Sonya Looney: Mindset, Pregnancy and Life as a Pro
Sonya Looney (@sonyalooney) is an engineer by trade who’s journey to becoming a pro mountain biker started by simply showing up to a ride with friends. That phrase — Showing Up — is her common thread.
Want to become a public speaker? Offer speaking on your website and see what happens.
Want to start a podcast? Well, start a podcast.
Want to change your diet? Take the first step, be consistent, and maybe start a supportive Facebook Group to keep learning.
Sonya is expecting her first child any day and has this to say, “I’m a woman, I’m an athlete, I’m going to be a mom, and I can be all those things at the same time.”
Whether as a pro mountain biker at the world’s biggest ultra endurance races, or as an entrepreneur, Sonya turns ideas into actions and has stacked the deck in her corner for maintaining a growth mindset by building a podcast where she interviews experts on everything from nutrition and psychology to meditation and medicine.
Navigating life as a pro athlete, and now a pregnant athlete, is certainly not for the faint-of-heart. There is no playbook and putting yourself out there and sharing the journey takes vulnerability and courage, two things Sonya has a lot of. Our conversation has been edited for brevity.
The Beginnings of a Pro
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I have the same breakfast every morning, except for the weekends – steel cut oats with hemp hearts, a couple of tablespoons of ground flax, berries, sometimes some walnuts or pumpkin seeds and a little bit of maple syrup. And my Americano.
How does your breakfast change the morning of a big race?
It gets a little less fibrous, and because I’m often in different countries, I try to keep my breakfast really simple. Two pieces of bread with almond butter and jam and that’s it.
Walk us through your path to a career in mountain biking.
Growing up, I didn’t even know that cycling was a sport. I learned to ride a bike as a kid and that was that. I played tennis in high school and my dream was to be a pro tennis player. Then I started running my senior year of high school. I wanted to run a marathon and didn’t know how to train properly, so I ended up getting a stress fracture. During my recovery, I went to spin class at the gym. Spin class led to some guys saying, “Hey, do you want to go mountain biking?” So I went mountain biking and they said, “You should sign up for a race.” I said that I’m a runner and didn’t know much about this mountain bike thing. They said I was just scared, which was basically an invitation for me to prove them wrong. They did that on purpose. Two weeks later, I signed up for a mountain bike race.
The important thing about this story is that we often have the opportunity to try something and we don’t do it. You just never know how your life path will twist and turn if you just try something new. If I’d never tried mountain biking, I wouldn’t have traveled the world and met the people I’ve met and had my life go in the direction it has.
What did your journey look like from that first race to becoming a pro?
The interesting thing about endurance sports is that it’s actually not as hard to become a pro as it is in other sports, like basketball. To become a pro in mountain biking, you go to races around the country and accumulate points that let you upgrade. I was able to become a pro in a few years, just from racing around. Most professional endurance athletes have to work at jobs outside of racing and it’s not as glamorous as people might think. Endurance athletes have to have passion for what we do because we have to make it work with everything else going on in our lives.
I was still in grad school while I was a new professional racer. I was doing a master’s program in electrical engineering, working two jobs, and training and racing. It was tough, but I learned time management and work ethic, which has really served me well. At that time, I was cross country racing, which is shorter distance racing. I never really achieved a high level of success. I was a mid-pack cross country racer and I started plateauing. I finished my masters and started working for a solar engineering company. I thought, what do I want to do now? I wasn’t progressing anymore and wasn’t really having that much fun.
Someone suggested I try distance racing. I did a 50 miler and then a hundred miler. I tried stage racing, which are multi-day races, and realized I was actually really good at it. I just fell in love with it. That was in 2010 and I’ve been endurance racing for almost 10 years now.
In ultra distance running and biking, you need to put in serious hours. How do you approach that and find the motivation?
The reason I love endurance racing is simply because I love to ride my bike. Also, I train a little unconventionally. Because I live in Canada, I do my structured training in the winter indoors on the trainer. The summer is for going out and having fun on my bike. If I feel like going hard, I’ll go hard, and if there’s something I need to work on, I’ll work on it. I take away the hard structure in the summer and just try to stay in love with my bike. That’s how I’ve been able to race for so long.
Most people think that you need to train a lot more than you actually need to train. I’m quite interested in ultra running. I think you need to put in time initially, because your body needs to adapt to that type of physical stress. Same with the bike. I’ve spent so many years riding my bike, and it’s all accumulated. A big training week for me is 15 hours and a moderate week is 10 to 12. There are weeks, and there’s been a year, where I only trained eight hours a week.
