Culture & Mindset41

The Ironman Mindset Applied to Work and Life

Gareth Holebrook

April 15, 2021


Last week, I’m proud to say, I completed Kiwiman, in New Zealand. 

Kiwiman is a double extreme triathlon and designed specifically to test the limits of the body and mind. This comprised a 3800-metre swim in a lake, in the dark followed by 197km cycle ride around Mt Taranaki which included 3 climbs up the mountain road for a total elevation of 3600 metres, then to top it off a marathon from the coast back up the mountain to 1200 metres. This is what the normal people do, but to add an additional spice to my challenge I then went and did the same again the following day. Most times when I race in ultra-endurance events, I’m not that nimble for a few days afterwards. I went into it with no idea whether I could finish. That’s precisely the point.

Watch Gareth's presentation on his Ironman experiences at the 2021 Business Agility Conference

This article is to explain why I challenge myself to push through pain, to strengthen my resilience and how what I have learned in the 23 races that I have completed over the past 17 years. I will submit that the mindset can be easily applied to how I approach work and life in general.

At the turn of the century, I was working as a Product Engineer at Sony Corp in the UK. I remember at 11am in Portsmouth watching live coverage as Auckland went into the new Millennium, with the fireworks from the Sky Tower. I recall thinking that by the following year I’d be living there and resolved to look for work. By March I was interviewing at Talon Technology, later to become Navman, for a Project Manager role, in Auckland. 

I was asked, “Why New Zealand?” I explained that I was eager to take up the outdoor lifestyle of Mountain Biking and Snowboarding. I added that I might even have a go at Triathlon, as I was a keen runner, cyclist and generally didn’t drown when in water. Following this I was introduced to the team as Gareth, who will be starting soon, “Gareth is a Triathlete”. At this point I had never raced in a multi discipline event, but as I understand now, having an identity can contribute to success in a powerful way. For example, saying “I’m a vegetarian” has a greater impact on behaviour than merely saying “I shouldn’t eat meat”.

Wind forward to 2004. I had decided to set up my own biohacking startup. By this time, I had raced in several low-key community Triathlons as well as some Marathon runs and cycle races. My company, branded BodyO2, was aimed squarely at the endurance market and in particular Triathlon with the legend Cameron Brown as the endorsement face. In 2005 I raced in my first ultra-endurance race, the Speights Coast to Coast, which is a cycling, mountain running and kayaking race from the East Coast to the West Coast of New Zealand. BodyO2 was sponsor and I felt it important to compete in the races that I supported. Getting amongst the athletes, I believed, brought greater credibility to the products I was selling. I went on a few weeks later to compete in my first Ironman in Taupo New Zealand. As far as I know I am the only person ever to compete in both races back-to-back as a rookie in both. I was told that I was unlikely to finish either by quite a few people at the time, so I took great pride in finishing both.

Photo credit ScottieT Photo

Since then, I’ve raced ultra-distance races across the world, often at World Championship level, as an age-grouper. Last year was intended to be my last with a slot at the World Ironman Champs at Kona in Hawaii, however this was deferred due to the pandemic and I am now on the start list for October 9th 2021, 10 days before my 50th Birthday. Once I have achieved a finish there, my plan is to refocus on another set of goals. I also found out last week that I’ve managed to qualify for a spot in the World Ironman 70.3 Champs in Utah a month earlier. This will be my focus for the next 6 months.

Each race I took part in would generally take be somewhere between 11 and 14 hours. This is a long time to keep my mind occupied. For each race I would train for at least 3 months prior up to 30 hours per week. I tend to productively use the time listening to audible books and it provides me with lots of thinking time. Often, I see parallels with the way I think as an athlete and how I might apply this to the rest of my life as well as how I work, which is the genesis of this work. 

In 2015 I was invited to speak at a meetup for Agile Auckland and was planning to talk about an Agile Transformation at one of the banks, and my experience there. The bank got to hear about this. They knew how I can be quite transparent, candid and thus speak some uncomfortable truth to the community and politely asked that I didn’t. At the last minute, with me as speaker booked and the venue ready to go, the President suggested if I might consider my experience as an Ironman and how my mindset works for me as an Agile Coach. I’ve since talked across the world, even as a guest for the team at Spotify and this paper is an articulation of the ideas that I have developed over the years.

