Rich Roll, A Life Transformed
Plants, sleep, and becoming a fully-integrated human from the depths of addiction
I stumbled upon Rich Roll’s podcast a few years ago. It was one of the few that stood out and embodied so much of what has drawn me to the health, mindset and reaching our potential. Not just from the perspective of an athlete, but as a person, an entrepreneur and a parent. It turns out I wasn’t alone; his podcast has been dowloaded more than 60 million times.
Rich Roll had the American Dream—Cornell and Stanford degrees, a great job, a wife, but by age 39 the pieces weren’t lining up. In Rich Roll’s words, “From the outside looking in, it all looked pretty great, but on the inside I was like this decaying corpse. I was really dying because I was living at odds with the person I was meant to be.” Rich Roll talks about this moment of clarity and the road he’s been on over the past 12 years to understand himself and, in doing so, shape how many people think about endurance, food and the human experience.
We get into it all: food, recovery, sleeping in a tent, meditation, parenting, running a business and finding balance in the chaos. Our discussion has been edited for clarity.
Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.
From Model Student Athlete to Rebel
David Swain: I like to start with a hard question. What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Rich Roll: I didn’t eat anything for breakfast this morning. I’ve got some espresso right here. This morning I woke up, had a cup of coffee, and got my daughter off to school. Then I went for an hour-plus run and drank a bunch of water and came over here. I experiment a little bit with intermittent fasting. Not in the formal sense. Plenty of days I don’t eat until the late afternoon, sometimes not until dinner. My training’s going to start ramping up incrementally, so I don’t know how tenable that will be when the physical pressures start to mount.
For people who don’t know you, talk through your story and what you were like as a kid.
I’m originally from Michigan but really grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs (in Bethesda, Maryland). I grew up middle-class, had two parents who took care of all my needs. They’re still married. In retrospect, I was a very awkward, insecure kid. The parlance is that everyone else had the rulebook for life, and I was stumbling around in the dark. I think that is a pretty accurate description of how I felt, and how I had a lot of difficulty trying to make friends and be social.
I wasn’t by any indication athletically gifted. I was bullied on the playground, and I was the last kid picked for whatever ball sport happened to be going on. I have a weak, wandering eye, so I wore a patch in elementary school. I also had the headgear orthodontia. It’s not a vision for you.
Basically, I struggled. I am a very sensitive person, and it wasn’t until I found swimming that I latched onto something meaningful. I did show some natural acumen in the pool at a very early age and had been on swim team since I was six years old. Around the time I was 10 or 11, I was good. I wasn’t amazing, but it was the one place where I actually felt at home. Also, when your head’s underwater, it’s this calming, soothing, womb-like environment away from the playground—and I just gravitated more and more into that subculture until it really became my life.
From your book, Finding Ultra, it sounds like you hit a point were you were at the pool every chance you got?
Yeah, full on. I started taking it seriously around 15. That’s when I started hitting the double workouts with the alarm clock going off at 4:44 a.m. I’d be in the pool, go to school, and then practice for two hours after school every day. I was part of a club team that was known for producing national and international caliber swimmers. When I was 15 and joined that club, I was the worst in the group. What I figured out, though, was that if I was willing to put in the work and double-time it, I could make up that talent-deficit gap, and so I quickly distinguished myself as a workhorse. I was the guy who was willing to do the kind of stuff no one else wanted to do—swim the events no one wanted to swim, like the 200 fly. The herd is thinner there.
By repeatedly showing up, by the time I was a senior in high school, I was one of the better swimmers in the area and getting recruited to colleges. That discipline and focus then spilled over into my academic life. When I was in third and fourth grade, I was essentially failing out but really learned how to approach my academics with the same rigor that I approached my athletics with in the pool. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was a pretty good student—the top of my class.
Fast-forward to your 30s, and there is some real career success. What about those major life moments and struggles?
There were lots of ups and downs. I had a protracted battle with alcohol that short-circuited my swimming career in college and took me to some pretty dark places. I got sober at 31, and in the wake of discovering sobriety and spending 100 days in an Oregon rehab and really getting the wind knocked out of me and the carpet pulled out from underneath me, I realized that I had become a pretty broken individual. I had burned all my bridges, so when I got sober, I was intent on repairing that wreckage.
