2. Control what you can and let everything else fade away. In competition, if something doesn’t go my way, I don’t dwell on it. I let it flow away and refocus all my efforts on what’s going on and how I can maximize my performance.
3. I like to meditate the night before a big event to really calm myself.
4. Going through the course map and visualizing how everything will feel when I’m racing is another great technique. I like to imagine what the grass will smell like, how my body will feel and how I will tackle certain sections of the course. Sometimes I even finish this sweaty and amped up!
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
I try to relax my breathing and focus on using my stomach to breathe. By staying with deep controlled breaths, I tend to stay more relaxed and ultimately perform better.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I like to have a routine to go through before a race. I always wake up at the same time, eat the same thing and warm up in the same way. I even do this before really hard training sessions so that it becomes automatic. This way there is an element of familiarity and I can just focus on performing.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
I start warming up about 40 minutes before the event. I do a light jog, then I go hard for 45 seconds, followed by 45 seconds easy. I do this 5 times. Then crossovers, side shuffles, some light dynamic stretching and plyometrics. Then I drink a bit of maple syrup and head to the start line!
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
Absolutely. I feel that anything that is truly important to you will become a habit naturally. The key is finding things that get you excited! If you are doing a job or a sport that you hate, it’s going to be really hard to turn something into a habit. If you love your sport, then it’s easy to practice it and perform.
I sprained my ankle badly in the spring and I committed to doing ankle rehab 5 days per week. Since then, I’ve had no problems and whenever I’m bored, or just recovering between sets I can do a quick session. My ankles feel stronger than ever and it doesn’t even feel like work!
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Here are some techniques to help:
1. Write down commitments to yourself (I will do core 3x per week). Include reasons why (a strong core is fast and to avoid back problems)
2. Make time slots and commitments to do it. (After my run on Tuesday, I’ll have an extra 15 minutes to do some plank work)
3. Find a friend who is stoked about your ideas. Maybe they can do them with you (virtually), or you can just fill them in with you progress
4. Write down your progress as you go along so you can see your progress and improvement (plank went from one minute to three minutes)
As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
I tend to get into flow state fairly easily and often when I’m racing and training. By practicing your sport intentionally and trying to perfect every aspect of the skill, flow is more easily attained. I also find that using cues or phrases like “light and strong”, when I’m having a good training day — can carry over into races where I can go over them and find the same strength and ease of motion.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
I like to go for walks in the woods by myself at sunset. I’ve always found that moving meditation works best for me, especially when it’s outside. Something about the quiet and the crunch of leaves under my feet relaxes me and allows me to feel more centered and recharged.
Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
I try to switch the narrative and leave it open ended for myself. So, instead of saying “How can I win? The others are so fast”, I’ll say “Why shouldn’t I be the winner? What do they have that I don’t?” I also love to visualize winning and the feeling it would bring with it. When it comes to a race, I’ve already won in my mind, so it feels like it’s just a matter of acting it out in real life.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
For the past three winters, I’ve gone on skiing and fat biking expeditions in the north to raise funds for indigenous communities. They have so little and live in such harsh conditions. Seeing teenagers walking around in jeans and sweaters in -40f weather was a real eye opener for me. We also use these trips to increase awareness within our own communities about what really happens in these communities.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life”. I’ve always found that people live their whole lives at a miserable job, only to find themselves 60 years old, sick, unhealthy and unsatisfied. I think it’s more important to be happy and follow your dreams than to be rich. I’ve tried to live my whole life this way.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I’m kind of strange. I get more inspiration from seeing a black bear in the woods than reading about a CEO earning billions of dollars! I think the natural world has it way more figured out that us humans. But I guess going for a climb with Alex Honnold (@AlexHonnold) would be pretty fun. He seems like a cool guy 🙂