As a coach I’m very confident of my capabilities. Admittedly, however, I’m only slightly faster than average as a Triathlete. On a good day I can squeeze in the top 30% of my age group. This is not about high performance or how to be the best in the world, rather how an ordinary person can achieve extraordinary results. I will leave it to the reader and those who have worked with me as to the veracity and credentials of whether my self-esteem as a coach is warranted.

For those not familiar, the branded Ironman Triathlon comprises of a 3.8km swim (2.4 mile), 180.25km Bike (112mile) and a full marathon of 42.2 km, (26.22 mile). It originally took place in 1978 in Oahu Hawaii to answer the question of whether Swimmers, Cyclists or Runners were the fittest by some Navy Seals following an article cited about Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx having the highest ever recorded oxygen uptake. The first winner was Gordon Haller, a US Navy Communications Specialist, finishing in 11 Hours 46 minutes and 58 seconds. In 2019 I spectated and watched German Jan Frodeno finish in 7:51.13. This year I am aiming to finish in under 11:24, which will be faster than former Navy Seal, David Goggins. More about Goggins later.

I hope that in this paper the reader is inspired by the ideas and is able to take away a different way of thinking in their day-to-day life, especially at work, to increase performance and ultimately fulfilment and satisfaction.


Back in the 1980s I studied Shotokan Karate. In fact, after a 30-year hiatus I have recently returned to it with a goal to have it as a lifelong pursuit. Unlike many styles Shotokan Karate-do is very much about the precision and practice rather than the ‘Kumite’ of the freestyle sparring. We would repeat, very slowly and deliberately, each block kick and punch attending to every detail of the position of our hips, breathing and a very low and strong stance. Every Sunday we would perform "Kata”. In Japanese Kata translates as ‘form’. With repeated deliberate practice we would perfect a different Kata for each grading and I would diligently practice each Kata hundreds of times. Returning to Shotokan 3 decades later I can remember all of the 9 Katas required to achieve a Black Belt Dan Grading. I achieve great delight, still, in attaining as close to perfection as I can. To quote Jim Kwik “Practice makes Progress”.

Photo credit ScottieT Photo

As a Triathlete, I experience the same- with the same precision, in swim training. Every winter, after each season, our coach will bring us back to the basics of hip rotation, arm movement and deliberate practice. Breathing it fundamentally important, which I believe is true with everything we do. Unlike running and Cycling, Swimming has a greater emphasis on technique over strength or fitness. There are several ideas that I can take from Kata that apply to Swimming, and from swimming to work. Indeed, now that I have just completed Kiwiman, in the next 6 weeks I will be focussing on going back to basics with swim drills with a coach watching and correcting me.

Slow is smooth – Smooth is fast”. This was a phase used by the US Army Special forces. In Swimming it means that by slowing down the technique and breaking it down to the component parts one can perfect them and be more effective at full speed. One of my swim coaches required me to wear a bleeping metronome in my swim cap as he observed that my arms were going far too fast, creating a lot of turbulence in the water but not necessarily driving me through the water quickly. 

The next phrase to remember is “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you CANNOT get it wrong”. This was the go to thinking of Stephen Farrell, a long time friend and head coach of my Triathlon club. This phrase is attributed to many people and I think originally George W. Loomis. In 1902: "Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can't get it wrong." As applied to Swimming, it is about practicing a drill repeatedly until it is neurologically hard wired. Then it becomes unconscious and when I’m fatigued towards the end of the swim part of the race I tend not to pick up bad habits in my form which may slow me down. 

For the neuroscience enthusiasts what we are doing here is creating neuro pathways in the basal ganglia, rather than depending on the conscious but energy hungry prefrontal cortex. This is especially important for motor movement and much of what we do everyday is automated in this part of the brain. Try this to see for yourself. First fold your arms. One will be in front of the other. Then try the alternate arm in front. It will feel weird and awkward. After a few days or consciously and deliberately folding the arms alternate to the way you previously did it becomes easier and sub conscious. Congratulations you have just rewired neurons in your brain. It is that plastic. 

