Expert Interview with Olympian Emily Infeld

 
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How an Olympian builds her best self.

"When I'm out there racing, I just try to be my best self that I can be on the day."

There’s an unfortunate myth perpetuated often today that in order to be at the top of your field, you must be a ruthless, cut-throat competitor.  Cunningness and a by any means necessary attitude is what leads to success.  This couldn’t be more inaccurate.

In my experience interviewing top athletes, entrepreneurs, writers, and business leaders there are many similar routines, habits, and traits amongst them, but one trait stands out most: generosity.  Despite how busy these world-class performers are, they are incredibly gracious, kind, giving, and thoughtful.  Maybe generosity and an abundant attitude towards giving is the final skill that propels these world-class talents to the top of their field. 

U.S. Olympic Track and Field athlete and World Championship bronze medalist Emily Infeld is the perfect embodiment of this theory.  In fact, Emily is so friendly, kind, generous, and perpetually happy that it’s hard to imagine her as a tough competitor, (Emily if you are reading this don’t take that as an insult.  It’s a compliment of the highest order).  However, don’t let Emily’s sweet demeanor fool you.  When she toes the line for a 10,000-meter race, watch out.  That’s when she flips the switch.  

As you might expect, Emily was kind enough to patiently answer my inane questions about her daily life in order to gain insights into how she unlocks her “best self”, as she would say. 

Below are the keys that have propelled Emily to international fame and to the top of the ultra-competitive track and field world.

Success starts with your morning.

  • Actually, success starts the night before. 
    • Have a plan for what you are going to do tomorrow, especially the first few hours of your day. 
  • Have a repeatable and purposeful routine. 
    • This will minimize distractions and keep you focused on what you must accomplish in the day ahead.
      • Move, stretch, or use a foam roller to get your body warm.
      • Fuel right.
      • Read and learn.
  •  Fuel right.
    • Eat foods with plenty of protein. 
      • A good rule of thumb for protein intake in the morning is the 30/30 rule.  30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking.  This will provide you long lasting energy for the morning.
    • Go easy on sugary foods.  Sorry Captain Crunch, turns out your fruity berries aren’t ideal fuel for an Olympic athlete...or anybody.
    • Eat healthy fats like avocado oil, olive oil, or coconut oil.  These healthy fats increase satiety keeping you fuller, longer.
    • Go easy on the carbs. 
      • Emily incorporates carbohydrate rich foods like toast or oatmeal into her morning breakfast but she’s also running 10+ miles each day.  Unless you’re moving that much, it’s best to go easy on the carbs.  Again, sorry Captain Crunch, you’ve been dishonorably discharged from your breakfast command. 

how to overcome self-doubt

Even the best struggle with self-doubt and negative talk.  Acknowledge the thoughts and trust the process that will lead you to be better than yesterday.  Here are a few tips that Emily uses to overcome this issue:

  • Readjust and recalibrate your plan.

    • You will have hiccups in training and in life, readjust and recalibrate your plan as challenges arise and keep moving forward.

  • Relive past wins.
    • When Emily is really struggling, she reminds herself of past successes and relives those moments.
      • This is a scientifically proven powerful exercise and a major tenet taught in the book Psycho-Cybernetics.  Reliving simple wins you’ve had in your past recalibrates your mind from anxiety to confidence.  The memory can be as simple as recalling the feeling of first learning to tie your shoes successfully.  Seriously…tying your shoes.  Try it yourself.
  • Surround yourself with positive people. 
    • When you’re down you need those people that inspire you.  Cut out the negative people in your life.  They will keep you in a downward spiral of self-loathing.

