BODY & MIND

  • Photo for Going the Distance: Gay Ultra-Endurance Champion Christopher Bergland and the Athletic Brain
    Photo Credit: Courtesy Christopher Bergland

Going the Distance: Gay Ultra-Endurance Champion Christopher Bergland and the Athletic Brain

By L.K. Regan

You may not have heard of him, but Christopher Bergland is one of the world's great openly gay athletes—and arguably one of the greatest ultra-endurance athletes of all time.

In addition to his dozens of regular Ironman triathlons, Bergland is the three-time winner of the Triple Iron Man, the world's longest non-stop triathlon with a 7.2-mile swim, a 336-mile bike ride, and a 78.6-mile run. He has completed the Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon—a mid-summer 135-mile run through Death Valley—twice. To top it off, Bergland holds the Guinness Book World Record for treadmill running, having run 153.76 miles in 24 hours. His record is extreme—but, he insists, his body is the same as anyone else's. In his book "The Athlete's Way: Training Your Mind and Body to Experience the Joy of Exercise" he offers the lessons learned on his journey with exercise to average people who just want to get fit. With his book coming out in paperback this week, RealJock sat down with him to pick his brain.

"The Athlete's Way" is a compendium of science, strategies, and advice forming an eight-week program aimed at taking any person from couch potato to thinking and acting like an athlete. "People often think my book is meant to get you to be an elite athlete," Bergland says, "but really it's for people who don't like to work out, to get them going." In this sense, he says, "As a messenger trying to communicate to people about exercise, my ultra-running is a liability. People think, 'He's crazy, he's a freak, I don't want to do that,' but actually, after all my journey, what I have to say is totally accessible. I've tried to tap into the common processes of exercise, and to show that the same system runs through every reader as runs through me."

In sections on neuroscience, psychology, cardio, strength training, nutrition, and motivation, Bergland describes basic systems that can lead anyone—ordinary Joe or elite athlete—to love to exercise. And, he says, you can learn in part from his mistakes. "I've been on every diet in the world," he says, "and I know why they don't work. My nutrition section is really easy to use—because I don't ban any foods, or anything like that; it's simple—just calories in versus calories out."

"The Athlete's Way" isn't really a traditional exercise program, though. The book focuses on the connection between the body and the mind during exercise, and how to tap into the best possible feelings that exercise can create. The primary question of the book, Bergland says, is how to get readers to flip what he calls "the volition switch"—the desire in the brain of any athlete to set goals, and push through resistance. "How to keep that switch in the up and locked position is the project of the book. I want readers to have what I call an athletic conversion—that moment when the switch goes off; and it definitely happened to me. One day I went from hating exercise to having a 'Eureka!' moment and loving it—and when I'm running, quotes pop into my head, thoughts that keep the switch in the up and locked position; these are all ways of training your mind and body to experience the joy of exercise." Make no mistake; Bergland wants you to sweat—and to learn to love to do it. "So many books try to make us not have to break a sweat," he says, "but my idea is to flip the switch and get you to want to sweat and to enjoy it. I think of that first glisten of sweat on my skin as the external sign of the happy juice pumping through my body; and when I see people sweating, I know how they're feeling, and that we're connected by our shared love of that feeling."

Bergland has more in common with his readers than one might expect; he has retired from the world of ultra-endurance athletics, and become a moderate runner. He acknowledges that flipping the volition switch can lead to an addiction to exercise—and in his book, as in his life after Ironman, he councils a healthy balance. "I retired from endurance athletics when I realized it wasn't possible to do that and lead a balanced life," he says. "I wanted to get off the merry-go-round—and that's why I left the world of Ironman. Setting goals is great, but needing to test one's self-worth through athletics is a vicious trap; and I realized I was in it." Now, he pursues what he calls "a tonic level of fitness"—the same kind of fitness he describes for his readers. "That tonic level is about setting and achieving goals—but not getting seduced into abandoning your regular life."

How to achieve that balance? In his book, Bergland lays out examples of people who've found a balance of achievement without losing perspective. "Everyone has to find their own tonic level," he says, "so I don't like to give specifics about how much I run; because it might seem like too much or too little compared to someone else—and that's not the point. The point is to find that your own tonic level, and to find ways to enter that state in exercise where you just go into a trance, completely leave the planet, and find that you are processing your thoughts, and solving problems in your mind, without even realizing it." Running for him is no longer about numbers of miles, but about feeling great. "What motivates me to run every day is mental health, and knowing that when I come back I'll feel rejuvenated, and have gone on an inner exploration and come back with some thoughts to proceed with." He'd like to introduce readers to methods to achieve the same effect. "It's not about being thin, or six-pack abs, or triathlons; it's that we all naturally have the same chemicals to make us feel euphoric when we sweat—and we can all access that, and flip the switch that makes us want to keep exercising."

The Basic Eight
From "The Athlete's Way," here are Bergland's eight central tenets of a positive psychology of exercise. "If you live by these rules," he writes, "your life will be in good shape."

  1. Take care of your body: "Get seven to eight hours of sleep, exercise for at least twenty to thirty minutes most days of the week.... Practice safe sex. Respect yourself. Don't be self-destructive."
  2. Family and friends: "Strong personal relationships mean more than money, status, or your job title…. Fortify your sense of community as an athlete and nonathlete. Join a club or a class at a local gym or community center."
  3. Laughter and levity: "People laugh thirty times more when they are in the company of others than when they're alone. Laughter heals, stress kills. Lighten up…. Have fun working out with people…. Trigger neurobiological joy by smiling when you work out. Smiling and laughing sends a signal to your nervous system that all is well and you're having fun."
  4. Look forward to something: "A sense of anticipation makes people healthy and happy. Put things on the horizon that you can look forward to. A sense of curiosity and eagerness gives you a sense of purpose and a reason to seize the day."
  5. Gratitude and simple joys: "Take time to count your blessings from little things like a good meal to big things like watching your children grow up…. Take pleasure in every breath and the celebration of being alive—the joy of movement and sweat."
  6. Do something well: "You want to hone a skill and become really good at something…. Mastery is the key to fulfillment. Mastering an athletic skill is an easy place to start, even if it is just becoming the best spinner in spin class or the best stepper in step class. Master it."
  7. Develop coping mechanisms for hardships: "The mechanism for getting through hard times is threefold: a belief that you are a survivor, an understanding that it is temporary, and a willingness to reach out for your support network."
  8. Give something back: "Try to practice selfless acts of kindness toward family, friends, and strangers every day. This can be altruistic—and should be—but it also creates a positive feedback loop of feeling generous and appreciated and will bring you reciprocated kindness."
Christopher Bergland Quick Links
Buy "The Athlete's Way" at Amazon.com
Christopher Bergland's Official Site