Another important point to note here is that if you had asked me how my swimming was, I would have said “at best average”, but not have been able to pinpoint any specific weaknesses. Only my coach could identify things that he could see, such as my elbow position or hip rotation or how my breathing was causing me to twist my torso. I needed the external viewpoint and feedback in order to improve. Practice alone would never achieve this however hard I tried, I needed the theory and expertise from a coach to guide me towards continuous improvement. The improvement approach was to isolate a particular movement and repeatedly practice, aka Kata, until it has habitual. For example we would exaggerate the lifted elbows so that we could rewire our brains for the correct motion. This is not just applicable to martial arts or swimming, it is equally important in anything kinaesthetic and also very applicable to our thinking patterns at work, although we are rewiring different areas of the brain.

In management theory, we often hear of Japanese Principles, and in particular the Toyota Product System, TPS. When I read the 2009 book “Toyota Kata” by Mike Rother, the concept that I took from it was that there are the visible parts of Toyotas Results and Lean tools and practices, such as Andon, Gemba walks and Heijunka, but the essence of their success is about the invisible stuff. The systematic, scientific way of thinking and acting and Managers teaching people this way of thinking. In addition to this I am inspired by the book Peak” by Anders Ericsson, and how he emphasises the importance of deliberate practice.

The important thing to take away is that Lean Thinking and Toyota Kata are complementary. One will not work without the other. Deliberate practice can rewire our brain and this is not just in motion but also in cognition. Often we have unconscious thought patterns that might only be observed by an external coach who knows the theory and can assist with exercises to modify through habit our thoughts and actions.

It was Mike Rother who introduced me to the folding arms exercise, and I would highly recommend seeking him out on YouTube as his talks on Toyota Kata and how it is a way to rewire our thinking is very insightful.

WIN: What’s Important Now.

I have only recently learned of this Acronym when I was on a Training Camp with Moss Burmister, the Olympic and Commonwealth swimmer who holds the Commonwealth record for 200m butterfly at the 2008 Olympics. However, it resonates so much with how I try to think during a race and at work that it makes the cut of one of the concepts I’d like to share in this article.

Photo credit ScottieT Photo

One of the hazards of the Cycling leg of a triathlon is the potential for a puncture. At the same camp we had drills to rapidly change our tyre in the event of a race day puncture. Remember, practice until you cannot get it wrong.

If it happens on race day, all of a sudden the mindset needs to shift away from what is the optimal power zone to “What is Important Now. WIN?” On a good day I can change a tyre in 3 minutes and when it has occurred in a race, I clear my mind of everything else to focus on that. This is where practice is important to actually change the tyre, but mental resilience is equally crucial. All of a sudden the tyre change becomes part of the race. 

The contrast in response to an unexpected event can be clearly demonstrated in the 2005 Ironman World Championship where the 2004 defender, Norm Stadler had a puncture. Contrast this to the 2008 race where the 2007 defender, Chrissie Wellington had a puncture. There are other variables at play here but the important point is their response.

The roads on the Big Island are notorious for causing punctures. In 2005 “The Norminator” had two. In the words of the commentator, he went into DEFCON 4. Wellington, in 2008 also had problems when she gassed out her two CO2 cannisters without correctly attaching to the valve and had to wait until one of her competitors threw her a spare. The video footage of both is below.

  1. Storming Norman
  2. Chrissie Wellington 

It is fair to say that the events of 2005 may well have informed Wellingtons mental approach to 2008. Ironman is a very physical event however the differentiator between those who are successful, the winners and the rest lies in the mental game. What I hope you take from this is that under times of stress or surprise there needs to be a conscious clearing of distracting thoughts and a focus on solutions.

The essence of this principle is that of focus. In a triathlon, when you get a puncture, your swim time or projected run splits are irrelevant when you are on the side of the road with a flat. The most immediate thing, most important thing at that time is to fix the puncture and get back on the road. During a race I am often confronted with many unexpected challenges I would become overwhelmed if I were to try and resolve all possible eventualities and by not focussing on the immediate issue, I am losing time and momentum.

There is a direct correlation to how we are at work. Perhaps it doesn’t even need to be something as acute that stops you in your tracks. Possibly it is tangential discussions in a meeting which derail the central purpose and thus reduce the chance of a decision making. From a cognitive perspective, I try to reduce things down to their smallest parts when considering a problem and resolve each one in turn. It might become too complex to consider all permutations of a problem in one sitting. Of course, this needs to be balanced with having a holistic viewpoint of an entire system. To quote Albert Einstein, we must simplify as much as we can, but no more.