 

Want dramatic improvements in your life?  Incorporate these 3 Olympic training tips into your life:

  • Create high performance environments that challenge and demand your best performances. 
    • Emily does this by training at altitude where it is more physically demanding on her body.  This resistance builds up her endurance and strength and unlocks better performances.  As Emily said about training at altitude, “When I train there it’s awful and it hurts so bad, but I’ve had my best results coming down from altitude.  I feel like it's doing something.”  If you’re looking to make huge improvements in your career or life, what is an environment you can join that will push you forward?  It could be a club, a mastermind group, or literally a new environment that gets you out of your comfort zone.
  • Cut all distractions so the one goal is an unavoidable outcome. 
    • At altitude camp, there is literally nothing else for Emily and her teammates to do.  They train, recover, rest, and train more. 
  • Find great mentors and coaches.
    • This is a common theme amongst all high-performers.  They know they can’t do it all on their own.  There’s much wisdom to be gained from those that have been there before.  As entrepreneur Jim Hays said in a prior interview, “bleed them dry”, of their knowledge.  

 

Life, like races, comes in waves.

As Emily’s sister once told her in regards to overcoming grueling stretches in a race, “you won’t hurt forever”.  If you’re going through a trying time, remember it won’t last forever.  For Emily that may mean getting through another 10 seconds.  For you that may be getting to tomorrow because tomorrow is an opportunity to improve.

 

To get the most out of your mind and body, rest is just as important as training. 

I’ve searched far and wide to find an excuse to sleep more.  Let’s be real, I was built to stay in bed.  Besides the couch, my bed is my favorite place in the world.  I finally have a valid excuse to sleep more.  If it’s good enough for an Olympian why not for me? 

You may not be an Olympic athlete but if rest and sleep is of utmost importance to those athletes then why is it not a priority in your life?

Great rest and sleep beget a clearer mind, which yields better ideas and decisions that will ultimately improve your life.  Make it a priority each day. 

For all you nap-shamers out there here’s a quick list of world-class talents that napped: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, and many more.  Most recently on HBO’s Hard Knocks we’ve seen J.J. Watt’s napping getaway he created and the Cleveland Browns have a dedicated trailer for napping.  Now that is a workplace improvement I can get behind!

Emily is an incredible talent, competitor, and a wonderful person.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy the magnificent Emily Infeld.

 

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Parker: I want to start off talking about your habits and routines that allow you to perform at your best on a routine basis. What does your morning usually look like?

 Emily:  I love having a schedule and keeping routines. I feel like I'm like a cat, kind of, in that regard. I love the same thing every day. […] I've been getting up like 6:30, but I'll get up somewhere between 6:30 and 7:30 and then have coffee.  A good breakfast in the morning and then head out the door to Nike and then I'll do […] a good bit of prehab like rolling, stretching, and then exercises and kind of focusing on whatever problem area tends to be.  […] When you're pushing your body to the max, you always have [little injuries] and certain things. For me my left hip is always a problem area. And then recently my foot, so a lot of my exercises and all that is targeted towards that.  But I like to start my day having coffee, good breakfast, and then getting some prehab and before I do whatever activity, whether it be running, swimming, biking, elliptical, but just make me feel like I have good activation and get some stretching in and all that.

Parker:  What are you trying to get nutrition wise in the morning so that you're body's prepared physically for your training that you're going to be doing? Are there specific foods that you're trying to eat in the morning?

Emily:  Yeah, it depends on what I'm doing activity wise because sometimes I like to have some form of protein and carb basically. Iif I have a hard workout or a long session, I want pretty simple plain foods. I'll have oatmeal, banana with peanut butter.  If I'm doing a speed session, I want a little more protein […] so I'll have eggs and toast, maybe even some greens or something, or some fruit.  And then certain days if I'm just going for an easy run or if I'm  rushed out the door, I'll at least make sure I have a protein bar. So I want to have some sort of protein in the morning. But most days I feel like I like to make breakfast at home. I hate running out the door and just eating a bar.  […]

Parker:  Do you have a favorite bar that you like to eat after a workout?

Emily:  Yeah, so I love Clif bar and I have a little sponsorship with them so they are fabulous because I love all their new bars and my favorite, they have these whey protein bars that have five grams of sugar and 14 grams of protein. […] I was looking for something I felt that was nutritionally a little better.  I love all their products and whatnot, but for me, I feel like that I wanted something low sugar so they have a whole new line which is wonderful and I love the new ones because they're super yummy and they have 14 grams of protein,

Parker:  Yeah, that's something that I've found is so many bars on the market, it's either all protein or all sugar and it's hard to find the right combination of the two.

