With triathlons, it’s all about repetition because you’re not really trying to build a skill so much. You’re trying to build your cardiovascular engine, which takes decades in some cases, so it’s really just going out and putting in the time. There is no substitute for simply putting in the time. It can be quite mindless, too, and you get to focus on it and your mind can start to wander into a meditative state while your body is going through the motions.
As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brendan Brazier.
Brendan is the co-founder of Vega and Pulp Culture, bestselling author of the Thrive book series, Editor-in-Chief of Alive magazine, and an Executive Producer of The Game Changers film. He’s also a former professional Ironman triathlete and a two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion. Brendan is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on plant-based performance nutrition, and now invests in and works with socially responsible food & tech companies whose mandate is to fix our food system and reduce the environmental strain of food production.
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?
I grew up in Vancouver. Like any normal kid, I always loved being outside; swimming in the lakes, biking trails, all of it.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
I simply found great fun in keeping active and being outside — running the trails and biking. I realized if I could turn my hobbies into a full time profession, that would be pretty ideal. So I was really just motivated by my own lifestyle. I had no aspirations of trying to prove anything to myself or anyone, I just found immense enjoyment in the great outdoors.
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 never liked team sports, I always preferred to do everything on my own. No one in my family or close circle growing up was involved in or passionate about sports. Later in life, I met Charles Chang and he’s been a big part of my entrepreneurial journey ever since.
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?
I think sometimes coaches and people encourage you by saying you’re good at things when you’re not because they think it will help you stay positive and achieve greatness if you think you’re better than you really are. I realized early on that didn’t work for me. If I wasn’t good at something, I wanted to know the hard truth so I could double down my focus and improve. That helped me to build confidence because I knew I did the work that needed to be done and felt the reward in my improvement. For example, I wasn’t great at running steep hills and different coaches over the years would tell me I was “doing great” when I wasn’t. I think you just need to be really real and recognize it’s okay to be bad at something. You don’t need to inflate your ego with positive coaching or self-satisfying praise. Just be realistic about your weak points, work hard at improving them, and become better.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
Make sure you do it for the right reasons. If it’s genuinely enjoyable, provides some sort of satisfaction, and you’re learning along the way, then great! But if you have to force yourself into it and it’s hard to motivate every day to put in the necessary time and work, then you should pursue something else that checks those boxes. It took ten years of consistent exercise almost every day — most often twice a day — before I could even do a race. Think big picture and long term. The gratification is very much delayed, but if you’re enjoying yourself along the way like I did, then you get consistent payoff. Some people have to have races on the calendar or they won’t train because they’re not motivated — that’s just not me at all. It’s never felt like I’m forcing myself to train. It’s always been harder for me to sit around and NOT do it.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Pulp Culture is a simple solution to what has become a complex problem: people trying to find an alcoholic drink that’s actually good for them. Something that makes them feel good while enjoying, later that same day/night, and even the next day (something that doesn’t interrupt their sleep cycle). There are scientists in labs trying to create hangover pills as we speak, but the solution is just so simple. You let juice sit and ferment — it’s so basic. The fact that it hasn’t been done on a large scale until now is kind of amazing. Being able to add health benefits by supplementing the juice with adaptogens and using our unique Full Spectrum fermentation process makes it even better. You can enjoy these drinks with no guilt and no hangover. It doesn’t have to be on cheat day. Before co-founding Pulp Culture, I personally hadn’t consumed alcohol in fourteen years because it compromised my sleep and my readiness to perform the following day. This all changed when I discovered 101 Cider House at my local Whole Foods Market, learned about the unrivaled production process and felt motivated to join forces with Mark McTavish to create this one-of-a-kind, Full Spectrum™ hard-pressed juice. Just seeing that one ingredient “apple” was really compelling to me.
I’m also working on Fireroad, which delivers plant-based prepared meals. Right now, we’re available east and south of Chicago. The meals are thoughtfully designed for high-performance individuals and athletes. They have more protein, essential fats, antioxidants, fiber, greens, etc — all the things that are good for our lifestyle. Fireroad is also a great “way in” for anyone who’s inspired to eat less meat, but doesn’t know where to start.
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?
Coming back to the reason I’m doing it in the first place. It’s a luxury and it’s enjoyable to me. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it. I actually have the opposite of anxiety [before races]. That’s the truth that works its way into my mindset. It never feels high pressure at all. The day of a triathlon or the day of a race, I know it’s going to be a fun day because I’m doing what I love.
When a race is getting close, you’re tapering your practice and exercise — doing less of everything during the days leading up to it. This is never fun because you’re used to doing a lot. The volume of training is usually quite high, but as you’re leading up to a race, you want your body to be rested on the big day. The technology these days (I use a WHOOP) is really valuable because it can tell you how rested your body is, how well you’re responding to training, and how much you’re recovering. Before, when there wasn’t this level of wearable technology, I’d have to take my blood pressure in the morning and if it was high, I knew I needed a little more rest.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
I don’t, but I’m pretty good at just relaxing and breathing deeply. I do know people who are really good athletes and who do breathing exercises and techniques and it probably helps them, but I never got into it during my career. Looking back, maybe there’s something more I could have gained there if I had experimented with that breathing work.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
To me, it comes naturally. I think I’m quite good at compartmentalizing and knowing what I need to focus on at any given moment. I think it all comes back to why you’re doing it in the first place. Knowing yourself and knowing the reason that motivated you to do this in the first place will allow you to focus.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
While I was racing full time, I did quite a lot of strength training that is now very common for endurance athletes. Back then, it wasn’t super common because the thought was that it would build up bulk. I found that building some muscle in the off season in the gym and then doing plyometrics and turning that into power could lead to better efficiency. So I could be stronger and move a greater distance while requiring less energy. Strength training and functional training. I love core-type stuff for efficiency, because every time you land from a running motion, you absorb energy and that’s not the goal. You want to push that energy back out into your next stride. Just being mindful of efficiency is huge. A lot of that is strength and plyometrics, which yields efficiency.