Becoming a plant-based athlete and lessons in habit change
Another big transition for you was becoming plant-based. What led to that and what have you learned?
I changed my diet in 2013. I first met my husband at a bike race. I noticed that he was eating these huge plates of beans, grains, and vegetables. He told me that he ate a vegan diet and my initial impression was, “Oh no, a vegan.” He said he was eating that way for longevity and health in his life and suggested I watch a documentary called Forks over Knives. I’m a curious person, so I eventually watched the documentary. I was blown away. I used to think high blood pressure was just genetic in my family and that cancer was bad luck. I learned that you can actually reverse type 2 diabetes and prevent Parkinson’s disease and things that I thought were just bad luck.
I started changing my diet in the middle of my race season. I was worried that I would get slower, or that I wouldn’t get enough calories. I didn’t really know of any pro endurance athletes who were vegan, but I had to give it a try. Something weird happened. I got faster. I wasn’t expecting that to happen.
A plant-based diet is the best anti-inflammatory diet you can eat. It reverses heart disease, which for many people will start when they’re children. I’ve been doing research on the importance of plant-based nutrition for kids. It leads to better blood flow, better oxygen flow, and better elasticity in veins and arteries.
Your body is a system. If you treat your body right, everything gets better. I went from trying to get on the podium at races to sometimes getting on the podium to winning races, including a seven-day race.
I didn’t talk about my diet for about four years because I didn’t want people to feel alienated or to think I was judging them. But I really believed in it and it changed my life in a dramatic way. I was reading about people who didn’t know they were sick until it was too late, and decided it was important to talk about the diet. It’s been super rewarding. Almost daily, I get feedback from people that their lives are better because they’ve changed their diet completely or added in more plant-based foods.
You’ve talked a lot about habit change. Shifting how we eat must be one of the most complex habits to change.
How a person changes a habit has a lot to do with personality and situation. Being an athlete, I was afraid to make an immediate switch. I switched over the course of a couple of months and started by eating 80% plant-based. I was still eating fish, some cheese and milk in my cappuccino. Over time, I phased out those things and then I just didn’t want them anymore.
When my husband changed his diet, he threw everything out in one day. He became 100% plant-based and never went back. I think it just depends on your personality type. If you told me I could never have something again, I wouldn’t want to do it. It’s too extreme. You have to figure out what works best for you. For some people, 100% plant-based won’t ever work for them. Just commit to what works for you.
In general, for a habit change, consistency is the number one most important thing. Just commit to doing something and show up for it every day. You start building integrity and trust with yourself. You start thinking, what more can I do? You end up wanting to do more because it feels good to be doing that thing for yourself.
How do you think about nutrition overall and how you build your meals?
Eating whole foods plant-based means not eating processed foods, or eliminating as many processed foods as possible. It doesn’t have to be complicated. When I’m building my meal, I start with a whole grain of some kind, like barley, wild or brown rice, or quinoa. There are so many different grains. Kamut berries are fun grain. Then I pick a protein source of some kind, like a bean, a legume. Tofu and tempeh are also protein sources, although they don’t have the fiber that beans have. Beans are linked to longevity all around the world. They are probably one of the best things you can add into your diet. Add in some vegetables, and some nuts and seeds to the mix and I’m good to go. Include those elements in every meal and it makes it pretty simple.
It doesn’t have to be expensive. You don’t need complicated sauces. Just take avocado, basil, lemon juice and garlic and blend it up. That’s pretty delicious. Make something with tahini. I still eat pizza, but I’ll make the dough myself. I don’t put cheese on it and instead use a good pizza sauce and a bunch of different vegetables or smoked tofu. I make my own veggie burgers. I have my own cookbook and one of my favorite veggie burger recipes in there is oats, beans, cilantro, garlic and a bunch of spices. It’s super good!
People mention protein as an issue in plant-based diets – is there truth to that?
There’s a lot of protein in grains and beans. Most people don’t even know how much protein they’re getting on their standard American diet, but whenever you start talking about a diet change, everybody’s suddenly worried about protein. As long as you’re eating enough calories and eating whole foods, you don’t have to worry about protein. It’s never something I’ve worried about. I’ve never been deficient in iron. I haven’t had any deficiencies since I’ve changed my diet. Many people who eat meat and dairy are actually deficient in a lot of different things.