One of the values of Scrum is focus and Eli Goldratt explained in a seminar that if he were to describe Theory of Constraints in one word, it would be focus. It is about attending to the singularly most important issue and not losing effectiveness by being distracted by other consideration. WIN is used in sports coaching; however, I believe it is something that we can map across to our world of work. 

WIN is something my wife, also a triathlete and also on the same training camp, has introduced to the Emergency Department that she leads as Consultant (attending) Physician. During a resuscitation or where there are multiple acute patients in need of critical care it is important to rapidly assess the most important and urgent issue and address in turn. It is easy to become cognitively overloaded and thus make sub optimal decision in this environment and again, having the deliberate practice of medical procedures beforehand comes in very handy. 

I recall a humours cartoon poster next to every fire extinguisher onboard the frigate I served on in the Royal Navy showing a sailor reading the instructions with the phrase “Too late mate


Ironman hurts. Over the past few years, I have developed a condition called Mortons Neuroma which is a calcification of the nerves in my feet that, after cycling 180km in tight cycle shoes, compression socks, then running a marathon can cause excruciating pain. Now that I have this diagnosed, I am doing well to manage it, however in my last Ironman 12 months ago I was in agony. It has adversely affected around half of my races.

Another challenge I have faced in the past has been sea sickness. I know, ex-Navy and seasick in a lake. Sometimes if there is a swell, especially at sea, I can sometimes feel nauseous. In 2017 it meant that my average swim time of 1hr10 ended up being 2hr23. Unfortunately, the cut off for the swim is 2hr20 and so I couldn’t continue. It has happened at a few races which always really slow me down, and if I’m honest at that particular race I didn’t bring my mental A-game to push through the adversity.

This section will be to talk about the mindset of grit and the attributes of resilience. It is obviously applicable to an endurance event where your body is screaming out for you to curl into the foetal position and sleep while you mind wrestles with continuing to the end. One reason I have continued with this sport is that I believe that in racing it callouses my mind and thus helps me with my determination in other parts of my life. 

Angela Duckworth wrote the book “Grit” and it is well recommended. One key lesson I learned from this book is that one way to build resilience is to have a goal, it might be a short horizon or long one, ideally several interlinked goals with variable horizons. I believe that my visualising the last 100 metres of the finish line as a goal for Ironman and the importance I attach to actually finishing, drives me through the adversity of the pain and fatigue that I experience during the race itself. Perhaps my 2017 “Did-Not-Finish” was partly because it was ‘just another Ironman’ for me. For Kiwiman, being able to talk about it and write articles as a finisher was actually an important component of why I carried on when on day two my body was not in a great place physically.

To quote Duckworth: “Grit is passion and perseverance towards long term goals, it is stamina. Grit is sticking with your future day in, day out not just for the week but for years to make that goal your reality. Grit is living life like it is a Marathon, not a sprint”.

Photo credit ScottieT Photo

I notice also that there are many references to Grit and the US Navy Seals. The Hell Week in their training is predominately about grit, not necessarily physical strength itself. I would also recommend the story of David Goggins, in his book, “Can’t hurt Me” to elaborate more on this experience. My mention of callousing the mind is a direct takeaway from his story.

How might this be relevant at work? My view is that if leaders of companies set a compelling and realistic vision which is both challenging and attainable, then when adversity strikes teams are more likely to persevere.

The whole essence of this paper hinges on this concept so I’ll emphasis again. Goal setting which is both realistic and attainable as well as challenging and rewarding by the leadership is absolutely imperative. Couple with that self-derived goals on a more granular level, even down to daily goals will provide focus for people. Also, there is no point having a goal if you don’t measure your progress towards it and believe in it.

