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Brant Secunda and Mark Allen

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How to Gain Ironman-like Endurance

Posted: 01/23/2013 8:01 am

We were excited when Mark, a six-time Hawaii Ironman World Champion, was recently named ESPN's "Greatest Endurance Athlete of All Time." But when the two of us first met, Mark was a triathlete who just couldn't win.

Mark began his career as a triathlete in 1982. By 1989, after six straight defeats at the Ironman, he decided to give it one final try. The one-day journey through the lava at Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, is a test like no other. It's an exhaustive trial of body and soul that starts with a 2.4 mile open ocean swim, followed by 112 miles of cycling through relentless hot trade winds along the desolate, lava-strewn west side of the Big Island, then 26.2 miles of running in temperatures in the high 90s.

Mark remembers running just behind six-time Ironman champ Dave Scott when his reserves were reaching their limit and he was about to resign himself to second place. Just then an image of the old Huichol shaman, Don José Matsuwa, and his adopted grandson, Brant Secunda, came into his mind. He had recently seen a photo of the two in a magazine advertising an upcoming workshop on shamanism. At that moment, Mark remembers that his weariness dropped away and he was able to overtake Dave Scott for the first time in the race. He ended up winning by 58 seconds.

Soon after, the two of us began working together. It became apparent to both of us that Mark needed to think of fitness in broader terms -- in terms of his spirit and emotions--in order to become the champion he aspired to be.

Here are six lessons that helped Mark -- and can help you -- become a top performer in sports, business, and in life.

Empty your mind.

As any competitive athlete knows, there's usually a moment during the competition when internal chatter starts to erode one's motivation. When this happens, quiet your mind. An easy way to do this, if you're outside, is to shift your attention to the beauty that surrounds you. The instant your mind goes quiet, your mind, body, and spirit can realign to accomplish the task at hand.

Replace fear with joy.

When we become frozen with fear, negative emotions drain the body of energy. If you can learn to be fearless in the face of your fears, you open yourself up to the exhilaration of competing and performing in the moment. It's helpful to concentrate your focus on the nerika, a calm center in front of the heart that the Huichol shamans say is like a doorway that connects your desires and wishes with the realities of the outer world. It's the place great athletes call on when they need endurance.

Slow down to get faster.

Mark's old training program entailed working out as hard as he could. He figured if he trained fast, he could become fast. Yet he was often tired and sick and depleted after these workouts. The Huichols have some of the strongest, fittest elders who, at well over 80 or 90 years of age, can still walk miles every day and carry heavy loads of wood or water up and down the steep hillsides where they live. They never rush, yet they get a tremendous amount of physical labor done. By slowing down your workouts -- by using a heart-rate monitor to stay just below your target heart rate, for example, or by taking breaks in the middle of a big deadline push -- you can increase your endurance, strength, and the pleasure you get from working.

See power in repetition.

Whether it's exercises you do every day to train for an event, or the never-ending practice of clearing away negative thoughts, the effect of performing an action over and over can yield a profound reward. The Huichols find pleasure in planting a steep hillside with corn, one kernel at a time. The work is relentless, but they enjoy the repetition, knowing the immense satisfaction they will feel when the shoots emerge to cover the entire slope.

Strive to be steady.

The steadiest athletes -- the tortoises -- always have the best performances. If you are in the habit of charging full steam ahead, you will then need to slow down and recover until you get up the energy to surge again. There is tremendous strength in being steady and maintaining balance. Being steady is one of the secrets to the longevity that enabled Brant's Huichol grandfather, Don José, to live a long and healthy life all the way to 110 years of age. It takes a lot of self-confidence to let others get ahead in the early stages of the race. But once you learn how to stay calm and focused, put one foot in front of the other, and have faith in your own ability, you have the key to winning -- and doing so consistently.

Shake hands with the impossible.

Good athletes can perform well when things are going as planned. But it's the great ones who are able to rise up and achieve amazing success when nothing is going right. Always remember that no matter how impossible a victory or a great performance might look in the moment, if you take the next step and then the one after that, things can always turn around. Never give up.