Generally when people first change their diet, they don’t eat enough calories. But if you’re eating a whole foods plant-based diet, you just eat as much as you want. I also recommend keeping track of what you’re eating for a week or two because most of the time we don’t really know what we’re eating and we don’t realize how much of something we’re eating. This might give you some insight and if something isn’t feeling right, it’s easier to make an adjustment.
As an athlete and now as a pregnant athlete, do you need to supplement anything beyond what you get through food?
I’ve always taken a multivitamin. I would recommend checking out Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s work on DHA from an algae source and the positive health benefits. You can get Omega Threes in plant-based diets from nuts and flax, but having a lot of DHA is really important for brain health. It’s also important for breastfeeding. Most vegans should supplement with B12. Animals don’t produce B12, but they’re given the supplement and then people get it from eating the animal.
I take DHA from an algae, not a fish source, and I take B12 once a week and a multivitamin.
For the science and research nerds, what have you read or who have you talked to who set the foundation for the scientific understanding of plant-based?
I would recommend Dr. Michael Greger and his website, NutritionFacts.org. He has all these awesome videos, and he cites the studies that support the videos.You can read the actual studies yourself. If you want to get really geeky, you can find out who funded certain studies. I think the hardest part is knowing what to believe, because there’s so much contradicting information out there. Take a look at epidemiological studies, where people are living the longest and what their habits are. Learn about people having success with reversing their diseases through their diets. Those things combined with the research out there is really powerful.
I recommend buying the book Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis. She came on my podcast and became a really good friend. She is the world’s leading dietician on plant-based nutrition and her book is like an encyclopedia. I use that book all the time when people email me questions and I don’t know the answer off the top of my head.
And you have a Facebook group on this.
Yes, it’s called Plant Powered Tribe with Sonya Looney. You don’t have to be plant-based to join – just interested in adding in more plant-based foods. I’m also launching Plantpoweredtribe.com so people can easily find all the resources that they need. There will be a frequently asked questions section so they can feel more confident when they’re making a change. The Facebook group is a compliment to that. When you’re making a change in your life, feeling supported in your decision is important. Having people around you is important. Even if it’s an online community where you can ask questions like, “I’m looking for new breakfast ideas,” I think it’s really powerful to surround yourself with people doing the same things.
What about your nutrition on your rides?
I’ve been using GU Energy Labs sport nutrition for a really long time. That’s what has always worked for me. I use chews, gels and the Roctane drink mix. On longer rides, I’ll bring fig bars or my own vegan baked goods, like cookies, date bars or granola bars. I’ve thought about using dates on race days, but there’s too much fiber in dates. They are hard to digest. On race day, I keep my nutrition really simple. I’ll do a hundred mile race mostly on gels, water and drink mix. It’s a pretty simple nutrition plan.
What got you into mindset as a focus area for you and as coach to people in your community?
For about five years I was doing marketing for a U.S. company in the bike industry. I was traveling around for work and I wanted to start my own speaking series to help people. The speaking series was initially focused on mentoring people on mountain biking: what tire pressure do you need? How do I train? I wanted to help with those kinds of questions. When I started doing longer races, I would write articles about my race experience, about the human experience of racing. I’m not afraid to share what happened and be vulnerable. People were reading those articles and when they came to my speaking events, they wanted to know more. They asked, how did you not quit? How do you stay positive? How are you so positive all the time? I didn’t know the answer, so I started doing some reverse engineering. I started paying attention in races whenever I felt like I wanted to quit, or I got lost, or something broke on the bike. What am I doing in these situations?
I’m really interested in positive psychology. It all started with a book called The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. I absolutely loved that book. I spent a ton of time researching positive psychology, which has a cognitive behavioral element to it. Like how do I reframe things when things are going wrong? What story am I telling myself and how do I change it? How can I help other people do that? I also incorporated a mindfulness and meditation piece from yoga practice.
I lived in Boulder, Colorado for eight years and I was really lucky to have exposure to some amazing yoga teachers. They started helping me be mindful of my breath and how my body feels. I wanted to do some research on that. What does it mean to be mindful during your day and how am I doing that on the bike? My podcast has been such a great learning tool for me, and for my listeners, because I’ve been able to interview experts in psychology, mindfulness and meditation.
