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Nathan Briggs: Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

ATC Ambassador Nathan Briggs shares how training helps him overcome life’s challenges and ultimately work towards being a better employee, friend, and human.

I’m sure I’m not the only one out there that’s caught myself grinding my teeth, staring at Training Peaks, and thought, “Wait a second, I choose to do this. For fun!”

Sometimes training can be stressful, but that’s why it feels so good to hit our goals and grow in the sport. We work hard for what we want, and sometimes getting to the finish line is stressful. I’d like to look at the other side of this coin. With this blog article, I want to look at how triathlon is stress relieving and buoys the other parts of our lives.

In the immortal words of Siddhartha Gautama, “This is what I did. But your mileage may vary.” Or something like that.

What is stress?

When stress gets to us, and we’re overcome by emotion, it’s the amygdala hijacking our nervous system and trying to send us into fight or flight mode. That was great when we were evolving this way, and stress meant that we were starving to death or imminently getting mauled by a bear, but such dramatic reactions are increasingly out of place in today’s modern world.

Stress is a state of mind. It is triggered by physical reactions to our environment, but is nonetheless a manageable emotion.


When the inequities of life are too great, and too many factors are out of my control, triathlon is a friend, and a community of like-minded friends, to whom I can turn. Triathlon is this place where goals are very well defined, steps necessary to achieve those goals are well understood, and hard work is unstoppable.

During those days, weeks, or months when progress towards relationship or professional goals seems too daunting, too murky, or straight up impossible, I can still carry momentum in my life by hitting the trails. I can’t stop every part of my life from stalling on occasion. What I can do is make sure there’s always one area where I’m moving forward, and that little bit of momentum can be enough to cruise through otherwise tough times.


Outlet / Foundation

Why does riding my bike help me to do better at work? Because I’m able to keep ramping up in other parts of my life when stress has a place to go. When background levels are kept to a minimum, I’m less likely to freak out on my boss, or collapse under a new project.

Identify patterns, and leverage a foundation of successful routines. Why have I had 20 beers this week? Why did I manage to watch all 6 seasons of ‘Shameless’ so quickly that I’m not comfortable admitting to it in this forum? The answer isn’t that beer is tasty or that I’m a little too emotionally invested in Fiona’s life, though both of those things are true.

These are behaviors that I exhibit when I’m stressed about something, and both serve to make the situation worse! My track workout is an activity that, rather than hiding stress, pushes my emotions out to the front of my mind, and makes me break through them like a wall. I come out of all that better for the experience. And it doesn’t hurt to flood my body with endorphins from time to time either.

George Darden shared with me the phrase ‘exquisite exhaustion,’ for that feeling you get after a hard race, or an excellent workout, and I love it. In a world filled with things that feel good, but kill me slowly, that sensation is actually good for me!

We did not evolve over millennia to sit in office chairs all day. My ancestors and their evolutionary pressures are responsible for the chemical reactions in my brain and they definitely exercised every day. Even with nothing else going on, our bodies are hard wired to want to work out.


Zen Barometers

Watching TV stresses me out! I never think about it in the moment, but when stressful days start to stack on end, it’s easy for me to thread them together with TV shows. This serves as a distraction, but leaves me bottled up inside. My thoughts never get a chance to wander to resolution as they’re commanded by loud and overwhelming TV characters and someone else’s drama.

Zen running to me is letting my mind wander and then settling into the activity. This relieves stress by letting some thoughts bubble to the surface, but also serves as a barometer that I don’t often measure. If I can’t run in silence for a few minutes without being overwhelmed by my own internal monologue, then there’s probably something going on that I need to work out and not just ignore. I’ll run with friends, but I run without music, and sometimes, I just run. I embrace the silence and my surroundings.

It’s like yoga for my mind. I push on it all day with thoughts, with worries, with things I need to do, but giving it a minute to just enjoy silence, and sit, centers me. It’s a feeling that lasts, and the more often I practice it, the more quickly I can return to it in times of need.

For me, boredom isn’t a thing. The inside of my head is an unlimited world of possibilities bound by nothing but my own imagination. Anxiety is a thing. Desire for distraction as a means of avoiding my stressed-out thoughts is a thing, but boredom is a construct that belies a restless mind.


Practice and Replicate

Training serves as an outlet, so that stress doesn’t build, or come out in the wrong places, and as a window inside, but it also teaches me to better manage stressful situations directly.

Racing hard and suffering through that last 10k of an Ironman, that’s a real-life skill. When I’m overwhelmed at work and feel the heat rising, I’ve done this before. I’ve felt that pressure, that doubt, and I’ve crushed it in the past. Not because it was easy, or came naturally to me, but because I worked hard to learn to do it, and because my friends showed me the way. When that succubus of self-doubt creeps in and plays on anxiety I remember that I have run mile after mile bartering with that bastard before and I can do it again.

On that note, it’s been a long couple of days, I almost snapped at my boss this evening, and I think I need to go hit the track.