Reflecting on the autobiographical book by Viktor Frankl, ‘Man's search for meaning’, I think this provides a very stark case for purpose. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and Psychologist who survived the Holocaust and the book is based on his experience in concentration camps, notably Auschwitz. Through the eyes of a Psychologist, he found that suffering might be alleviated when a higher purpose can be identified. Obviously, the suffering of an Endurance race isn’t directly comparable however having a ‘Why’ will enable resilience to push through painful experiences. Simon Sinek also talks to the importance from a neurological perspective of having a ‘why’ in his book ‘Start with Why

The relevance of Frankl, Sinek and indeed my own experience as an Athlete is that too often companies establish initiatives which have a very strong bias in their strategies on the ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ but are very scant on the ‘why’. In the long run this may cause sustainability of motivation within the tactical teams and in fact tactical decisions are difficult to make close to the work.

My suggested solution to this is to spend time at the outset of any project or initiative developing a strong mission statement, along with a vision that people can enrol to. It has to be meaningful and impactful. My go to approach is based on the book “Liftoff” by Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies. Over the past few years, I have helped many organisations successfully charter their projects using techniques to enable a shared understanding of purpose. Conversely, I have observed many projects struggle because this important step was missed. In particular I was recently at a telecoms company that had failed in this important first step and went straight to the ‘What and when’. This caused great strife with the teams and will ultimately be detrimental to the products and services they are trying to develop.


One attribute which has really helped me over the years in my endurance training is that of Consistency. To metabolically adapt to be able to race an Ultra Distance Triathlon takes continuous training over a prolonged period. I’ve been training and racing for Ironman for 17 years now, but still today I will prepare for a race at least 3 months prior by long distance training and regular training patterns.

There is an emerging consensus that it is probably not ideal as I get older and there are some schools of thought that say long and slow training causes slow racing. That being said, any training program would require you to at least be training most days every week and have longer sessions within them. The approach I take generally has me cycling up to 200km most weeks, running around 40km and swimming up to 5km. This is one reason I am probably not going to be racing these events for much longer as the time commitment excludes my participating in other activities. It is sometimes as much as 30 hours per week. If I say yes to these races, I am consequently saying no to other things that I also value.

Consistency in training also maps to consistency in racing. I have found that holding a steady power output on the bike and a steady pace on the run is the recipe for my best performance. In practice this means about 200 watts, which produces around 33kph on the flat for the bike and around 5:30 minutes per km on the run. When I tend to ‘burn my matches’ by spiking my power for pushing hard on the bike this has an effect at the latter end of the bike and definitely slows me down in the run. Because of these optimal zones for racing, I generally aim for many of my training sessions in the weeks leading up to a race to be around that pace.

Beyond the training itself, the most important thing is how my body recovers. It is not the training that makes you stronger but your adaptation to it. If I therefore compromise my sleep, or what I eat, or when I eat then my performance is sub optimal. I have seen, also, many triathletes pick up injuries because they press on with a prescribed training program even when they may have biomechanical niggles. While I cannot claim accolades for any podium finishes, I am very proud that I have been pretty much injury free over the past few decades of racing, especially in 2018 when I completed 5 races in a 12-month period. Something which is a heavy load even for professionals.

This is what I would call sustainable pace, it works for Triathletes and I believe that it is also very powerful for how we work. If I overtrain then there are some bio markers that indicate this, as well as my performance in time trial pacing exercises. I know when I am tired when I cannot hold onto a pace. In work our cognitive load, or overload, may not be so apparent. But it is still there. Sleep is crucial for physical recovery from exercise as is diet. This is the same for our cognition.

Another aspect of this is the concept of Kaizen. We are all likely to understand at a superficial what this means, roughly translated as continuous improvement. However, the true Japanese meaning is much deeper. From the kanji symbol of Kai literally means “Self Whip” or discipline of the self and the Zen symbol is that of a sheep denoting sacrifice. So, the meaning is Change for good, or more specifically change and discipline of oneself in sacrifice for the better of others. Taichi Ohno was inspired by the American “Training Within Industry” Programme of the Second World War and applied the concept of continuous improvement into Toyota and it is now a common Lean approach.

To explain a significant attribute of Kaizen, I would like to introduce and contrast with Kaikaku. Kaikaku broadly means a more transformational change, or at the very least transitional change. Kaizen, on the other hand, is small and repeated changes. The intent with kaizen is to benefit from the compound of marginal gains, while making the emphasis of change to become habitual. I’m going to argue that when you hear the phrase “Agile Transformation”, it tends to be Kaikaku in nature. This is often too novel and can be threatening to those who might otherwise wish to defend the status quo. For this reason, I avoid using transformation to describe my work.