I’ve been learning how to be more aware. It’s helpful to be aware of your feelings and realize that they’re not permanent, but you have to accept them. How do you change things when they’re not going well? I’m really passionate about this. Some days I think maybe I should become a mindfulness instructor or maybe get my PhD in positive psychology. I love that stuff because our thoughts and perceptions create our reality. As long as you don’t have clinical issues, you have so much control over how you view the world and the way you live your life.
When it comes to dealing with imposter syndrome or comparison, what do you do to stay grounded?
Just because I do all this personal work doesn’t mean that I’m immune to feeling bad about myself when I’m scrolling through Instagram. No one is. You’ll still have all those feelings, but you’ll just be better at dealing with them. The first step is being aware that it’s even happening. Often we’re really reactive and we don’t understand what’s actually going on. The meditation practice is about creating that space between the thought and the feeling and realizing that it’s there, but that it doesn’t have to be your reality.
How did you get started on meditation?
For me, it was through yoga. We didn’t really meditate in yoga, but we learned how to connect breath to movement, how to take a cleansing breath, and to be aware of your breath. I tried my first guided meditation when the Headspace app came out. Now I really love the Ten Percent Happier app because I read Dan Harris’s books, 10% Happier and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. I like Ten Percent Happier because there are so many different meditation instructors. It has many of the top meditation instructors in the world, and you can sort by topic and get lessons for life while you’re breathing.
Having apps, access to books and being curious helps. Meditation has also become a common discussion topic in my community of mountain bikers. Lots of people talk about how they meditate. It’s not this weird hippy thing.
Do you meditate every day?
I do a sitting practice multiple times a week, but I practice every day. I’ll make sure that there are moments of mindfulness in my day where I stop everything I’m doing and just take 10 breaths. That meditation, like a seated meditation practice, helps you recognize the interrupting thoughts coming in. Personally, I try and practice every day, to recognize how I am feeling right now. If I have food in my mouth, what does the food feel like? All day, I ask myself questions that bring me into the present moment and make it real. There’s a lot of anxiety that we can have in our lives. The entrepreneurial life has a lot of uncertainty. You don’t know what things will look like in 10 years, or maybe even six months.
In pregnancy, there’s an amazing amount of uncertainty and lack of control. Just being able to recognize, I feel anxious right now, is useful. I love a technique called thought labeling. You work on this in a meditation practice so that you can start doing it in your daily life. You sit and thoughts start coming in. “Oh, I should do this.” You recognize, “I’m planning right now,” so you label it planning. “Oh, I have an itch” – discomfort. You start labeling the thought before the thought takes off on its own. I’ve used that a lot when I lay in bed at night wondering about things. It helps diffuse the thought’s power.
Have you had areas where that presence or awareness that you’ve got now has changed your personal or life goals?
I would say no. I think people get concerned that meditation might take away their edge or competitive drive. That’s not the case. It helps you be more focused and have more clarity and intention with the things that you do choose to spend your time on. I love new projects, but I’m one person and there’s only so much I can do. It’s good to be aware of, “Oh, I feel really excited about this idea, but it doesn’t mean that I have to go do it.” That’s hard sometimes.
Grit: Nature or Nurture?
Is grit something you’re born with? Is it something you can teach yourself?
I think it’s teachable. It’s a muscle. A simple example is quitting. The more you quit, the easier it gets to quit. You lose trust and accountability with yourself. This brings us back to the consistency piece I was talking about. If you can build up trust and work ethic with yourself, then it makes it harder to quit. You keep pushing because that’s what you do. If you find yourself quitting a lot, you have to start asking yourself, why am I quitting? That’s where mindfulness comes in. And being honest with yourself.
Some people quit because they’re afraid of what other people are going to think of their results. During my first few years as a pro racer, I cried through my races because I was so worried that people were going to think I sucked. If you’re quitting because you’re worried about what other people think, ask yourself, why do I worry about what other people think? Get to know yourself better until you get to the point where you can’t really ask why anymore. Your only choice is to keep going. Everybody wants to quit at some time. Even if you’re at the top of your game, there are still days where you want to quit because it’s hard. It’s in that moment when you choose not to quit and keep moving forward. That’s where grit and resilience start building. Looking back and saying, I’m so glad I didn’t quit. Or if you did quit, how did that feel? It probably didn’t feel very good. Sometimes the pain of quitting is worse than the pain of going on.
Building grit one day at a time sounds like how people manage addiction.
