How Athlete Nick Karwoski Optimizes his Mind Body for Peak Performance

I learned that being the most fit athlete doesn’t always win the race. You have to be smart. You have to be prepared. You have to mitigate risk at all costs. Competing at the highest level out there doesn’t mean you deserve to be there. You’re only as good as your last performance. And how you respond to challenges will ultimately define who you are.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Karwoski.

Nick Karwoski started his athletic career at Dickinson College in 2010, when he graduated as a 3 x All American in the 5000m and Steeplechase. He went on to the corporate world and worked in the NBC Page Program on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He continued running while working full time and ended up faster than he was in college running 13:58 in the 5k. Unfortunately, he tore a tendon in his groin training for the Steeplechase a few months before the 2012 Olympic trials.

While rehabbing his groin, he helped start a company with his childhood friend from NH called Surfset, that received $300k from Mark Cuban on ABC’s Shark Tank. Nick led the marketing and events efforts that grew the company to over 450 certified trainers and put Surfset fitness boards in over 112 domestic and 14 international studio locations.

The urge to train never left and Nick knew he wanted to give himself another chance at competing at the highest level. He went on to join USA Triathlon and moved to Phoenix, AZ to join the National Team. He competed in over 18 International races in 11 different countries and became the 9th ranked American Triathlete in 2016. Nick came up short qualifying for the Rio Games. This led him to go back to Los Angeles and be a production assistant while coaching run classes at Equinox.

Nick was asked on numerous occasions to help train and put together training plans for athletes of all levels. This led him to create Tagalong, an app for fitness enthusiasts to connect and train with Professional Athletes. As CEO of Tagalong, Nick helps connect Athletes to improve together while adding supplemental income for Athletes and giving world class training to others. Nick has over 60 Professional Athletes across multiple sports including Running, Rowing, Cycling, Triathlon and Swimming, including 22 Olympians and 70 National Team appearances on the app. Motivated by his younger brother who came in 4th at the Olympics and is the top starboard in the country currently training for Tokyo, Nick became an athlete for Hydrow, a Live Outdoor Reality Rowing company.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Igrew up in Hollis, NH with two older sisters and a younger brother. I had retinablastoma cancer in my left eye when I was 6 and was bullied quite a bit. I never looked at it as a disadvantage because my parents never did. They were always active, raised us to work smart and to always strive to be better. I started my running career when I was cut from the 7th Grade Soccer team and had to run away because I was crying. Kidding! However, I did transfer schools after 9th grade and went to Groton School, a boarding school in Massachusetts. I learned that I had a lot of work to do both athletically and academically to compete at a high level. I stayed competitive and was able to compete in college at a D3 level. I don’t think I was serious with Cross Country or Track & Field in college because I always discounted my D3 status. But as running continued to be a part of my life while I worked a full time job, I loved that I could be defined by a time. Nothing was relative.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

I had many idols as far as Professional Athletes go….from Steve Prefontaine to Michael Jordan to Lance Armstrong. But it was my Dad and my brother who continued to push me and strive to be the best runner, triathlete or person I could be. I grew up with Alex, my younger brother, who learned quick and forced me to work hard if I was going to continue being faster than him. My Dad was the type of father who would ask what you got wrong and if I could have run faster if I got a 95% on a test and won a race. He had a saying that went ‘Good, Better, Best. Never Let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best.’ They both believed in my pursuits which allowed me to believe in myself.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Don Nichter, my Cross Country and Track and Field Coach at Dickinson College, believed far more in my ability than I did. It took many shouting matches and heated arguments to finally trust him and earn my first All American title. I remember on one Spring day in Lane 6 on the outdoor track in front of 40 teammates during the middle of practice Coach Nichter and I were screaming at each other about skipping a practice for a reason I refused to tell him (but can say now..was because I was going to a taping of TRL on MTV in NYC). After the third All American title, I knew the encouragement that he gave me would continue at a higher level and our coaching/athlete relationship was a rare one.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