This was a mantra that helped Mark keep going in his final Ironman when he found himself 13.5 minutes behind the leader at the start of the marathon, a gap no one had ever closed to become the champion. He did keep taking the steps, making up the smallest of margins until finally, after 23 miles of running and nearly eight hours of racing, Mark took the lead, making the final pass of his Ironman career to overtake a competitor who was 13 years younger than he was. He went on to win his sixth and final Hawaiian Ironman World Championship.

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  • At The Gym: BOSU Split Pushups To Side Plank

    Works: You whole body <br><br> How to do it: Get into pushup position with one hand on the floor and one hand on the center of the flat side of the BOSU. Perform a pushup, and then move into a side plank by lifting the arm that is on the BOSU to the ceiling, pivoting on the balls of your feet to rotate through your torso. Look up to your hand. Rotate back into your starting pushup position. That's one rep. Try to do up to 10 reps in a row on each side. <br><br> You can make this move harder by keeping your feet together for your pushup and plank positions. To make it easier, do a modified pushup and then extend your legs out wide for the side plank. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Dumbbell split pushups to side plank (Click through to the end to see the full at-home routine.)

  • At The Gym: BOSU Switch Jumps

    Cardio burst <br><br> How to do it: Flip the BOSU® over so that the rounded side is up (BOSU stands for "both sides up" and you'll get even better results with it by utilizing both sides). Get into a forward lunge position with your right foot on the center of the dome (look for the small circle in the middle as the target on which to place your foot) and your left foot on the floor behind you. Bend your knees and bring your left arm in front of you, then push off the dome and the floor, jumping up into the air and then switching legs, so that you land in a lunge with your left foot on top of the dome and your right leg on the floor, with your right arm in front of you. That's one rep. Try to do 20 switch jumps in a row without stopping. <br><br> If the jump is too intense, you can quickly step in and out of your lunge position in the same way, switching your legs and arms each time. Add speed (without losing form) to make it more challenging. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Scissor split lunges

  • At The Gym: Lunge Box Step-Ups

    Works: Legs, butt <br><br> How to do it: Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand facing a sturdy, high box or step. Step your right foot onto the box, bring your left leg further behind you on the floor in preparation for a lunge. Bend both knees and lower into a lunge position. As you come up out of your lunge, stand all the way onto your right leg, stepping up onto the box, and tap your left foot on the box. Bring your left leg behind you and lower back to your start position. That's one rep. Do 15 reps on the right leg, 15 reps on the left leg. <br><br> You can make this easier by doing the lunge without added weight. To make it harder, lift your knee (instead of tapping your toe) as you step onto the box. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Reverse lunge and knee-ups

  • At The Gym: Box Jumps

    Cardio burst <br><br> How to do it: Time to spike your heart rate again! Start standing facing your box or step, with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees and lower into a squat position, and then jump off the floor, landing on top of the box. Quickly jump back off the box and land in a squat with your feet on the floor. That's one rep. Try to work up to 15 jumps in a row without rest. <br><br> If jumping up and down is too tough, you can step quickly on and off the box, or jump up and then step down, as you build up your endurance. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Rotating squat jumps

  • At The Gym: Single-Arm Cable Press And Step

    Works: Abs, back, chest <br><br> How to do it: Using a cable machine with a handle grip, bring the anchor of the cable so that it lines up with the midline of your chest. Select your weight (start lighter and add weight if you need more), and then grab the handle with your right hand and face away from the anchor. Brace your abs in tight to your spine and take a wide step forward with your left foot as you press your right arm out in front of your chest. Keep your abs engaged as you step your left foot back to your right and bend your right arm back into your body, resisting the weight of the cable as you return to start. That's one rep. Do 15 reps with the right arm, and then switch sides for 15 more reps. <br><br> Adjust your weight to make this move more or less difficult. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Single-arm press and step

