The Psychology of Startup Speed: My conversation notes with Olympic runner Aisha Praught-Leer
By Elizabeth Weil, Founder & Partner, Scribble Ventures
“Part of my training is lying in bed each day”, Olympic middle-distance runner Aisha Praught-Leer told me as we hiked up a steep glacier in Iceland’s South Coast. I’d been curious about her schedule as an Olympic athlete, wondering if there were parallels to building a high-growth startup.
“What do you mean?”, I asked. I’d figured at her level, she spent every waking hour pushing every possible limit on the track.
“Rest is as important to running as running is”, she said matter of factly.
As Aisha walked me through her typical day, I realized that although her training was of course physical, it was — surprisingly — heavily focused on psychological strength too.
It made me wonder — why is startup advice so unevenly skewed toward strategy and tactics, when the foundation of the highest performing companies is how the founding team thinks?
I’ve seen this firsthand over the years working with and investing in companies like SpaceX, Figma, Calm, Coinbase, and Slack. Every one of those founders were masters of their industry sectors, sure — but they were also masters of their own minds. Just like the famous Apple tagline, they “thought different” than most other people.
I ended up scribbling down notes from my conversation with Aisha to share with some of my portfolio founders. This past February, I read that my friend Aisha broke an 18-year old national indoor mile record at a race in Boston. With her permission, I decided then to share more publicly what she told me that day in Iceland.
In her own words, this is how Aisha outperforms her competitors. I think you’ll find that building your psychological agility is as game-changing for tech founders, and maybe even more so, than most “business” advice out there.
1 — Data is the foundation of speed.
- As an athlete, my body is my job. It’s 100% what I do 24/7, 365 days a year. There are no days off. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t run.
- Data is the 1st part of the speed equation. Data drives my training, my life, and my self awareness.
- I have my sensory data, which is what I perceive. And I have my hard data, which is how I’m adapting to stress. Both need to work in tandem for me to keep getting faster.
- We track a LOT of data. Lactate, heart rate, HRV, resting heart rate, Oura Ring data (sleep, temperature, cycle tracking), weight, eating (protein, carb, macro, micro nutrient), body composition, blood work, GPS, etc.
- My mind is the 2nd part of the speed equation. It’s about cultivating the presence of mind to stay objective. This then helps me make data-based decisions on how I’m training.
2 — Stress is the enemy of winning.
- It’s my 11th year as a pro and I meet with a psychologist bi-weekly. I’ve worked with them since 2015.
- My daily life is pretty intimidating, from competing against great athletes to having to prove my worth to the shoe company that sponsors me. The way I’ve learned to handle it is by just noticing things. I sit with these observations for a second and then let them consciously pass.
- If I’m worried, I notice that. I let it be, and let it go.
- 2 things I learned from my psychologist:
- 1 — Think of myself floating up, floating out of my body, and letting go of the judgment. Sometimes breathing helps me do it. Try bringing humor and lightness.
- 2 — If that doesn’t work, I try to be objective by thinking — what would I tell my friend?
- Stress is the enemy of winning. And the only way to manage stress is to work inwards.
3 — Comparing yourself to others can be good.
- It’s natural to want to compare yourself to others. It’s not always a bad thing.
- The “new mindfulness” may be to totally detach from that but it’s not 100% right for me because I DO want to beat my competitors! My goal is to beat the best in the world.
- I couldn’t achieve that if my coach and I didn’t analyze all the best runners from each country. We look at their body of training, and what we can draw from them that will help us. Then we work this into a sustainable way that we measure.
- I won’t match someone else exactly though. I need to blend what others do well with what I do well.
- So many coaches want to burn everything to the ground, start from 0, and be totally unique. But other people are doing things well. It’s ok to emulate.
- You don’t need to carbon copy and you don’t need to burn it down. You find the middle.
4 — Your beliefs are your competitive advantage.
- Lowest world rank I’ve been is 30, highest is 9.
- In that group there’s a bit of a level playing field physically. So what you believe about yourself often pre-determines how you finish.
- 4 beliefs about myself that are fundamental to my success:
- 1 — Physical: I’m a physical freak. Genetically I have a lot of physical gifts and abilities. I have many markers of speed. Long limbs that taper at the end. I don’t carry extra weight around my ankles. I have a big heart and lungs. These form inherent skills.
- 2 — Focus: I can focus more than most people. I’m good at having tunnel vision that doesn’t feel like a tunnel. I can live this monk-ish life for 11 months each year and I love it.
- 3 — Resilient: I can power through pain and injuries.
- 4 — Willing to change and grow: I am stubborn. I race hard. I grit and grind when I need to. But if something will set me up for future success and requires me to fundamentally change, I will do it.