I really admire Judson Brewer. He’s an MD, PhD and he wrote a book called The Craving Mind. He’s been on different meditation podcasts as well. His book is specifically about addiction: addiction to technology, addiction to love, addiction to success. His work stemmed from clinical addiction, helping people quit smoking. He helped people reframe their thoughts around smoking by taking a mindfulness-based approach. He wanted people to get curious about their addiction. When people were trying to quit smoking, he would give them questions to ask themselves. If you want a cigarette, have a cigarette, but ask yourself while you’re having the cigarette – how does this feel? How do I feel? How did I feel after? He had a lot of success with this approach.
What does imposter syndrome mean to you? Where do you see it in sports, entrepreneurship and life?
We can make ourselves look a certain way online. People can easily look and compare. Don’t let that stop you from getting started. Action is the best way to conquer imposter syndrome. A lot of times we think we’re not qualified. I have it too. I feel like I’m not a real pro mountain biker because I haven’t achieved X. It happens all the time, but action is how you solve it.
I’ll give some examples. I wanted to become a keynote public speaker. I thought, I’m not really a speaker, but I’ll put a speaker tab on my website. I put up a speaker tab, and people started hiring me as a speaker. My first gig was a big tech conference. I had never done anything like it before. I just started writing the speech, practicing the speech, getting feedback from other people. I did the speech, and then other people started booking me. I became a speaker.
Same with marketing. I was working my engineering job, and I got offered a marketing job. I’d never taken a marketing class in my life. It was a pretty big role. I trusted that I could figure it out, adapt and learn. We’re always going to think we’re not as good as someone out there. But it doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It matters that you’re doing your best and continuing to grow.
You’re an excitement junkie, you go after things. How do you stay focused?
I have experienced extreme burnout in my life from trying to do too many things. I try to always start with the curiosity piece. I ask myself, why am I doing all these things? Am I doing this because I want to prove myself? Am I doing this because I truly care about it? Am I doing this because I could make a lot of money doing it? I go back to my core values. Sticking to that has helped me stay on track.
There are so many things I want to do in my life and in my business. I want to do them all right now. I know that if I do them all right now, it’s not going to be good for me. I try to realize that no matter how old I am, I still have a runway in front of me. I’m 36 and still relatively young. But with how long we’re living, we have so much runway in front of us, even in our sixties.
My friend Brenda Davis, who wrote Becoming Vegan, had her 60th birthday party at our house last year. She said to me, “I’ve always known that my senior years are going to be the best years, where I make the most impact in my career.” That’s what I remind myself of whenever I get excited about all these new projects I want to do. I have lots of time to do them whenever it’s the right time.
The second thing is, learning you just can’t do it all yourself. I’m still working on how to delegate, how to hire people. Time is not a renewable resource and happiness is so important. If someone can help you, it’s completely worth it.
What are you seeing in your peer group of friends in terms of life changes or struggles in their mid-30s?
I think a lot of people are thinking, what am I supposed to do now? I thought that I was doing something I like, but now I don’t like it anymore. There’s so much pressure to find purpose or to feel like you’ve achieved something.
I think especially in our thirties we want to feel like we’ve made it to a certain benchmark. Often, life doesn’t happen the way we imagined it would. When you start putting your happiness on a certain achievement, you’ll realize that it’s actually a fallacy. You’re not going to be happy when you achieve X. You have to be happy with the work that you’re doing now. You have to love the work that you’re doing for the sake of the work itself, not for the shiny thing that you’re chasing after. Once you get that accolade, you’re not going to feel satisfied no matter how successful you are.
I’ve learned this in my own life and from talking to other high achievers on my podcast. I remember when I won the world championship in 24 hour racing, and I actually felt empty. I thought, now what am I supposed to do?
Being able to notice what you love is never easy. How does applying that curious mindset help?
The first step is knowing that what you love can change and you’re not locked into doing the same thing. I started with mountain biking and talking about technical writing and gear. When I became interested in nutrition and mindset, I knew that my audience might change or my opportunities might change as I changed my interests. Ask yourself, what would I do if I didn’t have to worry about money or what do I enjoy doing the most? Then pick that thing and understand why you enjoy it. Apply the curiosity mindset.
Like, why do I enjoy mountain biking? Even that has changed over time. The reason I started racing was because I wanted to prove myself to people. It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s true. Then that went away and it became, how hard can I push myself? Or what country can I go to? It has evolved into, how can I use this as a vehicle to help and teach people?