As you mentioned earlier, when I graduated from high school, I was a bit of a golden boy. The world was at my feet, and I really blew it. I destroyed a lot of those opportunities, and I had a tremendous amount of shame and guilt over that. I really felt like I needed to prove to the world—and to myself—that I could be that person again.
That was really the engine, the gestalt that pushed me forward. And by the time I was 39, I had achieved some success. It was really like me trying to jam this square peg into a round hole and prove that I could be this lawyer. There was nothing about being a corporate lawyer that I liked or that I gravitated towards. It was just—this is what you’re supposed to do. For somebody with my academic background, this was the responsible thing to do, and I grew up in an environment where that was what you pursue. It wasn’t about following your heart; it was about being this person in our culture.
At 39, I checked all those boxes. I had a nice car. I had this nice resume. I’d met my wife. From the outside looking in, it all looked pretty great, but on the inside, I was like this decaying corpse. I was really dying because I was living at odds with the person I was meant to be. I was having this existential crisis that I wasn’t even consciously aware of, and that really collided with the health scare because I hadn’t been taking care of myself during that decade. I was just a workaholic and a fast-food addict, a couch potato. Despite having been this swimmer in college, I wasn’t working out or doing anything like that. I was just in the law firm eating Chinese takeout and hitting Jack in the Box on the way home, or Taco Bell, or what have you, and I’d put on 50 pounds.
These crises collided with each other on the staircase one night when I was walking up to my bedroom and had to pause halfway up a simple flight of stairs, winded, and just had this dawning epiphany, like wow. I would still look in the mirror and think I was this Stanford swimmer. Denial works like that. The moment just really snapped my denial and made me realize I was living in an unsustainable way. I found I needed to make some changes, and most importantly, I was willing to make those changes. I had a very strong, profound sense that this was a special moment. The universe was opening itself up, and I just remember it being very visceral.
I think the reason I was able to take that moment seriously is because it was very similar to the day I decided to get sober. It was one of those brief windows of opportunity, and if you’re able to grab onto it and take action, your life can change so dramatically. Had I just decided to take action tomorrow, who knows what my life would look like today? That was going on in the back of my consciousness during the staircase episode. That was really the beginning of deconstructing the life I was living to build a new one.
You didn’t just become a swimmer again, but this full-on ultra-endurance athlete. Things like the EPIC5 that most people have never heard of?
I had never heard of these things either. First I changed my relationship with food. I adopted a plant-based diet. I suddenly had this resurgence in vitality and energy levels. I almost had to start working out again because my body was vibrating. My wife was like, “Go outside. You’re driving me crazy.”
So I started running and swimming and doing things I hadn’t done in a very long time. My wife bought me a bike for my birthday, but I had no plans to become a competitive athlete again. It was really just this process of reconnecting with myself physically and realizing that that brought me a lot of joy. It reminded me of what it was like to be a kid and get dropped off at the pool in the summertime and spend the whole day there. It was very primal. Then I thought it would be fun to challenge myself and do an Ironman. That was like a bucket-list, 40-year-old-guy thing to do.
So I stumbled across this article about a race called Ultraman, and this guy David Goggins. That was my introduction to the ultra-endurance world. I’d never heard of David Goggins. I’d never heard of Ultraman, which is this double-Ironman race. I didn’t know that human beings were capable of doing anything longer than an Ironman. I just knew I was captivated by this subculture, and I knew that somehow I was going to become a part of that community. It took a while, though. It didn’t happen overnight.
In 2008, I raced Ultraman, which circumnavigates the Big Island of Hawaii. I did okay. I went back the next year and led the race for the first day, crashed my bike, and still ended up sixth. It’s like a whole long story, but I was able to distinguish myself in that ultra-endurance community as a middle-aged, 43-year-old lawyer, which made people go, “Wait, who is this guy? He’s a lawyer, and he doesn’t eat animal products.” The media was interested in that story.
The EPIC5 is really the brainchild of this guy called Jason Lester, who was a training partner and friend from my experience at Ultraman. He came up with this idea of doing this thing no one had ever done before—of doing an Ironman on each of the five Hawaiian islands in five days.
In 2010, we set out to do it. We ran into all kinds of crazy obstacles because it was just us and a couple volunteers. It was insane trying to finish an Ironman before the last flight would leave the island to get to the next one—we were getting two hours of sleep, and it was just bananas. We got it down to six-and-a-half days, and it was this incredible, extraordinary experience.