In the moment, it was not even slightly funny. My chain fell off my new bike with electronic shifting in Magog, Canada in the fall of 2015 during a Triathlon Race. I was at the top of a hill, after having one of the best swims of my Triathlon career, and had to decide if I was going to ride the hill down with the pack of cyclists I was working with or if I should stop, fix the chain and catch up using the momentum of the hill. Stop at the top or the bottom? It didn’t matter. It took me over 45 seconds to get my chain unjammed from the front cassette and not only did I lose the pack of cyclists but I wasn’t able to catch the second pack either. I watched a former USA teammate win the race as I hustled to catch over 30 guys on the run component of the race. It was the first race my family and friends could come watch and I had blown it.

I learned that being the most fit athlete doesn’t always win the race. You have to be smart. You have to be prepared. You have to mitigate risk at all costs. Competing at the highest level out there doesn’t mean you deserve to be there. You’re only as good as your last performance. And how you respond to challenges will ultimately define who you are. I can still remember sweating my ass off in the middle of that hill (thinking I’d split the difference) while trying to yank the bike chain out of the gears while watching 50+ riders go by me. It was devastating. It shouldn’t have happened. But thinking back, it forced me to become smarter. I should have practiced more shifting with that new bike. I needed to work harder to make up those points I lost. Actually, It’s still not very funny to me. It was the first race after I left the safety of the National Team and trained on my own. Got my own bike because I had to. There were a lot of people I wanted to blame. It was easy to become frustrated. It’s hard to find the silver lining in an epic failure.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

Compare yourself to the best people out there. Surround yourself with people who have lofty and ambitious goals. If you don’t think you have the talent, you must change your mindset. It’s imperative to wake up every morning with a desire to train. A need to get better. If you don’t, I guarantee someone else will.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I get to work with many Professional Athletes who are currently training for World Champion or Olympic events. With Tagalong, I created a way to help put money in Athletes pockets to accomplish their goal while connecting them with other motivated people. Download the Tagalong app on iOS if interested. I also work as an Athlete for Hydrow and get to lead workouts on the water for thousands of people every day. I love making people feel better and gain more confidence through their fitness or training because it helps me be a better version of myself.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

  1. Visualize your success. Live the experience through your head before it happens. Whether it’s a race, a presentation or just a meaningful conversation, go through it to familiarize yourself with possible outcomes.
  2. This is a relatively simple strategy but I do stand by it. I didn’t discover caffeine til the tail end of my training. By then, I was 27 and it took a while to like the taste of coffee. It is a legal performance enhancing drug and, if you can nail your body’s optimum absorption, you will see why. For me, banana and peanut butter with 200mg of caffeine at 8AM will lead to a productive day.
  3. Get lost in a good book. Don’t obsess over a situation or event. The night before or even an hour before an event, read a few pages of something completely irrelevant to what will be a high pressure and high stress situation. If not for anything else, it will lower your heart rate, take your mind off what you are worried about and make you more calm. Knowing when to take a little break is key. Whether it’s a mental or physical one.
  4. Run your plan by someone who knows nothing about what you do. Get a completely objective and unbiased person to give you feedback or ask questions in order to allow perspective to something you may be too close to. Sometimes a 30,000 ft view can make a 3 foot view more clear.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

I have a breathing stick. It’s a small wooden stick with a hole in the middle that forces me to focus on long, slow breaths. It’s great for lung expansion which was a needed improvement for me after Open Heart Surgery in 2018. But it also makes me narrow my focus. 2–3 minutes can be more than enough.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

For the first few years after I graduated college, I would set an alarm at random times in the evening that would just say ‘Focus’. I wouldn’t necessarily have anything in particular I needed to do but it would remind me to do the thing I KNEW I was putting off for later. A self guilt-trip that was quite effective. This led to making To-Do lists every night before I went to bed. It also led me to write more, journal more often and stay away from screens before sleep.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