My approach to triathlon means I apply kaizen to every training day and every race. Even within a race I will try and improve as I go along. I am meticulous with all of the potential improvements I can find from removing any wind resistance from my aerodynamic bike, to modifying my breathing patterns in running to increase the oxygen uptake. From a dietary perspective I try to be disciplined to the gram what macronutrients I eat. I realise that in isolation any of these tweaks will not have a measurable impact on my performance but added together they make a difference.

While I try to bias towards Kaizen, this doesn’t mean I don’t have kaiaku or kakushin, (new innovation), elements to my preparation. For example, I may try a different coach or new equipment on my bike which are both expensive and likely going to take time to implement. The important thing is to know the difference and to tend towards many kaizen improvements rather than depending on one silver bullet kaikaku.

I am inspired by the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. In it he talks about the story of the British Cycling team under the lead of Dave Brailsford. When he first took over the team had never won an Olympic medal or the Tour De France. Since then, they have become the dominant team in the sport. Clear attributes much of this to the compound of marginal gains. For example, he recruited a Surgeon to teach the athletes how to wash their hands in order to reduce the chance of infection. This means fewer days unable to train due to sickness. He would also A/B test massage creams for performance and introduce new materials for the skin suits to improve aerodynamics. 

This mindset of atomic habits, Kaizen and the compound of marginal gains is something that Tony Hsieh also brough to his company Zappos and then wrote about in his book “Delivering Happiness”.

The main message I’d like to convey here is that it is better to apply a consistency of small improvements over a prolonged period rather than an intensity over a short period. The former may not produce obvious returns immediately but over the long term is far more effective.


From the previous 4 ideas, Kata, WIN, Grit and Consistency, I think I can wrap them all around the notion of Ikigai. In Japan this means “A Reason for Being”. It is a confluence of doing what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs and what you can be paid for.

Technically, therefore, Triathlon isn’t my Ikigai. For that I would say it is Kaizen Coaching. However, within Triathlon there are elements that I can bring over to my professional work. Especially as a Triathlon Coach. 

To be truly disciplined with Kata and deliberate practice, one needs to be able to get into a state of flow. This can only be achieved if you have a higher purpose for doing it, and that the action is rewarding. It is only through deliberate practice and continuous improvement Kaizen, can we yield real improvements. Sometimes there is going to be adversity and for this we will require resilience and grit. Having a goal which is meaningful and a purpose to drive will assist in persistence and perseverance. At every point focus is required and while having an overarching goal, there also needs to be an element of understanding What is important at that particular moment so that things can be attended to effectively.


Photo credit ScottieT Photo

For me, at least, I have enjoyed success in my professional life which in part has been driven by a mindset that was forged in my life as an Endurance Athlete. In particular the head strong approach, relentless focus on continuous improvement through deliberate practice and consistency towards an explicit goal that I find valuable and meaningful.

I hope these ideas might inspire others and in a simple summary of how this might be applied in practice here are a few tips, not in the order that I discussed them but how they may play out.

  1. Discover what you are passionate about, journal what your goals are and track your progress towards them. Have meaningful goals that are both long and short horizon in proximity
  2. Find yourself a coach and embark on a mindset of deliberate practice towards continuous improvement. Consistency beats intensity and be inspired by tiny habits that are achievable and build from there
  3. Focus on the most important single thing at any given moment and try to eliminate thoughts other than this. Ask yourself continuously “What’s important now?

Here are a list of books I mentioned in this article.

Download Materials


Are You Ready to Uncover Your Agility?

The Business Agility Profile™ is a detailed, research-based snapshot of your organization’s Business Agility capabilities & behaviors.

Based on years of research and trusted insight, it delivers data-driven analysis highlighting what’s pushing your organization forward — and what’s pulling you back.

  • Understand where your organization is on its Business Agility journey today

  • See how your organization compares to a benchmark of 1300+ other companies

  • Know the most important next steps to further develop and grow

The component MostRecentArticles has not been created yet.
The component LibraryHighlightsSmall has not been created yet.

You have NaN out of 5 free articles to read

Please subscribe and become a member to access the entire Business Agility Library without restriction.