Now it’s a thing that happens every year. It’s become a race people can sign up for. In the year since Jason and I initiated that, people actually do it in five days. A couple women have done it in five days, and it’s really cool to see that legacy.
Nutrition and the Road to a Plant-Based Diet
You’ve probably read all the books and interviewed the top people across the mind-body-spirit spectrum. How have your views evolved? What about your road to a plant-based diet and writing your second book, The Plantpower Way?
It’s been 10 years since I did Ultraman. I mean, this journey’s been going on for about 12 years, and it’s a constant evolution. If I can say anything, it’s that we’re here to grow. The minute you put a cap on that and think you’re done, it’s over.
One thing I see a lot—especially in the diet and wellness space—are people whose lives have been dramatically improved by changing their relationship with food. There’s a tendency to get stuck, and then it’s just about the kale. But what kind of kale?
It’s like I changed my relationship with food and restored my vitality so I could go out into the world and become a more integrated human being—a more expressed human being who can grow and learn and evolve. I wrote this book in 2012 called Finding Ultra. It was my story. Then I started the podcast some months after the book came out, and my whole goal was to continue this evolutionary growth process. I’m constantly having people introduce me to new ideas and concepts and ways of living so that I can challenge myself. If anything, that’s what we’re here to do. And hopefully, I can be a catalyst for those who don’t have access to the people I get to have on the podcast. I try to create and cultivate some community so that people can understand and connect with the idea that life is an evolution, and that we all have reservoirs of untapped potentially that we’re not even consciously realizing we can express more fully.
The nutrition battle is one side versus the other. You clearly have a point of view in the sense that you are plant-based, but you are able to do your podcast interviews without judgment. Where have your core beliefs shifted?
I certainly have a point of view, and I have a certain set of experiences that inform how I live. I try to be as open-minded in my interviews as possible, and to be empathetic, and these are skills and tools I’ve learned in recovery. When you spend a lot of time in 12-Step meetings, you hear people’s stories, and you hear their pain. What I’ve learned through that experience is that you develop this capacity for empathy. I’ve come to realize that how somebody else chooses to live their life is really none of my business. It’s not for me to judge or evaluate.
I do have a point of view, though. I live a certain way, but I never tell people what to do, and when I have guests on my show, I’m not trying to be controversial. I’ll generally just bring on people who are pretty similar to me or who have some similar experiences. I don’t bring people on so I can argue with them. That’s not my thing.
There are a lot of ways in which I’ve grown. I mean, when I adopted a plant-based diet, it was purely for health reasons. I wanted to feel better. I didn’t want to die of a heart attack. I didn’t want to be fat. I had aesthetic concerns. That was really it. I didn’t do it to save the animals. I wasn’t concerned about the environment.
I still remember the first time I had an animal rights activist on my podcast, Gene Baur, who runs Farm Sanctuary. I was nervous. I wanted him to help me understand how he became passionate about that. And now Gene is a good friend of mine, and I’ve learned so much about the billions of animals that suffer terribly to end up on our plates. Regardless of your dietary proclivities, I think we can all agree that factory farming is not a great thing and that we can do a much better job of humanely treating the animals with whom we share this planet. That’s something I couldn’t have said out loud in 2012.
The environmental concerns—those have probably trumped the health perspective in terms of how we allocate resources to preserve the planet. That’s become a paramount issue for me, and I try to have guests on who know more about that than I do. I think those would probably be the two most obvious growth curves in my evolution, but it’s really endless. I learn something about every guest that comes on the show.
For people who are evaluating their food choices, what are the biggest benefits that you’ve seen from plant-based eating? How do you think about food and the role it plays? As an athlete, have you simplified your perspective?
There are always studies you can cherry-pick to fortify whatever perspective you may have. Look, I’m well aware of how siloed we get with the diet wars you see on Twitter. Whether you’re a low-carb person, or you’ve adopted the carnivore diet, or you’re an animal rights vegan, or a health-focused, plant-based person, there’s a lot of arguing.