Emily: Oh my gosh, totally. I think it's so hard and I love even a lot of bars that are natural and they're like, these dates, this is natural, but they ended up using a million dates and then you're like, oh my God, this bar has 35 grams of sugar in it. […] You need some sugar but, stuff like that I feel like I should just eat a candy bar. […] My strength coaches hounded me on lowering the sugar and increasing fat in [my] diet.

Parker:  What are some of the fats that are you are trying to incorporate into your diets?

Emily:  I love nuts.  And that's also if I don't have a bar, I feel like my go to snack just if I know I won't have time to get home and I'm going to need things going from appointments or if I'm  not sure what my timeframe is going to be, I always want to make sure I have snacks with me. So I'll make my own little trail mix with dried fruits. I love pistachios and almonds and pumpkin seeds, so they're my favorites.

Parker:  Yeah, have you tried to incorporate any avocado oil or coconut oil into your diet?

 Emily:  I love avocado and I love veggies. I love sautéed veggies. […] I use a lot of olive oil. I don't use as much coconut. […] I guess when I'm cooking and baking I use coconut oil.  I feel like I've used a ton of that, like making granola or making muffins or those sorts of things. But I cook a lot with olive oil […] because I like the taste better.

Parker:  When and how do you plan out your days?

Emily:  […] The night before actually is when I really think and I see what I have to do for the day because I like to look ahead of time and be like, okay, this is how much time I'm going to have between, this, this and this thing. So, last night in my head I [thought] if I get up tomorrow at 6:30 and I can have coffee, a good breakfast and then get to Nike, I can be in the pool for ninety minutes to two hours. And then I’ll have the time to come home and have a 45 minute nap, eat lunch and then I can go to PT [physical therapy]. And then I can go back out to Nike and do my second cross-train.  In my head because I knew I had a couple of appointments today. I was like, if I can like get myself out of bed early, then I know I can have like a nice leisurely morning and not feel rushed or stressed. I’ll be able to do my exercises before getting into the pool and then I'll have time to even have a little nap.

Parker:  You obviously live in a very high stakes environment where your livelihood depends on your success in competition. What do you do and how do you deal with the pressure that comes along with being a competitive athlete?

Emily: Oh gosh, that's something I wish I could say I never struggle with, but there are some days that I really struggle with that, which I think is normal.  But then I think it's also just reminding myself, why I do this and why I want to do this. Because I know it's not something that will last forever, and I want to get the most out of myself, and the most out of my body for as long as my body will let me do this. […] It's easy to get sucked into the long-term and the, I don't know, fear of not being good enough or not performing well. I don't think anyone goes through training without having hiccups.  I think people constantly are having ups and downs and having to reevaluate and rewrite the training and remap out races and whatnot. I think part of rolling with the punches and just being able to be , you know what, this is what we wanted to do for the year, but if something happens and you can no longer go to this race or this meet, […] then let's take that off the map and then reevaluate and readjust. And then two, […] when I'm out there racing, I just try to be my best self that I can be on the day. […] You have to be confident and believe in yourself, but as well as that, especially for my event, it's definitely about pacing, that if they're [competitors] going out crazy hard, like in Rio, Anna, that chick went out in 14:40, her first 5-k and her second 5-k was 14:29. She went out and kept getting faster and it's one of those moments where I felt like I was so far behind, but […] I'm still running my race, I'm going to do what I can do and either they're going to come back to me or they won't. But that was a tough pill to swallow just to be like, wow, I'm really far behind them. But at the same time I am focusing on myself as an athlete and I'm just constantly reevaluating and reminding myself why I do this, what I want out of it. […] I think it's hard if you get sucked into financial things or you have to do, you have to hit this [time]. I think you’re going to drive yourself crazy.

Parker:  Do you have any tactics that help you with negative self-talk?

