How One Olympian Trains His Brain
Bobsledder Steve Mesler incorporates these practices into training to boost his mental health and physical performance
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In February 2010, Steve Mesler stood atop a podium at the Vancouver Winter Olympics—but he might as well have been standing on top of the world. The gold medal around his and his teammates’ necks in the four-man bobsled competition was the first captured by Americans in 62 years. It was the culmination of a lifelong pursuit of Olympic gold that began with Mesler’s days as a college track star and ended on the fast (and deadly) ice of the Whistler Sliding Centre.
“It’s kind of like the stages of grief—the first stage is speechlessness,” says Mesler from his home in Calgary. “It’s a strange thing to realize you’ve accomplished this dream you had when you were 11. Who does that? But it shakes you to your core when you realize two or three weeks later it doesn’t make you as happy as you thought. For driven people, there’s nothing that keeps them happy forever.”
In 2017, his teammate and fellow medalist Steve Holcomb died of a drug and alcohol overdose. His close friend and Vancouver silver medalist, aerial skier Jeret ‘Speedy’ Peterson, died by suicide in 2018. Another former bobsledding teammate of Mesler’s, Pavle Jovanovic, took his life soon after. Despite the disturbing connection between sledding sports and brain injury, Mesler thought he had avoided the worst of it: he joined the board of the U.S. Olympic Committee and ran the successful nonprofit Classroom Champions that brought Olympic athletes to thousands of classrooms. But in 2019, Mesler noticed something was off. He often had trouble completing his daily 5:30 A.M. workouts in his basement. Sometimes he fell back asleep on the couch; some days his wife found him on the ground in what he calls “a sobbing puddle.”
The Olympics are over, but the conversation about how to center mental health in our athletic lives is just beginning.
Of all the stories emerging from Tokyo 2020, athletes choosing to prioritize mental health could have the longest-lasting impact beyond the games. When Simone Biles cited her struggle with mental health issues as the reason for bowing out of the majority of her competitions, she redefined the meaning of athletic resiliency and strength and shed light on the complex interplay of anxiety, stress, and the relentless pressure that many elite athletes and normal humans alike struggle with.
The stakes might get higher the harder you train: while exercise is often associated with better mental health, recent data analysis from more than 1.2 million adults found that people who exercise more than six hours a week have a higher mental health burden than those who exercise three to five hours a week. (A very important caveat: both the study’s authors and experts we spoke with point out that it’s difficult to determine if excessive exercise causes mental health issues, or if overexercise is the expression of underlying mental health issues like anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, or obsessive compulsive disorder.)
The Olympics are over, but the conversation about how to center mental health in our athletic lives is just beginning. We asked Mesler to share a few lessons that all athletes can incorporate to balance self-care and performance in their own practice. Then we asked experts to weigh in on why they work and how you can take care of your brain while you train—whether you’re a gold-medal aspirant or a weekend warrior.
Mental Injuries = Physical Injuries
Even as Mesler found himself in the grip of deep depression, he had trouble recognizing the signs, especially when squaring it against his achievements. But his wife could, and she insisted he get help immediately. Upon completing a self-assessment for a doctor, Mesler imagined he’d get counseling. But his diagnosis was severe enough that the doctor prescribed medication right away.
“There was no waiting—that’s how bad off I was. I didn’t know what was happening. I was ashamed, I couldn’t make decisions,” says Mesler. “It was only when I could put it in physical terms that I understood. Having a hamstring tear or a dislocated shoulder doesn’t take away from my athletic ability or accomplishments, and it’s fine to talk about it. So why would having a torn brain take away from the accomplishments that I’ve had or the accomplishments that I will have?”
Seeking out help and embracing vulnerability can be especially hard for elite performers. Age-old stigmas die hard, but envisioning mental impairment as equivalent to physical injury convinced him to push past any perceived weakness, treat depression with the seriousness it required, and lean on loved ones for support.
“It can be hard to come to terms with an illness that affects the mind. If you don’t have control over your mind, you can’t help but wonder ‘who am I?’” says Brad Stulberg, Outside contributor and author of the forthcoming book The Practice of Groundedness. “Sometimes you need more. If you are in a deep hole, there is nothing better than seeking out a professional, be it a psychiatrist or therapist.”
Make Play Part of Your Practice
Four years before winning gold, a seventh-place finish in the Torino Winter Olympic games led Mesler to believe his Olympic dreams were slipping away, plunging him into what he recognizes now as early signs of depression. “I spent the last four years head down, doing this one thing training for these games, and I went out and got my butt kicked,” he says. “I needed something to clear my mind and brain. I needed a hobby. So I decided that summer to learn how to fly fish.”
