How an Explorative Mindset Leads to Breakthroughs (PodiumRunner)

Prior to heading winning two medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games, I had the pleasure of interviewing 2-time Olympian and world champion triathlete Katie Zaferes. In our conversation she mentioned her breakthrough came when she adopted an "explorative mindset for racing." (I love the term "explorative mindset" and I've already informed Katie I'll be stealing it.) 

She simplified it into two phrases, which I love:

"I call it an explorative mindset for racing. [It's] 'Let's see what I can do,' rather than 'This is what I have to do.' 'Let's see what I can do' has no limit, whereas 'This is what I have to do' is super definite...

The year I won the most races was when [my approach] was 'Well, let's see what I can do,' not, 'I have to do this.'"

This idea really stuck with me and I posted about it on social media and made it the topic of one of my weekly Think Better Newsletters. When PodiumRunner said they'd like to publish a longer article on the topic, I jumped at the chance.

The article compares an Execution Mindset with an Explorative Mindset, and offers some reasons for why the Explorative Mindset is better for racing. Here is an excerpt (and you can hear the conversation below!).

 Execution Mindset vs Explorative Mindset

In my book, Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Race Faster, I recommend athletes to adopt an execution mindset when they train and when they race. But Katie’s got me convinced that racing needs to be treated a little more more flexibly.

The strength of an execution mindset is that it aligns with the core priority of having a painstakingly prepared plan. It also gives you the ability to evaluate your performance on something other than the final result. If you execute well, you can feel good about that despite what others do in the race.

But an explorative mindset doesn’t have to sacrifice those qualities. Rather, it should build on them.

Have a plan, but be willing to read the situation and take a risk if it makes sense. Would Meb have won the 2014 Boston Marathon had he not chosen to “see what he could do” and boldly broken early from the lead group? 

Don’t get overly concerned with perfect execution in races. We are masters at finding things we coulda woulda shoulda done better. Whether you stick to your plan or not, you’ll always feel that way. An explorative mindset frees you to take a chance and accept the results.

But more than anything, an execution mindset is inherently conservative. You will only make a plan that you are very confident you can execute. You will sacrifice some upside in order to eliminate a lot of downside.


We often fail to realize how a simple shift in mindset can remove an artificial barrier. Executing on your plan is what we should all strive to do. But if we get too locked into it, we can miss opportunities, for both better results and better experiences.

Here is the full conversation with Katie. We discuss this topic at the 23:30 mark.