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?
As an athlete who trains consistently you do get into the habit for sure. It’s very much routine and part of what you do each morning. It becomes second nature, you don’t even think about it. With triathlons, it’s all about repetition because you’re not really trying to build a skill so much. You’re trying to build your cardiovascular engine, which takes decades in some cases, so it’s really just going out and putting in the time. There is no substitute for simply putting in the time. It can be quite mindless, too, and you get to focus on it and your mind can start to wander into a meditative state while your body is going through the motions.
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?
I think when you like something, it’s easy to do. Getting up in the morning and running because you enjoy it makes it an easy habit to form. I think certain things that people may consider bad habits aren’t actually that bad if they bring someone joy. I wrote about this in one of my books. Willpower is finite, so if you keep forcing yourself to do something you don’t like to do, it runs out eventually. You get burnt out and you get sick of it and you need to replenish your willpower basically. So making sure you do have things you enjoy doing built into your day, or at least into your week, will make a big difference. When you have a challenge to overcome, you’ll be able overcome it as your willpower will be strong, because you’re not constantly forced to do something you don’t want to do. It all comes back to enjoyment. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s gonna feel a lot harder and it won’t become a lifestyle. You might experience short term success with it, but it will soon unravel. We’ve all seen these people who lose weight and get fit, but then it’s really hard for them to maintain because they just don’t enjoy the process. People have great careers as athletes, but then you see them afterwards and they’re often not in great health or shape because it was just a job for them, not a lifestyle.
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?
Yeah, that’s one of those things that’s very interesting because very few athletes can turn it on and turn it off whenever they want. It can be elusive for sure. You’re getting into “the zone” as they call it. Some athletes can do it more regularly than others, but no one can do it every single time. There is that sort of elusive element of it which I think keeps the whole thing interesting, but I think when you do find that usually the first or second time that happens it’ll just be, it’ll just happen, it’ll be surprise, and then try of reverse engineer it by identifying and repeated the thoughts and actions that lead up to it to try to replicate. I suggest keeping a training journal that’s really detailed, so that when you do experience states of flow and being in the zone, you can then try and figure out how you got there because there’s no one-size-fits-all formula.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
I don’t formally meditate. But I do get into that meditative state often when I’m biking or running because the repetitive movement invites the mind to wander.
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 mean that’s probably true for a lot of people just in life in general, not just limited to high-performance athletes. I can’t really give any suggestions for that because I can’t relate to the feeling, but I would think that if you love what you’re doing, it’s easier to tune into a positive channel.
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?
I think by creating plant-based options for people to make it easier for them to enjoy or find a way into plant-based habits. I believe that if people do consume fewer animal products, it’s better for the humans, the environment, and obviously the animals. Starting brands like Vega and Pulp Culture have been a big part of my efforts to make plant-based products accessible and enjoyable — whether or not you enjoy a strict plant-based diet, these are great options for a balanced lifestyle. I’m also motivated to find solutions that are socially sound as well. We haven’t even really talked about Pulp Culture yet, but it’s just so much better for the environment and the consumer. Being a California company, too, I think being mindful of water use is an important part of the equation. I’m just trying to create products that provide a thoughtful solution, not just something to sell for profit. I’m certainly not a traditional entrepreneur in that respect. I don’t try to find holes in the marketplace and fill those voids with products. That just doesn’t interest me, but using entrepreneurship and capitalism in general is a way to create change and sort of push the world in the direction you believe in. I think instead of relying on the government, it’s up to those of us who have innovative ideas and are willing to take chances and risk to create better solutions to the everyday problems we face. That’s why I got into business in the first place. It’s not that I like business, it’s that I’m passionate about the outcome the right kind of brand and product can provide.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I like the idea of thinking big picture and long term, knowing what you do today is going to affect where you are tomorrow. Creating your own future. There’s a quote by Abraham Lincoln that I love: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” The idea of the future not being unknown, but rather a linear type of thing that you can influence very much resonates with me. You can influence your own future, so just knowing that you can have really whatever life you want is empowering. If you look 5 to 10 years down the road like I did when I was 15. I started out as an athlete, I knew what I wanted my life to look like 10 years from then, and I worked hard to make it happen, and it did. There isn’t any mystery, it’s really just not being distracted, not losing focus, and showing up consistently. There are all of these distractions and instant gratifications that pull people off course of realizing their goals. But if there were fewer distractions, or people were able to keep focus and avoid giving into those distractions, they would win. It’s not anything that unique or miraculous, just show up every day and put in the time and the work. Chances are, you’ll probably end up where you wanted to be. I believe it’s that simple.