Emily:  That’s something that I am constantly practicing and sometimes it's really tough. Negative thoughts creep into your mind and […] it's easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole and then to just kind of let your mind spiral.  If a negative thought comes in my head, I try to address it and just be like, why am I thinking like that? And instead of then getting sucked down the trajectory being like, oh, woe is me and all this stuff. […]  Sometimes you have those little thoughts in the back of your mind, but I remind myself of positive things and positive performances and it’s helpful for me to just to talk to people. I love our team, I love our group and I think me checking in with those girls and seeing how they are doing is helpful to me and it reminds me as well that there's a bigger picture, and that it's not just about this here and now. […] I'm fueled and get positive by other people's positivity and I think that's huge. Surrounding yourself with good people.  I think it's definitely harder if you're surrounded by negative people when you are [struggling] and […] there's other people around you that are bringing you down. I'm just lucky I have wonderful people around me.  […] But knowing as well that, some days someone's just going to be better than you, and some days maybe you will be the best.  But reminding yourself that everything is temporary. It's addressing each day and each step in the process.

Parker:  And your season is a long season and it depends on what day it is, what competition you're in and how you are progressing throughout your season too.  Some people might be peaking earlier than they do later in the season. It's hard to compare yourself to other people in every single race and competition.

Emily:  Oh totally. Yeah.  And that's... at the end of the day, I trust my coaches and I know that they have a grand plan and that we have something that we're aiming for and I think it's hard sometimes when you remind yourself, okay, I'm going for something months down the road, but then you are in a race with a bunch of people and you're like, I just got beat by a ton of people I feel like I shouldn't have gotten beat by. But it's reminding yourself, well, maybe they were peaking for that and they were ready for that and you're going with a tune up. This wasn't the big goal. But now […] it's easy to compare when you see people posting all their workouts and whatnot. But I think it's just taking a step back and being like, well, that's not me. […] And then each day making myself better.  Me looking at someone else's workout and feeling sad that I didn't do that, or that I feel like I'm not there yet, isn't going to be helpful. […] I did what I needed to do today and tomorrow I'll wake up and do what I need to do to make myself the best version of me I can.

Parker:  What three things have had the greatest impact on your training or racing? It could be a device, a piece of advice, a tool, or a training regimen.

 Emily:  I think definitely training at altitude. When I train there it's awful and it hurts so bad, but I’ve had my best results coming down from altitude […] I feel like it's doing something. You're working really hard and I think maybe as well as just us completely removing ourselves from everyone and all distractions and just being totally focused on training. I guess maybe that's two. […] Just the complete focus on training, and your routine, your day to day. We do the exact same thing every day. It's super monotonous, but we get in the habit and there's no distractions. […] So those two and then I think as well, having the group that I have around me and people like Shalane [Flanagan] has been such a mentor. And Amy Hastings as well, and just all the girls, and Jerry [Schumacher] and Pascal [Dobert] and the guys on the team. I mean I've always looked up to Andrew Bumbalough and to Evan [Jager], so I think it's just huge having those role models around and people who have done incredible things and you can train with and I think that helps build confidence when you're like, man, I'm training with the best in the world.

Parker:  When you're training or in a race, and it becomes its most painful, where you feel like you're about to hit the wall, what do you do or say to yourself to overcome that barrier?

Emily:  So this is something my sister told me and I love this: […] “You won't hurt forever. […] Just give it three to five seconds and see if the hurt will go away.” And I've come to find that in the 10-k you are constantly going up and down and feeling like, oh my God, I went out really hard. I can't believe I still have to run five and a half more miles. And then you're like, oh, I actually feel okay. […] That works for me. […] Give it three to five seconds, count in your head, watch people's steps in front of you and watch a few steps and then I'll normally feel better or I'll be like, all right, let's give it another ten seconds and it'll go away.

Parker:  Do you use visual visualization techniques at all in preparation for racing and competing?