I don’t participate in any of that. I do my thing, and I’m happy to talk about it if people ask me about it. I’m not here to tell you that you should eat the way I do. I made these choices 12 years ago, and they did revitalize my body. I made a commitment to myself to not be dogmatic about it, though. In other words, if I start feeling lousy, or if I have terrible blood work, I would need to be honest with myself—to be open to a different perspective on how to eat. But a decade-plus into this, I still feel good. I’m 52. I’m training for stuff right now. My body’s performing well, so I don’t see any need to change what I’m doing.
My experience has been that when you’re eating plant foods close to their natural state—when you eliminate the processed crap, no matter what your diet is—you’re going to get yourself to the 10-yard line. In my case, eating plant-based has allowed me to get my weight down to what it was when I was a senior in high school and keep it there for 12 years without much effort. I’m eating a very nutrient-dense diet high in phytonutrients, micronutrients, minerals, and vitamins—all the things you need to function well. It’s also a very anti-inflammatory diet. Any athlete who’s listening to this understands that food is fuel, and that you’re eating for performance reasons. Many people are also aware that you make your gains as an athlete not during your workout but in between your workouts. That’s when the body repairs itself, and if you can use fuel to expedite and perfect that reparative process—to recover from the stress induced by exercise—then you’ll be better off.
In other words, if I can cut that recovery time through my diet, that means I can train harder. I can train more frequently, and I’m going to recover faster. Protracted out over the course of a season or a number of years, you’re going to see tremendous gain. It’s not that eating plant-based is inherently going to make you a better athlete; it’s that these foods will help put your body in a position to regulate itself optimally and get your immune system doing exactly what it should be at a high-rev rate so that you can perform at your peak.
Most people want to know about the protein thing. I don’t have any issues with building lean muscle mass and recovering in between my workouts. If I go to the gym and want to get big, I can get big. I source all of my protein. When we’re talking about protein, we’re really talking about amino acids—the nine essential amino acids that our bodies can’t synthesize on their own, that we have to get from our food. Meeting those needs is just not a problem on a plant-based diet.
Food, Recovery, and Raising Healthy Kids
What is your go-to on recovery?
Lots of dark leafy greens: spinach, kale, chard, lots of berries, which are very high in antioxidants, lots of fruits and vegetables. For protein, it’s beans and lentils and nuts and seeds. Really, the general rule is to eat these plant foods close to their natural state.
Like you said, what did I eat for breakfast? If I was training hard, I’d probably have a smoothie, and that smoothie would have a base of dark leafy greens. Then maybe some superfoods in there like spirulina and hemp seeds and ground flax seeds. I have four kids, so I never know what’s going to be in the fridge. Often it’s just whatever we happen to have, but very high-fiber with lots of fruits and vegetables. When you blend it down, it’s like drinking a gigantic salad that’s so large you would never sit down and actually eat it, and then your body is given the nutrients it needs to perform.
You have four kids. I have two kids, and we were really good with their diet until they went to school and started getting invited to parties and joining sports teams, where food is whatever someone brings to the game. It can be really hard. I’m curious about your perspective.
It’s a very imperfect art and science. We were fortunate in that our two younger daughters went to a school where they were served a plant-based lunch, and there were no processed foods. We were able to dodge that one bullet, but it’s not easy. I think, for me, the guiding principle is to use food as almost a homeschooling experience. Take your kids to the grocery store or the farmer’s market, and every time you decide to put something in your cart, get into the details of why this is a healthy food, why this isn’t, why we’re not choosing this, why we are choosing this, etc. It’s important to engage the kids on their level. Treat them as sentient beings rather than talking down to them and saying, “No, you can’t eat that because I said so.” You have to explain why.
Then, when you get home, have the kids help put the food away, and teach them how to cook at a very young age. I think if you can instill in young children the skills that are required to prepare healthy dishes, those kids will develop an emotional connection with the food. The first recipe we taught our boys when they were young was chia seed pudding, which is basically a superfood dessert that tastes like pudding, but it’s actually good for you. It’s super-easy to make, and once they knew how to make that, that’s what they wanted. There’s a self-esteem aspect to it, and I think the more you do that, the more you can build upon your relationship with food.
Like yourself, when the kids go to a friend’s house, or a birthday party, or there’s an athletic event, you can’t control that environment. What we’ve done is stayed out of it. We don’t say, “You can’t have cake or pizza at the birthday party,” because then you create something for them to rebel against, and you’re also creating tension for them because you don’t want your kid to be a social pariah. This is a very loaded, difficult thing. I’m like, “If you want to eat cake, eat cake. That’s fine.” Then on the drive home, if they say they have a stomachache, I’ll suggest we talk about that.
