What can you learn from 115+ interviews with successful athletes?

Meet Scott Jones. He has 10+ years of experience in the exercise science world and has trained hundreds of athletes (including elites).

Scott Jones Athlete on Fire

He’s also the host of Athlete on Fire, a podcast that bridges the gap between elite and recreational athletes and shows their tools, strategies, and training.

Recently Scott even had me on as a guest to talk about injury prevention and my own running. You can listen to that episode here.

Over the last few months, I’ve gotten to know him well. We both attended a conference together last month. I raced his Fear the Deer half marathon. And we even met up for drinks!

Scott’s wealth of knowledge in the exercise science world – coupled with his podcasting and race director experience – is why I asked him to write for SR today.

I was curious… what are the lessons he’s learned after interviewing over a hundred successful athletes?

From mountain climbers to cyclists to runners, what makes a good athlete “good?”

What can we learn from them?

Are they successful because of genetics?

… or are some traits learned?

And most importantly, if these traits are learned, can we learn them too?

I’ll let Scott take it from here.

The Origins of Athlete on Fire

Every successful athlete does certain things very well:

  • They speak about competition in similar ways.
  • They talk about how they train similarly.
  • They use different words to describe the same general feelings of success.

Two years ago I was driving a Penske across the country for the last time that summer.  Ten races, ten cities, ten weeks in a row.

My wife and I had started an event production company and our signature event, Drenched (it was like the Color Run meets a water fight), had its very own series. It was fun for everyone but my wife and I…

But, that summer sparked my love of a new platform: podcasting.

I listened to podcasts for hours and hours driving across the country.  From news to science and the arts to health and fitness, I took it all in on the road.  On the last trip of the summer, I decided I was going to host my own show.

I had 10+ years in the field of exercise science, had trained elite and recreational athletes for most of my career, and had some good networks in the world of endurance sports.

I would interview these athletes to bridge the gap between the most amazing athletes in the world and the rest of us.

And here we are.

Peeking Inside the Minds of Pro Athletes

Athlete On Fire has been a powerful window into the minds of athletes who are able to accomplish more than most.  After interviewing over 115 inspiring and successful athletes, I realized there were a few consistent themes.

If you ever wondered…

What do elite athletes do that makes them so great?

Can I do those things?

Wait, it’s just a mindset?! I can do that!

The lessons I learned were powerful to me the first time I heard them. And even better, they’re really easy for you to add to your “athlete’s toolbox.”

Today I want to share three of the most powerful lessons that you can apply to your running today.

Don’t Quit

Some athletes just aren’t as gifted naturally as others. For them, hard work and persistence is key.

Travis Brown fractured his collarbone weeks before the 2000 Olympics.  You would think that would keep him out considering he was a mountain biker (and he missed the 1996 Olympics from a broken collarbone too!).

Instead of just giving in to the injury, he approached his injury rehab aggressively.  He wouldn’t be denied – and Travis raced in Sydney that year despite the enormous setback.

There are so many stories of never giving in to your circumstances.  The next time you’re running and feel like giving in, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I really feel that tired?
  • Will quitting now make it easier to quit later?
  • Why did I work this hard?

Thousands of amazing (and average) athletes before you have considered quitting but didn’t.  Knowing that you can do it too is a powerful motivator and one that you shouldn’t ignore.

Get Lost

We all know the famous J.R.R. Tolkien quote:

Not all who wander are lost.

Many athletes use stories of adventure as the thing that first triggered a love of endurance or the confidence to get more out of themselves.

Dean Karnazes is known as the Ultramarathon Man now but in telling his childhood story, he tells of a ride he took on a bike to his grandma’s house in southern California.  It ended up being more than 30 or 40 miles but he just wanted to get there.  The distance didn’t really matter.

He later tells a story about turning 30, going out for drinks and coming home late feeling empty, like he needed to change.  The story goes that he put on some running shoes and just ran 30 miles.

Adventure often is the precursor to great athletic accomplishment.

So go get lost, on purpose.  

You will come out with confidence that you can do bigger things than you imagined.  For any athlete, that’s powerful.


Visualization is not a new topic.  The best athletes from every sport use it whether they know it or not.  Books have been dedicated to the topic.  It’s something we can all do to become a little better today.

So many athletes have shared how they visualize before they compete.  It’s a very personal process so learning from different athletes has alway been interesting.

One athlete stood out because his process was more detailed.  Joe Decker was coined the Most Fittest Man In The World when he completed 10 of the hardest endurance events on the planet… in one year.

He would visualize the routes, terrain, weather, how his legs may feel when he got tired.  He would even visualize a broken arm and imagine how he would keep moving!

He was specific in his visualization and it paid off.

So learn from the best: practice visualization before your next competition.  Make it a habit and you’ll benefit from this powerful skill.

How to Apply These Lessons to Your Running

These three themes came up so often with so many athletes that they’re virtually universal. They apply to athletes of all levels in all sports.  So let’s see how you can apply them to your running.

Don’t quit what you start.  If you aren’t as good or as fast as you thought you would be by now, you have time.

Keep putting the work into the craft of running. Keep learning.  Don’t quit during a training session.  Don’t quit while competing and please don’t quit trying to be the best version of yourself as a runner.  Sometimes the gains you want to see are just around the corner.

Get lost (and soon).  To love running you need to experience running for the sake of running.  No times or heart rates or specific goals every once in awhile.

Is there a trail you’ve never been on near by?  Are you travelling in a new place? Is there a road you have never taken?

Go out there and get lost.  You’re going to love running just a little more after your next adventure.

You have to visualize.  Practice what you’ll feel and look like on race day.

What do you look like when your running form is perfect?  Picture every foot placement on the specific terrain. Picture your posture and how relaxed you are staying.

What will you feel like on the hill at mile five?  Picture that too.

The more information you can give yourself before you experience something, the better you will handle that experience.

These three powerful themes are used by most athletes.  After over 100 interviews and coaching private clients for over a decade, I’ve seen them used by almost everyone.

And they can be used by you, too.

Now, a question for you: What big lesson or advice would you give a new runner who is just starting on their journey?

Leave your comment below and let’s see how many we can share!

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