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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  1. I just want to second the “get lost” advice. I’m a 46 year old mid pack runner and have been running for about 4 years. This year I could feel myself getting a little bored and I seemed to be losing motivation, even when the running was going well. I started trail running and orienteering (in the latter you literally get lost and hope that you can find your way around using only a map and compass – no GPS allowed!). Running through woods, crossing streams, trying not to lose my shoes in mud pits, climbing Canadian Shield rock outcroppings, all of this has rekindled my love of running. So my advice – switch things up, apply your running to something completely different. You will benefit mentally and physically if you do!

  2. Every new beginning is hard, to start to run is hard and so is coming back from injury, give yourself time and take it one step at a time and you will get to a running fitness level that you enjoy. From then on you will love running and you will never want to give it up. You will look forward to your runs and the challenge they are, but most of all, once you finish each run you will feel great and exhilarated. Keep that feeling in your heart and you will never stop running. But first of all you must be persistent and not give up because running will become easier once you run consistently.

  3. Great article, and I can certainly relate. “Don’t quit” is the story of my life at all timescales, from individual events to my entire sporting history. An example of the former is at this year’s state championships, I pulled a hamstring near the start of my second event for the weekend (out of 7 or 8). At this point, there were still two days of competition left. My role is quite critical and specialised in certain events, so I worked out what I could do, and worked with the coach to see how we could rejig things.

    I ended up running half of the events I was scheduled to run in for the rest of the weekend, including one which required a 100 yard (mostly) sprint, without further incident. Think we even managed a place, if I recall! 🙂 I’ve used the same persistence to complete a marathon, in the face of injury flareups that were caused by being hit by a car a few months earlier, and most recently, powering through a 24 hour charity walk.

    On the lifelong scale, I am on the autism spectrum, and have some movement/coordination issues (that were never diagnosed), and initially, being successful at _any_ sport seemed a pipe dream, but it was something I wanted, and over time, I’ve managed to see success in a range of sports. At 47, I am still pushing the boundaries and seeking new ways to improve performance, in a series of lifelong experiments with training techniques.

    • Further to my post, my traits make me a natural at visualisation, which has been one of the keys to my success. I can visualise every detail and use that to my advantage. After numerous failures with conventional lessons, I literally taught myself how to swim using pure visualisation when I was around 10.

      Getting lost in the true sense is practically impossible for me – I have an excellent natural sense of direction and space, but I do enjoy exercising and competing in new places, and find them inspiring, and often I’ll go out with no specific place in mind, make it up as I go along, depending on my mood at the moment.

  4. My advice to new runners would be, find a race and sign up. If you’ve never done any, sign up for a 5k. If you’ve done races, sign up for a distance that you haven’t done yet. Pay the money and commit. Just make sure it’s far enough out to prepare. Races are what keep me motivated.

  5. Pat Shaw says:

    I have applied these three items routinely to my running. For races I like to travel the course before hand to help me visualize even as I race. I tend to get wrapped up training pace, heart rate, etc. It is fun to sometimes just go for a run. I think it can also be good career advice. Too bad I didn’t apply those more often!

  6. Just stick with it and never give up! When you’re on a tough run, it’s amazing how your mind will try to convince you that you are really tired, and that you should probably stop, that you can’t keep going. Put those thoughts away because you’re not that tired, you shouldn’t stop and you can keep going. I always visualize myself coming over the finish line, visualize how I’ll be smiling, will have my arms in the air and visualize my family and friends waiting on me – and that just keeps me going. I ran my second marathon just 3 weeks ago. I got ITBS just 4 weeks before the marathon and had serious doubts if I would start, never mind finish. But I rested up, did what I was told by my physio, and when the pain kicked in a bit at mile 19, I just keep visualizing that finish line and all the smiles, and that kept me moving. Managed to get over the line 16mins faster than my first marathon 🙂