  • At The Gym: Single-Arm Cable Bow-And-Arrow Pull

    Works: Back, legs <br><br> How to do it: Right after you finish your cable press set, turn in to face the cable anchor. Start with your feet together, holding the grip with your left hand with both arms extended out in front of your chest, palms facing in. Take a wide step back with your left leg, turning your knee and toes slightly outwards, bending your left knee over your toes and extending your right leg (your right foot remains on the floor) as you pull the cable back with your left arm, bending your left elbow back at shoulder level, reaching your right arm forward (as if you were aiming a real bow and arrow). Step your foot back in and bring your arm back in front of you, resisting the weight of the cable as you return to start. That's one rep. Do 15 reps on one side, 15 on the other. <br><br> Adjust your weight to make this move more or less difficult. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Band bow-and-arrow pull

  • At The Gym: Body Blade

    Cardio burst <br><br> How to do it: Grab a body blade for this fun cardio burst that gets your heart pumping and engages your core. Start standing with your feet together, holding the blade horizontally, with both hands at the center grip, palms facing out. Start shaking it, and try to get the ends to move back and forth as quickly as you can. Do this for 1 full minute (you can keep it in front of your chest or try reaching it high and low as you continue to make it oscillate). <br><br> If your gym doesn't have body blades available, grab a resistance band and try the at-home band squat jacks option instead. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Band squat jacks

  • At The Gym: Plyo Bar Pushups

    Power builder <br><br> How to do it: Use the squat rack to engage your whole body with this power move! Lower the bar so that it is about thigh level when you are standing in front of it. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and grip the bar. Walk your feet out behind you so that you are in the top of a pushup position on the bar with your abs braced in tight. Bend your elbows and lower your chest to the bar, and then as you come up out of the pushup, quickly press off the bar and 'jump' your hands off the bar. Land with your hands on the bar. Do as many repetitions in a row as you can quickly, with explosive energy. <br><br> Make it easier by bringing the bar up higher (so that you are on more of an incline) or more difficult by lowering it. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Single-arm plyo push and reach

  • At The Gym: Split-Grip Full-Body Rows

    Works: Your whole body <br><br> How to do it: Set the bar to the same level as it was for plyo pushups. Bring yourself to the other side of the bar and hold onto it so that your body is in a reverse plank position, holding yourself up with your hands on the bar, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your right palm facing down, and your left palm facing up. Draw your abs in tight, bend your elbows, and pull your chest up to the bar. Slowly return to your start position. That's one rep. Do 5 reps and then switch your grip (so that your right palm faces up, left down). <br><br> Make it easier by bringing the bar up higher (so that you are on more of an incline) or more difficult by lowering it. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Plank rear rows

  • At The Gym: Bench L Dips And Hammer Curls

    Works: Arms, shoulders <br><br> How to do it: This combo set hits your biceps and triceps (along with your core) muscles! Sit on a weight bench, facing another bench about 1 foot away from you. Bring your legs on top of the bench in front of you and walk your hands to the edge of the bench you are sitting on, fingertips facing into your body. Lift your hips off the bench so they are hovering just in front of the edge. Bend your elbows and perform a dip, and then extend your arms and lift your hips back up. Do 15 reps in a row. <br><br> Next, grab a set of dumbbells and kneel in front of one of the benches to quickly move into the hammer curls. Brace your abs in tight and perform a hammer curl by bending your elbows, bringing the weights into your body (without touching), palms facing in, then lower the weights to start. Do 15 reps in a row. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Dips and hinging hammer curls

  • At The Gym: Med-Ball Russian Twists And Reverse Curl

    Works: Abs <br><br> How to do it: Grab a medicine ball and sit on top of a bench, with your knees bent and feet lifted. Brace your abs in tight and lean back slightly. Rotate your body to the right and tap the medicine ball on the bench just outside your right hip, then quickly rotate left and tap the ball. That's one rep. Do 10 reps in a row, and then set the ball down for your reverse curl. <br><br> Lay down on the bench, bend your knees about 90 degrees, and lift your toes slightly off the floor, grabbing a hold of the sides of it with your arms for support. Brace your abs in tight and draw your knees into your chest, lifting your hips off the bench as you curl the legs in. Slowly roll through your spine, using your abs to control your movement as you lower your hips and then your legs to return to your start position. Do 15 reps in a row. <br><br> <strong>At-home alternative:</strong> Dumbbell Russian twists and double crunch

