Mind Over Ironman

One man’s dive into uber-endurance sport with 90 days of mindfulness and yoga

James Wells
2016 IRONMAN finisher James Wells trained for his race with nothing but yoga and meditation. Photo: Imran Kamrudin

It turns out meditation and yoga truly can bring calm to chaos in endurance sports. Just ask James Wells.

Wells, 34, a venture capitalist in Vancouver, completed IRONMAN Canada at Whistler, B.C. last summer in just under 15 hours, training exclusively with yoga and meditation.

“IRONMAN crushes your body and mind, but I felt like I had quite a strong mind going in,” says Wells. “In yoga, it’s your breath first then your movement and body position second—by always bringing it back to the breath, all the distractions went away.”

IRONMAN is considered the ultimate test of human endurance, where participants complete a 3.8K swim, 180K bike and 42.2K run. Most participants take months to train for such a race, averaging 12 to 14 hours of swimming, biking and running a week.

Besides improving your physical endurance, all that training prepares you mentally for the event. And as many endurance athletes know, it’s what’s going on between your ears that can often make or break your race.

“I was reading a lot about mindfulness at the time and I wanted to do something that maximized the mental challenge,” says Wells. Although he had some triathlon experience, he was by no means an experienced endurance athlete or yogi when he came up with the idea to prepare for IRONMAN Canada in 90 days with nothing but yoga and meditation training.

“I wanted to find out if yoga training would be enough to prepare and protect the body for an IRONMAN,” says Wells. “Could mindfulness bring calm to the chaos?”

Wells did yoga for at least an hour every day at YYoga in Gastown. He completed a check-in every two weeks with a swim, bike and run coach to understand where injuries might occur, and did one practice race to “experiment with nutrition, pacing, transitions, clothing, distances and reality,” says Wells. He also practiced meditation for 20 minutes a day.

Aside from tight hip flexors, Wells’ body held up just as well as his mind during the event. “It was quite a joy,” he says. “I wanted to embrace the whole experience, and I think that helped.”

Since IRONMAN, Wells completed a 50K ultra using the same training approach, and continues to make yoga and meditation a part of his routine. His next adventure, however, might be his greatest mindfulness challenge yet.

“My wife and I are expecting a baby, which, quite frankly, will be the true test of staying calm during the chaos.”