So ask for the why. It might be really annoying for some people, but I think it’s a great way to figure out what you’re interested in and how those interests can evolve over time.
What have you learned on the benefits of vulnerability and the steps people can take?
Brene Brown has done a lot of work on bravery being linked to vulnerability. Being vulnerable is scary because we are social creatures and we want people to like us. We want to feel accepted. Whenever you put yourself out there, you might not get the response that you wanted and that can be really hard. But sometimes you do.
I did a 10-day mountain bike race across the Himalayas called the Yak Attack. Someone told me to document my experience. During the race, something went really wrong. I was crying and I don’t cry in front of people, but I pulled out my camera and took a video of it. I still don’t know how I had the wherewithal in the moment to do that. When I came home, I was telling the story of the race and I thought, should I post this online? I remember being terrified, but it was a big part of my experience. If other people had a similar experience, I wanted them to know that they’re not alone.
Isolation is one of the worst feelings. So for me, vulnerability is easier now because I know that it’s going to help people. That crying video is in my TED talk about the race. It’s really embarrassing for me that that’s out there, but it was one of the most powerful things that I could have put online.
My pregnancy was another really hard thing. I didn’t even tell the world I was pregnant until 18 or 19 weeks, because I was so afraid and I’m still afraid. I didn’t know anybody else felt that way. Talking about it has made a big impact. It’s great to hear other people saying, I’m so glad that you said that because I feel that way too.
Pregnancy as a Pro Athlete
Talk about the experience of going through pregnancy as an athlete.
Initially I didn’t address it very well. It’s like a joke now. In 2018, I got pregnant, but had a miscarriage after six weeks. I just brushed it aside and got back to training. I didn’t really deal with it. Then I got pregnant again.
And did you talk about your miscarriage at the time?
No, I didn’t tell anybody. Nobody knew I was pregnant. I was worried that I was going to have a miscarriage again. What would that mean?
I was also afraid to tell anybody because I was worried that I would lose all my sponsors. I felt exhausted all the time and couldn’t train properly. I did this great bike festival called Inspired to Ride where I was speaking in a group ride. I was so slow and felt so terrible on my bike, and I was terrified someone would notice and know why. I was trying to hide it. This also happens with entrepreneurs, not just athletes. If you’re trying to get investors for your company and you’re pregnant, people have a bias against you.
So when I finally put it out there, I was afraid I would lose my sponsors or people would judge me for still riding my bike. Guess what – those fears came true. I’ve lost about 50% of the funding from my sponsors. That’s been incredibly difficult. Nobody flat out said it’s because of my pregnancy, but I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve been managing myself as an athlete for six years and I’ve had a very successful last couple of years. I really do think that it’s because I’m trying to renew contracts while pregnant. Brands might wonder if I’m going to come back. I feel offended by that because I work super hard and a contract is a contract.
People have also been critical of my riding. They said mountain biking is too dangerous. I am trying to not get too frustrated by that. It’s still really hard right now, but I know that I’m going to be stronger because of it. I’m going to be able to be a voice. I’ve already been able to be a voice for people that feel like they don’t have one in this area.
There’s been lots of stories on the running side about pregnant athletes. Are there places for you to turn to to navigate this?
No. I’m somebody who takes responsibility for my actions. I’ve said to my husband countless times, maybe I just am not working hard enough. Or maybe what I’m doing is just not valuable enough anymore. Maybe the type of racing I’m doing isn’t as valuable anymore. I’ve asked all those questions, but another thing that I tell myself is, this isn’t a permanent thing. I’m going to have a baby in a few weeks and then I’m not going to be pregnant anymore. Then I’m going to figure out how to race with a newborn.
Instead of looking at this as something that is so hard, I’m looking at it as an opportunity for me to learn. This is a great opportunity for me to connect to people in my community in a different way than I have before. That’s where that reframing the positive psychology comes in. I could choose to look at this as poor me, life sucks. There are days I feel like that. Or I could say, this is a challenge, but I can take on challenges. I can figure this out. In the end, I’m gonna be able to help people too. It’s just a daily practice of going through that.
How much of your value to your sponsors do you think comes through race results versus all of the other stuff you’re doing?
I think it depends on the athlete and the athletes value proposition. I’m not trying to go to the Olympics, I don’t do world cup races. I do alternative races. I also think it depends on how you pitch yourself. From the beginning when I left my marketing job and started writing my own proposals, my value proposition was on creating community and content. I had credibility from my race results so people could feel like I’m bringing them value and feel connected to me. Not being on a team helps because I get to choose what brands I want to work with.