  • At Home: Get Slim Without The Gym

    You'll need: A set of dumbbells, resistance band, mat <br><br> The moves may be a little different, but the same rules apply: Do one set of the prescribed number of reps for each exercise, moving from one to the next with little or no rest in between. Complete 2-3 circuits total.

  • At Home: Dumbbell Split Pushups To Side Plank

    Works: Your whole body <br><br> How to do it: Instead of using a BOSU®, you'll create a similar unstable surface by using a dumbbell. Prop a dumbbell up on its end (so that it is 'standing' upright) and get into your pushup position by placing one hand on the floor and the other on the top of your dumbbell. Perform a pushup, and then move into a side plank by lifting the arm that is on the dumbbell to the ceiling, pivoting on the balls of your feet to rotate through your torso, and look up to your hand. Rotate back into your starting pushup position. That's one rep. Try to do up to 10 reps in a row on each side. <br><br> If it's too hard to balance with the dumbbell upright, lay it flat and place your hand on the center bar instead. You can also make it easier by doing a modified pushup and then extending your legs out wide for the side plank. To make it harder, keep your feet together for your pushup and plank positions. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> BOSU® split pushups to side plank

  • At Home: Scissor Split Lunges

    Cardio burst <br><br> How to do it: You can still get a lot out of this exercise even if you don't have a BOSU® to use. Perform the switch jump the same way, but place your front foot on the floor instead of on top of the BOSU®. Work on building your speed as you go. Try to do 20 switch jumps in a row without stopping. <br><br> If the jump is too intense, you can quickly step in and out of your lunge position in the same way, switching your legs and arms each time. Add speed (without losing form) to make it more challenging. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> BOSU® split jumps

  • At Home: Rear Lunge And Knee-Ups

    Works: Legs, butt <br><br> If you don't have a step or sturdy box at home for step-ups, don't worry! This move is still very effective on the ground, especially when you add a balance at the top. <br><br> How to do it: Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand tall with your feet together. Step your right leg behind you and perform a rear lunge by bending both knees about 90 degrees. As you stand up out of the lunge, lift your right knee up in front of your hip and balance on your left leg for 1 count, before stepping the right foot back behind you to return to your starting position. That's one rep. Do 15 reps on the right leg, 15 reps on the left leg. <br><br> If it's too hard to balance with your knee lifted, you can also tap your right toe lightly on the floor. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> Lunge box step-ups

  • At Home: Rotating Squat Jumps

    Cardio burst <br><br> If you don't have a box or step to jump up on, just add a twist (literally) to this move at home! <br><br> How to do it: Start in a squat position, and then jump up, turning over your right shoulder, rotating your body 180 degrees (so that you land facing the opposite side of the room) and land in a squat. Repeat, rotating over your left shoulder this time. That's one rep. Try to do 10 reps in a row. <br><br> If turning is too challenging, practice your squat jumps in place and skip the rotation. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> Box jumps

  • At Home: Single-Arm Band Press And Step

    Works: Abs, back, chest <br><br> You can create your own "cable system" at home with a resistance band. Simply anchor the middle of your band to something sturdy at about waist height (we recommend tying it around a well secured doorknob), and then grab one end in each hand and face away from the anchored spot. Brace your abs in tight to your spine and take a wide step forward with your left foot as you press your right arm out in front of your chest. Keep your abs engaged as you step your left foot back to your right and bend your right arm back into your body, resisting the pull of the band as you return to start. That's one rep. Do 15 reps with the right arm, and then switch sides for 15 more reps. <br><br> Increase your resistance by stepping further away from the anchor of your band. Step closer to make it less intense. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> Single-arm cable press and step