What I care about is what my kids’ general relationship with food looks like 10, 20 years down the line. It’s about instilling in them a foundation of knowledge upon which they can build healthy habits—with the understanding that we’re all human and nobody’s perfect. I think where parents make mistakes is when they create these hard and fast rules. This creates the foundation for rebellion in those teenage years where they’re like, “Screw you, man. I’m going to McDonald’s, and I’m going to show you.” If you go about it without any judgment, then there’s nothing to rebel against.
That seems to be working well so far. My youngest is 11, and my oldest is 24. We’ve run the gamut with all this, and like I said, we’re not perfect. It’s not like we have it completely figured out, so I’m very sympathetic to parents who want to instill those healthy habits in their kids.
The final thing I would say is that you have to walk your talk. If you’re telling your kids to knock it off with the Fruit Loops, and then you’re reaching for them at midnight, your kid knows exactly what you’re doing, and that duplicity—that ain’t going to work. You have to master it yourself before you can be credible for your children.
What about kids and sports and the hyper-focus there is now? You were very successful in swimming but got to college and there was some rebellion.
Yeah, I went insane. It was self-generated in my case, though. I mean, I grew up in a very education-focused family, but the swimming thing was my thing. It wasn’t like my parents were driving that.
I told them it was what I wanted to do, and they supported me. I never felt pressure from them, but look—the world has become much more competitive academically and athletically for these young kids. The amount of pressure they’re shouldering is tremendous, and it’s fomented by social media. Can you imagine being in junior high and pulling up an app and seeing what all your friends are doing? Oh, they told you they were doing this, and now you see them doing something else. They lied to you, and they’re all together somewhere—the psychological impacts of that are huge. As a father of two young girls, of a 15-year-old daughter, I see it in a very visceral way.
I mean, is it about parenting children who are under all of this pressure, or about not participating in this culture of pressure?
Finding Balance in the Chaos
You talk a lot about the fully-integrated person. What have you learned about this journey that can help not only adults, but also parents who are trying to help their kids?
There are two things. First of all, it’s an inside job. I mean, that’s how I did it through the 12-Step program and therapy and meditation and mindfulness and athletics and solitude and journaling. All of these endeavors helped me connect with myself in a way that I never learned to do as a young person, and it’s a very slow, inelegant journey that took me decades and continues to this day.
In terms of parenting, I think our job is to help guide our children in their own journey of self-discovery—to pay attention to what they gravitate toward and to support that. To expose them to as many things as possible. To see what they naturally find joy in. To be open and have a discourse with them about what they want to express and experience. I think the more things you expose them to, the more you can create variety.
What they do when no one’s telling them what to do? Oh, that’s interesting. That kid’s always drawing. If there’s a pen around and a piece of paper, check it out. He’s drawing! Then you see if he wants to go to art camp, or do something else along those lines. Fan those flames without putting pressure on the kid. If they say after a month, “Yeah, I’m not interested in that anymore,” that’s cool—but you have to balance that and make sure they understand the value of discipline and hard work.
It’s a dance. It’s not an easy thing. Personally, as somebody who’s had this journey and then talks about it on a podcast and writes books about it, I know I need to support that in my children. Like we were saying before the podcast, I’ve got a daughter who decided she wanted to go to art school. She’s a visual artist. She’s been painting since she was a kid. As soon as she started drawing, my wife went out and got her massive canvases and paints, and she let her paint the walls in her bedroom.
It wasn’t easy, so she abandoned it. She was like, “I don’t want to do that anymore,” and then two years ago she came back to it on her own. Then she decided she wanted to go to art school, and she spent a year developing a portfolio to get into this performing arts high school. We got her a mentor, like a young RISD grad who was a painter, and she got in. It’s crazy, but the school is downtown. It’s like a two-hour drive from our house.
I can’t be somebody who has a podcast and talks about trying to express your best self and chase your dreams if I’m not going to help my daughter do that, so we had to rent an apartment downtown. It’s been challenging for our family to live in two different places to support our daughter in the pursuit of her dream. This is a very extreme example, but it didn’t happen because we told her, “Hey, you’re an artist. You should do more of this.” It happened because we allowed her her process. The moment we could tell she needed a little support or help, we filled that vacuum and were there for her.
