I had the opportunity to sit down with Joanna Zeiger this past weekend while visiting Boulder, Colorado. If you don’t know her, Joanna raced professionally as a triathlete from 1998-2010 where she excelled in both short course and long course to include racing on the United States Olympic Team in triathlon when the sport first debuted at the Olympics in 2000. She was the top American finisher that year. She trained for the Olympics while earning her PhD in Genetic Epidemiology. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s Joanna’s quick bio:
Joanna Zeiger, MS, PhD, raced as a professional triathlete from 1998-2010. She placed 4th in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Championships where she set a world record time at the IRONMAN 70.3 distance. She is a seven time Olympic trials qualifier in 3 sports – marathon, triathlon and swimming. Joanna still pursues her passion for sports as a top Masters runner. Through her company, Race Ready Coaching, Joanna trains endurance athletes to reach their personal best and instills in them the importance of having fun even when they are training hard.
When she is not coaching or training for running events, Joanna works as a researcher. Her current study, The Athlete PEACE Survey aims to characterize cannabis use, knowledge, and attitudes in athletes. Joanna’s education took her to Brown University, Northwestern University, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Joanna’s book The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness (St. Martin’s Press) was published in February, 2017.
Last year, Joanna wrote a book titled The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness. Earlier this year, she published a research study titled, “Mental toughness latent profiles in endurance athletes.” She currently has a new research survey out called The Athlete PEACE Survey.
Curious to learn more? Here’s my interview with Joanna. Enjoy!
Why focus on mental toughness?
Mental toughness has defined me as an athlete throughout my career. I had a lot of success as a swimmer, triathlete, and runner; however, this success also came with a lot of obstacles. I had and still have a laundry list of injuries and health problems that have littered my athletic life. During my time as a professional triathlete (1998-2010) I was either in school or working, meaning my time was limited and I had to be creative with training and racing to make it all fit together.
The life of an athlete is not easy, but, being an athlete has been so much more than results. It has been about joy, social outlets, travel, testing the mind and body. I have used mental toughness to overcome adversity and to get the most out of myself on and off the playing field.
Can you describe the study?
Briefly, the study looked at 8 different factors of mental toughness to see if they “cluster” in athletes in any sort of way. Think of the Myers-Briggs and different personality types – I wanted to find out if there are mental toughness “types”. We found that athletes, on average, were either high, moderate, or low in mental toughness across all eight factors. This means, if an athlete showed a high score in one factor, on average, they would score high on the other 7 factors. Athletes who had high mental toughness were older, more often male, and were more satisfied with their performance.
Key takeaways from the study that athletes can use?
The study results allowed me to generate an algorithm that I used to create a mental toughness quiz. Athletes can take the quiz and learn about their mental toughness and where they excel or need work. Key takeaway: practice visualization. It can help improve all aspect of mental toughness.
You’re currently collecting data for a study on athlete use of cannabis. Why this study?
I am currently the lead investigator for The Athlete PEACE Survey, an Institutional Review Board approved study. Our aims are to (1) characterize cannabis use, knowledge, and attitudes in athletes of any sport and (2) examine whether cannabis use is associated with pain and well-being.
Cannabis is a hot topic these days. Some love it. Others hate it. It has been at once called a gateway drug and the answer to a smattering of medical problems. People swear by its healing properties while others run the other way at even the slightest whiff. Whatever your stance, cannabis is instilling itself in society, with 31 states and the District of Columbia having some form of legalization. Just next month, Canada is set for country-wide legalization. My interest in cannabis in athletes originates from my own cannabis use for chronic pain.
The problem thus far is that there are no studies that have examined cannabis use and its relationship to pain and well-being in a community sample of athletes.
We are trying to change that with The Athlete PEACE Survey.
The survey is open to anyone who is over 21 and self-identifies as an athlete. It doesn’t matter how fast you are, how long you have been participating in sports, what sport you do, or how many hours per week you exercise. If you are getting out there and exercising, you are an athlete.
You can be a never user, current user, or past user of cannabis.
If you are reading this, please participate! Your answers matter. We are trying to make this the biggest study of its kind and we cannot do it without your participation. The survey is short and anonymous.
Please click HERE to take the survey.
You started as a swimmer before making the transition to triathlete. How is triathlon swimming different than pure swimming?
Open water swimming requires an entirely different skill set than pool swimming. In open water, athletes must overcome a lot of factors: their fear of murky conditions, creepy-crawlies, other swimmers everywhere, the mass start chaos, chop, currents, waves, the feeling of a wetsuit. In addition, I believe that the most efficient open water swim stroke is much different than a pool stroke (fast turnover, high arms). The best way to improve open water swim skills is to practice often.
What is your greatest strength?
What is your favorite memory in your professional triathlon career?
Crossing the finish line holding the American flag at the 2000 Sydney Olympics where I finished 4th and first American. It was a thrill.
Least favorite memory?
Crashing on the bike at the 2009 Ironman 70.3 World Championship while defending my title. I still have injuries and health issues from the crash.
Any advice for aspiring endurance athletes?
Keep it fun and don’t be your worst enemy. Endurance sports is a lifestyle and if it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth it. And, athletes tend to be very hard on themselves and expect way more than any human can possibly deliver. Be nice to yourself! It helps keep it fun. 😊
I don’t believe in regret. Mistakes happen and we can use them to learn, but regret can be very unhealthy.
What’s next for you? Any other big bucket list items?
In terms of racing, my future is uncertain. I have health issues from the 2009 bike accident that make planning races tricky, so these days when I feel like racing, I find something local and jump in at the last minute. It’s not ideal, but it works for now and satisfies my craving to race. Maybe this will change in the future, as I hope to run another marathon.
Where can readers find out more about you and what you’re doing?
Thanks, Joanna! I can’t to see what you do (and find out) next.