I’m not going to just use a product because a company gave me money. I’m going to use something because I truly believe in it. My value proposition has always been community and content first with the backbone of racing and the bike as a credibility vehicle. That’s why I was a little bit surprised with what has happened with some of my sponsors. To be fair, I would say that maybe one or two of the sponsorships ending wasn’t because I was pregnant. It’s normal in business to have ebbs and flows. I’m just going to keep working and going back to ask why. My why is not to be sponsored and make money. My why is to use the bike as a vehicle to tell stories to help people be healthier and feel more empowered. The sponsorships helps support that for sure. But am I worthless if I’m making less money as an athlete? No. It’s just hard whenever you feel like people don’t believe in you.
In the cycling world, are you seeing certain brands embracing women more than others?
No, I’m not seeing that. I have had some amazing sponsors who are very supportive and are standing by me, but they still don’t want to create content around my pregnancy. I think that’s a big mistake. I think that this is a really powerful story to show that I’m a woman, I’m an athlete, I’m going to be a mom, and I can be all those things at the same time.
Well, cycling needs more women and diversity. So that seems like a pretty natural evolution for the sport to embrace.
In the past, professional female cyclists retired when they got pregnant, or maybe they’d saved pregnancy for retirement. I’m not ready to retire, but it’s time for me to have a kid. I think I’m showing people that it might be a hard road, but it’s not the end of the road. There are a couple other pregnant cyclists and it’s been really nice to see what they’re doing and to talk to them. I don’t compare myself to them, because everybody feels different. Some people can ride harder than others and some people feel like they can still race while they’re pregnant. I certainly didn’t feel that way. I just didn’t feel good in my body.
It all comes back to the vulnerability to tell your story. You’ve done that here on Prokit by sharing your journey. And cyclist Laura King wrote her post on pregnancy and the athlete. I obviously can’t get pregnant, but my wife did and she was an athlete navigating that journey, but us men can hopefully be supportive in the process.
It’s great to have access to the information that’s out there and then make decisions based on what’s best for you. It helps to see that there are multiple ways to do it.
Where do you see things going over the next five to 10 years for you?
I’m only thinking a couple of years out. I love mountain biking and racing, and I’m still continuing to do those things. I’m really excited about plant-based nutrition and helping people. I want to bring in the mindset mindfulness piece and figure out how to make all that more accessible to people. I’ve actually started a book multiple times and stopped. I feel like my book is not ready to come out yet and that’s okay. I just want to help people get access to that information in an easier way.
On your podcast, any all-time favorites that people should listen to that meant a lot to you.
I’ve recorded over 180 episodes, so it’s hard to pick. One of the most popular ones is on gut health with Dr. Will Bulsiewicz. I really love the podcast I just did with Judd Brewer who wrote The Craving Mind. I did one with Cory Muscara who is an accomplished meditation instructor and has his masters in positive psychology. I love them all. They’re like my babies.
Any lessons for the aspiring athletes out there or entrepreneurs on navigating being a pro athlete or their career?
I would say work hard and don’t be afraid to share that you’re working hard. Something that I absolutely love about Kate Courtney is that she works her butt off and she is not afraid to show it. Share your hard work because that inspires people. Be nice to people. Try to be as empathetic as possible. Be professional. Don’t throw your bike. Don’t say bad things. If you can be professional, empathetic and work hard, you can get really far in life.
This has been great. Where can people find you?
Sonyalooney.com is probably the best place. My podcast is The Sanya Looney Show anywhere you like podcasts.
Sonya Looney’s Resources: Apps, Books and Podcasts
- Books: The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer; Dan Harris’s books; The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor; books by Dr. Michael Greger; books by Brene Brown
- Apps: Ten Percent Happier
- Sonya’s sponsors: GU, Topeak, Wahoo, Kask, Maxxis, DeFeet, TrainerRoad, Michael David Winery, SCOTT, ESI Grips, Fox, Shimano, NoTubes, Primal
- From Sonya: Her Facebook Group, Plant Powered Tribe with Sonya Looney; for cyclists: Ultimate Guide to Tire Pressure; and her full series on life as a pregnant athlete
Follow Sonya on Prokit where she shares many of her stories, upcoming races and podcasts.