As I get older, I know my body can perform the demanding physical tasks I have put it through time and time again. However, it’s the recovery and the prep work that allow myself to dig down deep when it matters. The devil is in the details, as they say. Whether its stretching, rolling out, ice baths, compression boots or other recovery methods, the value of protecting and preserving the body I worked very hard to build is crucial to peak performance.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

My Mom has always said, you have to do something 14 times in order for it to become a habit. I don’t know how accurate that is but I will say that doing something every day for two weeks will give you a good sense of whether or not you want to make it a part of your routine. I have always found that if I continue to enjoy what I’m doing and have fun with it, I will get better. As soon as it becomes work or I question why this particular habit is apart of my routine, it’s time to reevaluate. With the exception of one torn groin tendon, I have been quite fortunate with injuries throughout my career. I definitely attribute that to pre and post training habits that were adopted in high school, continued and expanded in college and now just second nature.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

A few slightly odd habits I have are the following:

Brushing my teeth for 60 seconds on one leg and 60 seconds on the other. It’s good dental hygiene and improves balance.

25 pushups as soon as I get out of bed in the morning. Even if I do nothing else for the rest of the day, at least I got those 25 pushups in.

After any run, I will do the same leg drills/swings since high school. Brings closure to the run and allows me to gauge how my body feels.

I make my bed every single morning. Right after the pushups.

All of these are pretty simple. They aren’t life changing. But they bring me a sense of accomplishment. Of completion. They are a part of who I am. I think a lot of individuals are scared to go after their dreams. It is very challenging and start a daunting task when so much work, time, repetition is needed. My brother once asked me how I would empty every book from a library. He said, “I would just take one book out at a time.”

As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

I am very guilty of trying to multitask. Checking emails while on the phone. Listening to a podcast while working out. Sometimes this can save some time. But other times, I miss out on 100% of one thing. Don Nichter, my college coach, would always say that ‘The Journey is the Reward’. I have found that staying a little more present in the task at hand will allow a deeper connection with that person or task. Maybe just 5% more but sometimes that is a large amount that can drastically improve your mental state.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

I have a daily mantra that I started at Groton that is just about making this day the best it can be socially, athletically and academically. It reminds me that while I may not be training for the Olympics anymore, it is so important to make the most out of my relationship, my mind and my body.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

Having the ‘5 minute rule’, especially in a world as fast changing and unpleasant as 2020, allows me to vent and externalize things that I may or may not have control over. Dedicating 5 whole minutes to complain after something didn’t go the way I wanted or going down a spiraling negative thought path can be healthy and beneficial. But then, that’s it. 5 minutes is up and it’s time to refocus on the positive. Sometimes 5 minutes can seem really long, especially when you time yourself and talk out loud. The 5 minute rule makes me think so much about negative thoughts that I typically run out, flip the switch and naturally start thinking about how unlikely that process is. This has allowed me to see more value in what I do and who I am.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My family has always been close and we continue to give back to our communities through our BEAR Foundation, a foundation that focuses on providing opportunities for organizations to Build, Earn and Achieve and Reward themselves. As a Professional Triathlete, I met 100’s of athletes around the world and saw what their biggest challenges were. Being involved in fitness startups and personal training gave me perspective on how the average person is looking to improve their overall health and wellness. Combining these two types through Tagalong has led to some meaningful relationships and incredibly motivated people on both ends. Financial support is always great but creating a relationship between two strangers because of a passion for a sport is so exciting.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is King”. A lot of people struggle with direction in life. I don’t have all the answers but I may be able to help some people find theirs.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Most people in the world know Lebron James. He came from nothing and is now the greatest basketball player, arguably ever. He is so influential and is the last player to ever go to the NBA straight from high school. He has never been in the media for anything negative outside the world of basketball. But my favorite thing about him is how he has assemble teams wherever he goes. Doesn’t matter the talent level. He understands the power of bringing a group of people together and maximizing their strengths in the most unlikely of circumstances. Sure, being 6’8, 230 doesn’t hurt as an NBA player but you get my point. He has a vision and makes it a reality.

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