Emily:  Yes. I love it. I think it's really helpful to try to imagine possible scenarios. So in my head, and I'll do this with my coach as well, he'll give us different scenarios he thinks that will happen and after that I'll mentally [focus] on it and I'll replay the race in my head and replay it with different scenarios. And I think that helps to be prepared for different outcomes. […] I really believe that helps prepare you. And I felt like it helped prepare me to focus on that and to remind myself this is going to be challenging. It's not going to be easy, but there can be a really good outcome. And I like to imagine myself mostly having a fabulous outcome, whether that be a fast time or a good place.

Parker:  When do you do your visualization?

Emily:  Probably mostly at night. But definitely […] a week or two weeks leading into races. And maybe not every night, but probably starting at least two weeks out, I'll start to play the race in my head. Either in downtime in the afternoon, but mostly at night after dinner, and then I've done this, which I love. […] I'll write three good things that happened for the day and I think it's good to end on a positive note. […] So I go to bed feeling calm and at peace.

Parker: You've obviously had incredible successes in high school, collegiate and now professional career, more to come of course too, how do you remobilize and get inspired after a big win?

Emily: Oh Gosh. I feel like when you have a big win, it reminds you why you're doing that. There's just that feeling. I still think the feeling when I medaled in Beijing or making the Olympic team was just so amazing. And those are moments where I'm just like, I can't believe I did this. And especially too when you've had ups and downs and hiccups and definitely moments of self-doubt, I will look back on those performances and those memories and it just makes me smile. […] I get really excited and I just know that I want to run faster than I have.

Parker:  What habit of yours has most improved your performance?

Emily:  I think probably getting better with my sleep schedule. I think that's a pretty good one. […] In training, trying to be better at napping. I'm a horrible napper but I try to tell myself I want to get X amount of sleep.  I have tried to get at least nine hours a night and if I get a nap in that's great, but nine or ten would be so key. But I force myself to go to bed early. […] It's super funny because when we are at altitude in the winter all together, Amy [Hastings] she'd be in bed at 8:30-9. I would be in bed at 9:00 and everyone was always making fun of us for going to bed early.  […] I know I need to do that and I'm like it's 9:00, time for me to put myself away because I know that I need to decompress, I need to read.

Parker:  Yeah, I mean that's where you guys, for everybody, but especially you guys in the high performance athletic world, you have to sleep a ton to get all your recovery that you can possible.

Emily:  Yeah. […]I mean if you're expecting to push your body to the absolute max, if you're not recovering, […] it's hard enough I think when you are doing proper rest and everything. […] I can really push my body to a point and then all of a sudden it's like, nope, sorry, you went past the point, so now you're going to suffer.

 Parker:  What do you do or how did you motivate yourself when you really don't want to train? You're just having those days where you're just like I do not want to go through this today. 

Emily:  I think just forcing myself out the door. I know for me that if  I don't want to do this today, I'm like, I gotta go. I got to drive to Nike and get out. […] I just got to get up and get moving and go. […] Because I always feel better after I run or do whatever I need to be doing.

Parker:  What advice would you give to a young runner, a young aspiring collegiate or professional runner that's making that transition? What advice would you give to them?

Emily:  […] [Focus] on yourself and your goals, that's huge. I think when you enter a new environment it's so easy to compare yourself and to be like, oh, this is what someone does, this is what I should do. And I think there are good habits and things you can pick up from other people, but I think it's horrible if you completely disregard everything that you've done. […] I'm thinking of a weird example but reminds me of when someone who's vegan on a team and then everyone has to be vegan. That’s my least favorite thing.  It breaks my heart… why are you all doing that? You shouldn't be doing that. […] I think that's also tough when you're in college, if you are on a team with a bunch of people who were studs in high school and then you're feeling sorry for yourself because you're not as good, you're not the best freshman on the team or there are older girls on the team that are better than you. I think looking at people who are better than you can only help you and challenge you and improve you [but] playing that comparison game in different ways and trying to force yourself into someone else's mold. I don't think it's good.

Parker:  Learn from those that are better than you but don't compare yourself to them. That's great advice for anybody in any kind of field of work that they're in. Love it. Well, thank you for the time. I know you have to run.