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How an Explorative Mindset Leads to Breakthroughs

The power of shifting from “I have to do this” to “Let’s see what I can do” in a race.

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Training is filled with mental traps. When we aren’t purposeful in our workout design and focused on developing specific skills, we get less out of our workouts. It’s so easy to find ourselves going through the motions. The key to escaping this trap is being hyper-focused on your execution. 

Yet when it comes to racing, a hyper-focused approach to execution may actually hold us back. We only create plans we are confident we can execute, and those often only get us to “good enough.” Two-time Olympic triathlete Katie Zaferes fell into this trap of racing how she trained, but credits adopting an explorative mindset for her breakthrough in races, culminating in a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

What is an Execution Mindset?

The single most important indicator of whether an athlete will make a future leap is the adoption of an execution mindset for training. With this mindset, workouts stop being boxes to be checked and become opportunities to be optimized. They focus on how well each activity is done, not how much they do.

When an athlete makes this mindset shift, they get a little more out of each workout. That small improvement carries to the next workout, and the next, and over time the benefits start to compound. The more high quality workouts they string together, the more likely they are to make a leap: a big improvement over a short period of time.

An execution mindset assumes a few key things:

  1. There is a plan to be followed (you know what you are trying to do)
  2. Limits are clear and well-defined (you know how far you should push it)
  3. It is okay to do less than you’re capable of doing (you prioritize quality over quantity)
  4. Executing workouts consistently is more important than maximizing any single workout (you trust that improvement will build over time)

An execution mindset improves your training in countless ways, big and small. It emphasizes planning, understanding, focused effort, patience, recovery, and consistency. It helps you stay in the moment during your workouts and injury-free over the course of your training cycles. It can even help you prepare for your races, by forcing you to create a plan and anticipate your challenges.

But what happens when your execution mindset becomes not just your training mindset, but your racing mindset, too?

The Limits of an Execution Mindset in Races

An emphasis on decreasing risk and not over-doing it is a feature when it comes to training. It’s a limitation when it comes to racing. In races we need to do what it takes to get the best result. When the situation changes and our pre-race plan won’t get us the best result, executing it faithfully can actually hold us back.

In 2016, Olympic triathlete Katie Zaferes went into Rio with an execution mindset about her race. Things didn’t go as she hoped and she finished a disappointing 18th place, and her hyper-focus caused her to miss out on enjoying the Olympic experience as well. In contrast, despite a challenging qualification period that saw her deal with a major crash, COVID-19 restrictions on training, and the loss of her father, she was able to finish third and claim the bronze medal in Tokyo on Tuesday.

She credits her improvement as a racer with a change in mindset that she adopted after Rio. In my recent podcast interview with the bronze medalist (conducted before she went to Tokyo), she described the importance of adopting an “explorative mindset for racing.

As Katie explained it, we often get caught up thinking about our races as tests. But when you look at races that way, it limits what you can do. You get focused on executing what you’ve done in practice, not using the race as an opportunity to try something new or simply test your limits.

She sums it up with this quote, which I love:

“I call it an explorative mindset for racing. [It’s] ‘Let’s see what I can do,’ rather than ‘This is what I have to do.’ ‘Let’s see what I can do’ has no limit, whereas ‘This is what I have to do’ is super definite…

The year I won the most races was when [my approach] was ‘Well, let’s see what I can do,’ not, ‘I have to do this.'”

Racing requires us to take on risk that we may not want to take on in practice. Katie still trains every day with an execution mindset, seeking to get the most out of each workout she does. But when it comes to races, she adopts a mindset that sets her up for a breakthrough. 

An Explorative Mindset Leads to Breakthroughs

Execution mindset vs Explorative mindset table.

In my book, Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Race Faster, I recommend athletes to adopt an execution mindset when they train and when they race. But Katie’s got me convinced that racing needs to be treated a little more more flexibly.

The strength of an execution mindset is that it aligns with the core priority of having a painstakingly prepared plan. It also gives you the ability to evaluate your performance on something other than the final result. If you execute well, you can feel good about that despite what others do in the race.

But an explorative mindset doesn’t have to sacrifice those qualities. Rather, it should build on them.

Have a plan, but be willing to read the situation and take a risk if it makes sense. Would Meb have won the 2014 Boston Marathon had he not chosen to “see what he could do” and boldly broken early from the lead group? 

Don’t get overly concerned with perfect execution in races. We are masters at finding things we coulda woulda shoulda done better. Whether you stick to your plan or not, you’ll always feel that way. An explorative mindset frees you to take a chance and accept the results.

But more than anything, an execution mindset is inherently conservative. You will only make a plan that you are very confident you can execute. You will sacrifice some upside in order to eliminate a lot of downside.

As a naturally conservative runner, I was prone to making race plans that got me to “good enough” but rarely to “breakthrough.” I needed to adopt a more explorative mindset in order to race my best.

Let’s See What You Can Do

My personal breakthrough came when I combined the two approaches into one race plan. I ran the first half based on an execution mindset (“Run this pace to this point…”) and then the remainder based on an explorative mindset (“and then see what you can do”). This allowed me to build in good enough, while being bold enough to chase “as good as possible.”

An execution mindset emphasizes doing high quality work, and de-emphasizes doing more than necessary. An explorative mindset emphasizes going for it and seeing what’s possible. The latter needs to be part of your racing mindset. 

We often fail to realize how a simple shift in mindset can remove an artificial barrier. Executing on your plan is what we should all strive to do. But if we get too locked into it, we can miss opportunities, for both better results and better experiences.

Entering a race thinking “let’s see what I can do” is a simple mental system for giving yourself the best shot at achieving a big breakthrough. 

About the Author 

Bryan Green competed at UCLA from 1997 to 2002, was a two-time individual qualifier for the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 2000 and 2001, and ran a “3rd best time” of 29:40 in the 10k. He has a Master’s in International Affairs from UC San Diego and spent ten years working as an analyst in Silicon Valley. He is currently the co-founder of Go Be More Apparel, host of the Go Be More and Fueling the Pursuit podcasts, and author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster. His passion is sharing powerful ideas to help people go be more in life.