With his training grounds in Calgary a mere cast away from gold-medal trout streams, Mesler ditched workouts on Sundays to hike deep into the Canadian Rockies in search of lunker browns and rainbows. His coaches were enraged when they found out; they worried that two-and-a-half-hour drives and ten-hour hikes threatened his speed and strength and invited injuries that could erase decades of conditioning.
They didn’t stay angry long: soon after, Mesler posted personal bests in sprints, squats, cleans, and all power work during Monday morning training sessions. “The stress relief of going out and being on the river and not thinking about training or a failed dream helped boost everything else in me,” he says.
Dr. Todd Schroeder, director of the Clinical Exercise Research Center at the University of Southern California, agrees that low intensity outdoor activities like fly fishing can help balance the cocktail of hormones we need to train and recover effectively. It can effectively lower stress hormones, including cortisol and epinephrine, while boosting endorphins.
“Paddling, hiking, gardening, fishing, walks, biking, floating yoga, recreational swimming, and floating down a river are examples of low-intensity, low-stress activities that can have positive influences on the hormonal environment,” says Schroeder. “Many people think they need to exercise at high intensity to have a benefit but low to moderate intensity exercise actually burns a proportionally greater amount of fat compared to high intensity exercise.”
Stulberg points out that incorporating goals and activities outside of your primary focus also provides an identity beyond sport. “This way, if you struggle or fail or get injured or, in Messler’s case, retire from sport, you may lose something you love but you are not losing your entire sense of self,” he says.
Embrace the Suck
In the middle of the pandemic, Mesler and his former coach Stuart McMillan found themselves bored and stagnant with their training routines. Their usual methods failed to motivate them, and they felt both their physical and mental well-being slipping as it became easier to shrug off workouts or athletic goals.
McMillan and Mesler dreamed up an unorthodox remedy they called ‘Embrace the Suck’: they committed to run five miles, complete 100 reps of a 100-kilo deadlift, and do 100 pushups every day for a month, no breaks allowed. They bet that the combination of arbitrary challenge and friendly accountability might break the funk.
Mesler says the benefits started radiating throughout his life almost immediately. Mesler started writing, he got stagnating professional and personal projects off the ground, and it helped him diagnose and fix nagging issues with his feet and knees that held him back.
“By the third week, I was seeing the Matrix,” says Mesler. “I was thinking more clearly than I’ve ever thought before. It builds intention into every single activity you engage with, and gives you this mental preparedness, whether you’re an Olympic athlete or someone who just wants to go try something hard.”
Though McMillan and Messler may not have known it, Stulberg says they were practicing two core elements of groundedness: acceptance and commitment. Accept what is happening, even if you don’t like it; accept what you are feeling, instead of resisting or fighting it, and then commit to acting in alignment with your core values. Or, in layperson’s terms: “I like to say ‘you don’t need to feel good to get going; you need to get going to give yourself a chance at feeling good,’” says Stulberg.
Schroeder points out that Mesler’s suck might be so challenging to mortal humans that it could create adverse effects. Instead, tailor it to your individual needs and desires. “Anytime you do something different for a short period of time and include a social component, it increases compliance and often performance is improved when it comes to exercise and sport,” he says.
Wake Up Every Day with a Problem
Mesler’s Olympic ambitions began as a high school track and field competitor and then as a decathlete at the University of Florida. But his lack of strength and size along with continual injuries kept dashing his hopes of getting gold in the summer games.
The focus on the prize itself was getting in the way of Mesler’s progress and had drained the joy out of his sport. He needed a way to push the Olympic gold to the background, focus on incremental problems, solve them, and move on to the next one.
After a chance encounter led him to abandon track and try out for the U.S. bobsled team, he developed this new approach with his coaches to tackle one problem each day, and attempt to solve it. Size was addressed with upping caloric intake to eight meals a day; post-workout therapy sessions helped resolve lingering injuries and prevented new ones, one session at a time. By replacing his gold-at-all-costs mentality with a focus on the smaller rewards of incremental progress over past failures, Mesler baby-stepped his way to gold anyway.
This method can be applied to nearly any goal, be that highpointing Colorado’s 14ers or overcoming anxiety. Break each major goal into constituent problems (14ers: cost, time, technical difficulty; anxiety: triggers, support options, self care methods), and record or track your progress. Stick to your process, and you’ll slowly make headway on both fitness goals and mental health, too.
While Stulberg broadly approves of Mesler’s approach, it’s tilted to satisfy the needs of high achievers. He advises to balance it with the idea of learning to be content with what you have, with not needing a problem to solve everyday to feel fulfilled. For goal-oriented, Type-A folks, Stulberg admits this may feel like torture at first. “But eventually, you learn to just be,” he says. “Sound mental health isn’t either-or, but both-and. It’s about finding the right balance between being and doing, contentment and striving, for your own unique temperament.”