You’ve got your athletic pursuits, a family, and a real business. How do you find mental focus and balance?
Yeah, it’s a lot. I’m not a balanced person, and I used to feel really guilty and ashamed of that. Everybody’s telling you that you should live a balanced life and eat a balanced diet. I started to think, Well, nothing I’ve ever done that I’m proud of was the result of pursuing balance. It was always the result of allowing myself to be out of balance for the sake of trying to do something difficult, and so I’ve let go of all that guilt and shame. I had this sport psychologist, a high-performance sport psychologist on my podcast called Michael Gervais. He’s an amazing guy, and he helped me get to the other side of that. What he said was something along the lines of, “Forget about balance and focus on being present,” and that’s been a great source of relief for me.
I vacillate between being immersed in various things. It’s like the pendulum swings. It always has to come back to center because certain things need to be in check in my life. I want to be a great husband and parent, and this podcast thing takes up a lot of time. I also want to be an athlete and train and do many, many other things. I can’t do them all and do them well. I have to focus on one thing, and then as soon as I’m done, move on to the next thing. It’s a constant process of making sure the most important things in my life are being attended to with my best energy.
What about routines or habits that keep you centered?
There are plenty. I mean, 12-Step—I’ve been sober a long time. People are always like, “Wait, you still go to AA?” It’s like, “Yeah, I’m fully immersed in that community, and that’s what keeps me sober.” Service is a big part of that. They say your number-one priority is to stay sober and help another alcoholic achieve sobriety, so I do that through 12-Step. Also, I do it online. I get a lot of emails and messages. So many that I can’t respond to all of them, but if somebody is struggling and emails me, I always make time.
That keeps me grounded and humble and sober. Same with meditation, journaling, and scheduling creative artist dates for myself. I make sure I take time off to just ruminate and engage in solitude or nature. Training is a big part of it—the training I do by myself. That kind of mind-body-spirit connection is really important and keeps me feeling like myself. Those are all nonnegotiable in my life.
What are you training for right now?
I haven’t done a real, real ultra in 10 years, but I’m looking at doing something this fall. I’ve got my work cut out for me because I’ve kept the training at a very low boil for a long time, so it’s going to be interesting to see if I can get back into form.
I’ve heard you discuss it on your shows, but for people who haven’t, talk about your journaling process.
Yeah, this is something I talked about at length with Brian Koppelman a couple weeks ago on the podcast. He’s an amazing creative writer—the creator of the show Billions, and one of the things we share in common is this passion for The Artist’s Way, which is a program in a book written by Julia Cameron, and it’s essentially a protocol for unlocking latent creativity. There’s a core set of tools, but the key one is Morning Pages, which is essentially journaling three pages every morning, free form, whatever’s on your mind, no agenda, no editing. Just getting whatever garbage is in your head out on the page to crack the seal and loosen up that connection between creative expression and the process of getting it down on paper. There’s something about that, when you do it consistently, that creates a fluidity that opens up the unconscious mind. It’s a process that I started doing back in 1998 when I was newly sober.
Brian was like, “I’ve only missed two days in 20 years,” or something. Yeah, I’m not that guy, but I’ll go in and out of it. When I feel blocked or uninspired, I will go back to that process, and it never fails. There are other things built into that, like artist dates, where you go do something for yourself that’s creative. Take photographs. Go to a museum or something like that. I’ve found this concept to be extremely helpful.
Do you have a philosophy or approach to meditation?
I think the important thing is to just do it. In Jeff Bezos’s words, “We complexify it.” We want to know what’s the best kind, and how long should it be? We’ll ask all these questions. Then a day goes by, and another day, and you’re not actually doing it. It can be as simple as sitting by yourself and drawing your attention to your breath. Pay attention to how your breath feels on the inside of your nostrils as it goes in and out. Don’t make it any more complicated than that.
From there, there’s a universe that can be learned and mined to get better at it, but it’s all process over perfection. There are a million apps out there from Headspace to Calm, and Sam Harris’s Waking Up is great. These are all amazing tools that will take you through this process of learning how to meditate, and it’s been a complete game-changer for me. It’s like a superpower when you’re doing it regularly.