  • At Home: Band Bow-And-Arrow-Pull

    Works: Back, legs <br><br> How to do it: Right after you finish your band press set, turn to face the band. Start with your feet together, holding the handles of the band in each hand, with both arms extended out in front of your chest, palms facing in. Take a wide step back with your left leg, turning your knee and toes slightly outwards, bending your left knee over your toes and extending your right leg (your right foot remains on the floor) as you pull the band back with your left arm. Bend your left elbow back at shoulder level and reach your right arm forward (as if you were aiming a real bow and arrow). Step your foot back in and bring your arm back in front of you, resisting the pull of the band as you return to start. Quickly repeat on the other side. That's one rep. Do 15 reps total. <br><br> To increase your resistance, step further away from the anchor of your band, or step closer to make it less intense. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> Single-arm cable bow-and-arrow pull

  • At Home: Band Squat Jacks

    Cardio burst <br><br> How to do it: Grab your resistance band and fold it over so that you're holding one end in each hand. Stand with your feet together and extend your arms, holding the band overhead. Quickly jump your feet apart and land in a squat while you pull the ends of the band apart, widening the band on your landing. Quickly jump back to your start position. Repeat this move as quickly as you can for 1 full minute. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> Body blade

  • At Home: Single-Arm Plyo Push And Reach

    Power builder <br><br> How to do it: Perform a standard pushup, but as you press away from the floor, bring your right arm out and up by your ear at the top of your pushup. Quickly lower your right arm back to the floor and repeat, this time reaching with the left. Alternate arms each time and do as many repetitions in a row as you can quickly, with explosive energy. <br><br> To make this easier, do a modified pushup on your knees. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> Plyo bar pushups

  • At Home: Plank Rear Rows

    Works: Your whole body <br><br> Start in a full plank position on top of your dumbbells. Brace your abs in tight and row your right arm behind you, drawing the weight to the side of your body, with your palm facing up. Return the weight back to the floor gently (don't let it crash to the floor). That's one rep. Do 10 reps, alternating arms each time. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> Split-grip full-body rows

  • At Home: Dips And Hinging Hammer Curls

    <strong>Works: Arms, shoulders</strong> <br><br> No bench? No problem! Do your dips on the floor instead. <br><br> How to do it: Sit with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Place your hands just outside your hips, fingertips facing in. Cross your right ankle over your left thigh, and lift your hips off the floor as high as you can. Bend both elbows and lower your butt to the floor (without touching it). Extend both arms and press your hips back up. That's one rep. Do 10 reps in a row with the right leg crossed over, then 10 with the left. <br><br> Next, quickly come up into a kneeling position on your mat, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Press your hips slightly forward and brace your abs in tight as you do a hammer curl (bend your elbows bringing the weights into your body, palms facing in) and hinge your body back slightly as you curl. Lower your weights and bring your body back upright. Do 15 reps in a row. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> Bench L dips and hammer curls

  • At Home: Dumbbell Russian Twists And Double Crunch

    <strong>Works: Abs</strong> <br><br> Lay down on your back, clasping both hands behind your head. Cross your ankles and bend your knees, letting them open to the sides, and lower your feet so that just your toes are lightly touching the floor. Brace your abs in tight and crunch up, lifting your legs and hips off the ground as you bring your head and shoulder blades off the floor, trying to touch your elbows to your knees at the top. Slowly lower back to your start position, using your abs to control your movement. Do 15 reps in a row. <br><br> Sit on your mat with your knees bent and feet lifted off the floor, holding the ends of one dumbbell with both hands. Brace your abs in tight and lean back slightly. Rotate your body to the right and tap the dumbbell on the mat just outside your right hip, then quickly rotate left and tap. That's one rep. Do 10 reps in a row. <br><br> <strong>At-the-gym version:</strong> Med-ball Russian twists and reverse curl

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