- The lifestyle I have to lead to do this is very simple. Every part of my life is monitored. There’s a very rigid structure to my day — I train at 9 and 5, I do body work 2x/week, I see a psychologist, and I get home to put my body down.
5 — My schedule is not a sacrifice for me.
- Wake up — 7–7:15am with an alarm mostly
- 9am sharp — Hydrate, caffeinate, fuel
- Train for 1.5–2 hours
- Then re-fuel
- Then rest during day — read, watch a show (activates my parasympathetic state)
- Eat again 2:30–3:30
- Run again at 5 (10–15 min exercises before/after I run)
- 5:45 — make dinner
- Maybe night time snack
- In bed 9:15pm
- Asleep 9:45pm — 10pm
- 2x week body work
- Bi-weekly psychologist
- See my coach 3x/week
- 1–2x/week media or sponsor thing, or sports governance (sits on board of world athletics)
- I do this every single day, 10 months of the year, NO DEVIATIONS.
- For me it’s not a sacrifice but I think people would judge it as such from the outside
6 — Visualizations and self-statements are fuel for my beliefs.
- In the past before my knee surgery I over-visualized and made things too hard, to the point that I needed to relax more.
- I have a set time when I visualize.
- I especially visualize when things get hard.
- I use statements that are powerful to me, like — “I can hurt more”. For example, at the Olympics I ran without a meniscus, and was in excruciating pain.
- It’s a skill to be able to take your body to the limit or know you can do more.
- When I’m not doing something really hard, I find a quiet place in my mind. Some of the younger athletes tell me they think of a song or whatever. I think of nothing, like I’m in a white room with no noise.
- If I have any thoughts that penetrate, I just watch them and let them go. It’s a non-judgmental space I create for myself.
- When I’m racing, I have a good system where I break what I’m doing into 3 pieces, and give myself short cue for each:
- 1 — Relax
2 — Contact
3 — Fuck it!
- Consistently I’ve gone to the word “yes”. In difficult situations I just say “yes” to myself — it’s a leap of faith.
7 — Being too positive gives the negative more power.
- People want everything to be so positive to the point that it gives negative thoughts more power.
- We all have negative thoughts.
- I try to remember that thoughts are thoughts, feelings are feelings, that’s all they are.
- They are not truths or omens
- To think of them as more than that gives them too much power.
8 — Rest and recovery are a critical part of the speed equation.
- I don’t love the word “hack” — this is not a get rich quick scheme.
- This is hard and takes so much time.
- But there are things I’ve done that have changed the narrative for me.
- For example, when I see friends drinking cocktails I want to join but instead I have a tart cherry juice + La Croix with a slice of lime.
- I can drink 1–2 light beers. Whatever the brand, I try to stay below 5.5% alcohol content.
- The most powerful thing for rest and relaxation is socializing with people I’m very comfortable around.
- One of the things I’ve learned from the east africans is that a sense of community is their superpower — It takes you out of “yourself”.
9 — Focus is a speed secret.
- There’s a lot of noise but I’m at peace knowing my plan is set and I’m following the plan.
- On a day-to-day basis, no matter the noise, I don’t deviate.
- In the past I wanted to be the best at everything.
- In my training group I’ve realized that I don’t need to be the best at every single thing to be the best version of myself.
- A mantra I love is — “Don’t should on yourself”
- I don’t use the word “should”.
- I stay in my zone and I believe fully in it.
10 — A single pursuit does not allow you a “normal life”.
- Relationships are very difficult for everyone.
- As I described my day, it doesn’t leave time for a lot of other things.
- Anyone who is really pushing the envelope — it’s a selfish endeavor, this is the negative side of it.
- It’s not a sacrifice for me but it is for everyone around me. They are pouring their sacrifice into this random pursuit of me running a mile.
- My husband and I, and the other people living this with me day-to-day — it’s almost an impossible ask of them.
- It’s also hard to translate my lifestyle to new friends
- You don’t need to be an athlete to understand a singular pursuit.
- My friends and family have a hilarious term for it now — HB9 — horizontal by nine o’clock. They know I need to be in bed by a certain time, so someone looks at the clock when we are at dinner and says “HB9”!
- I don’t call my loved ones enough. I don’t keep up with friends in the best way I can. But I’ve accepted that it’s ok — when I spend time with them, I make them a priority.
- I try to make those relationships feel special in the context of what I can do.
- The career of an athlete is a short lifespan — you burn hot and bright for a # of years and then it ends.
11 — Perfectionism won’t take you far.
- I call myself a recovering perfectionist.
- Perfectionism taught me a lot, good and bad. I got to where I am in life because of this.
- But now I’m able to see where I went wrong in my drive for perfection.
- It’s not the most effective way.