Sleep and Recovery
Sleep too feels like a superpower if you do it well. What have you learned?
I’m terrible on no sleep. I’m terrible on less than eight hours of sleep. It’s funny, and it’s an ongoing struggle and a challenge for me. Two nights ago, I had an amazing night of sleep, and I just felt bulletproof all day. Then last night—when there’s a full moon, I never sleep well. I don’t know what that’s about.
Do you still sleep in a tent?
When I’m at home in Calabasas, yes, I sleep in a tent. A lot of people make fun of me. I live in a really nice house, and I sleep outside in a tent. People think that my wife kicked me out of the bedroom or something.
When I’m training really hard, sleep’s not a problem because I’m tired, but I’ve been doing ultra-endurance for so many years that now I just go out and exercise, and I’ll sleep well.
But sleep is very elusive for me, and I’ve had to really stretch myself and try a bunch of different protocols to perfect it. I just know the difference in how I feel between getting a great night of sleep—in my case I need eight hours minimum—and not getting a great night of sleep. When I don’t get enough sleep, I feel terrible, and I’m unproductive. It’s nonnegotiable for me.
The whole sleeping in a tent thing—there’s something about that outdoor air and being essentially out in nature, for lack of a better word, that really enhances the character and the quality of my sleep. I sleep more deeply. I’ve been doing that for two years, and it’s made a huge impact.
I also started using this thing called a gravity blanket. From what I understand, these blankets have pellets in the little patchworks that make them very heavy. They were developed as a therapy for autistic children. I find them very calming.
There’s something about this heavy blanket. It’s like when you go to the dentist, and you’re going to get an X-ray. You have that heavy lead blanket on top of you. You know that pressure that makes you just feel okay? All I can tell you is that when I put that blanket on at night, it’s like my sympathetic nervous system finally lets me relax. I’ve been sleeping amazingly with it, so that’s been an incredible discovery.
Do you have a mattress in the tent?
I do. I’m not sleeping on the ground. I live in Los Angeles; I don’t live in Minnesota. You know what I mean? Like I said, sleep is really important, and I try to structure my life to ensure nothing interferes with that. I’m not perfect. In general, I like to be in bed at 9 p.m., and I never set an alarm. I usually get up around 6 a.m.
What’s your recovery and injury prevention strategy during peak training? Do you turn to things like yoga and stretching?
I’m a big proponent of both. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t do them enough, and at 52, I need to do more. A lot of the stuff that I used to be able to get away with, I can’t get away with anymore. My lower back gets compressed, and I’ve got some sciatic nerve issues. I have things that need that kind of attendance. I’ve never had a massive injury, though. I’ve never blown my knee out or anything like that, and I attribute that in large part to working with a coach. I could not have accomplished any of the things I have in the world of ultra-endurance without the tutelage of Chris Hauth, who’s guided me every step of the way. One of the things that he’s fantastic at is really making sure you’re not incurring a load that you’re not ready for, specifically with respect to running.
I’ve always been super-cautious about not overdoing my run volume. Even when I was at my peak training for 25 hours a week, getting ready for Ultraman, I never ran two days in a row, making sure I was switching things up between workouts to allow the body to repair itself. I think a lot of the injuries you see with runners and multisport athletes happen because they’re not working with somebody they can bounce ideas off of, and what happens is they develop a certain level of fitness. Your lungs and heart will develop more quickly than your ligaments and tendons and joints, which need the ability to bear that kind of load over a gradual period of time, so when you feel fit, you do too much. Then you’re injured.
Have you been working with Chris Hauth as your coach all along?
Yes, since 2007. We’ll discuss my goals for the season, and the races I want to do, and what the priority is. Then we’ll look at my schedule. We’ll look at the months I’ve got wide open, and it’s like, “Here’s where you’re going to be traveling all the time.” He doesn’t tell me to cancel all that because he understands life is complicated. It’s not like it was in 2008. We’ll just work with it the best we can.
It’s all about communication and collaboration, and then coming up with the program. He usually only sends me workouts a week in advance or maybe two weeks in advance, and then I’ll do them. They upload to TrainingPeaks. You can see them, and then we make adjustments as we go. Then life intervenes. There’ll be a week where a bunch of workouts didn’t get done the way they were supposed to, and we’ll have to adjust. It’s just a constant conversation.
What you’ve done with your business, Rich Roll Enterprises—I’m curious where it goes from here. What parts really motivate and excite you?
I would say nothing I’m doing now is because I envisioned it or wrote down my goals a certain way. I just don’t function like that. I really come from a more guttural, intuitive space. Yeah, I started this podcast before it was cool to have a podcast. I mean, there were some good shows, but it wasn’t like a thing to have a podcast. It’s been amazing to see the growth of this medium and so many people discovering it and falling in love with it the way I did way back when you had to download it from iTunes on your desktop. Then bounce it to your iPod. It was like a whole thing. You had to really be intentional to listen to a podcast, and now it’s seamless. It’s great. We’re seeing so many amazing creators making cool things, and I’m proud to be a part of that community.
In terms of where I see things going, I just get up every day so grateful that I get to do what I do. It’s not like I’m doing this so I can then have a TV show or something—I don’t think in those terms. I really just think about how I can be more impactful in my messaging.
Whether it’s a podcast, a book, a blog post, or whatever it is, these are just different platforms and distribution methods for trying to put a healthy message out there to catalyze people to be more self-actualized. If I die tomorrow and this was it, I’m good. I don’t get up every day saying I need a million more followers. That’s not what drives me. What’s more important to me is trying to be better at provoking real, sustainable long-term change in people. The people who are already onboard with what I’m doing—how can I better serve those who are already on my frequency?
Balancing the creative side of your business with the structured side of running a company—how do you manage the two pieces?
I’ve always been a very DIY person and a bit of a control freak. I want to control every aspect of what I’m doing. My name is on it, so in part, that’s natural, I think. Maybe that comes from my swimming background where it’s just me. The result is a one-to-one ratio of the work you put in yourself. I think I was able to take what I have and get it to a certain place with that mentality, but what I’ve realized in the last year or so is that I need to grow and let go a little bit if I want to continue to scale what I’m doing.
I’ve hired a bunch of people. I have a team now. I have an audio engineer. I’ve got a video team, and I’ve got DK, who you met. I have a business partner, and I have my wife, who’s my big collaborative partner. There are a lot of people and personalities involved in what I do now, and that’s been challenging because I’ve had to accept that some things might not go exactly the way I would’ve done them. I have to be okay with that because I need to free my time up to focus on things that really move the needle, and engage in the activities that only I can do and let other people do things that maybe I might do a little bit differently.
That’s been an uncomfortable growth curve for me. As I get busier trying to carve out the solitude required for the deep thinking and what the next project is, in order to get clarity, I need to free up time and space to be able to trust my instincts. Otherwise, you’re just busy. Then you wake up five years from now, and you’re in the same place. That’s not where I want to end up.
I’m 41 and doing Escape from Alcatraz. I’m not much of a swimmer and have only done sprint triathlons. What’s your advice?
Awesome. It’s a hard, hard course. I’ve done the swim. A couple things: first of all, there’s comfort in numbers, so as freaky as it is to get dropped off in the bay, there are so many people around you. There’s no real danger, but it is freaky. You’ll be halfway through the swim, and you just pause and look around. You’re like I’m in the middle of a shipping channel. It’s not that long of a swim, but it is mentally challenging because it is creepy to be way out in the middle of the bay, and it’s cold.
I think the thing is to just stay calm, especially if it’s choppy. If they’re doing it the way they’ve always done it, there’s a brief period of time between the slack and the ebb of the tide, right? The faster you go, the calmer the water is, but if you’re slow, then it starts to take you back out toward the bridge.
I think being calm is the most important thing. People get freaked out. People who aren’t swimmers naturally or didn’t grow up swimming, the swim part of the triathlon where there’s open water—especially in saltwater, there’s a lot of chop and stuff like that, and it’s intimidating. Also, when there are that many people, someone will kick you. It’s very easy to get agitated, so it’s just about meditation. It’s okay, just calm down, just another stroke, another stroke. Follow the feet of the person in front of you, and you’ll be fine.
You don’t have to blast the swim. It’s a long race, so just keep your wits about you, and you’ll be fine. Go down to Aquatic Park and swim; they have it roped off down there, and you can go practice. It’s not a foreign thing. You’ll get used to it.
Words of wisdom, very good. Thank you.
My pleasure. Good talking to you.
Photo Credit: Rich Roll