MINDSET – My Mantra

Joe De Sena Feels Lucky to Do Hard Stuff—the Spartan Way

By 24Life

Joe De Sena is in Boston, talking on the phone with 24Life’s editorial staff in California about his book, “The Spartan Way: Eat Better. Train Better. Think Better. Be Better.” (St. Martin’s Griffin, September 2018). There’s a sound on the line—he’s interrupted briefly—and De Sena comments, “Oh, my kettlebell arrived. I carry them everywhere, but I keep losing them in airports.”

We assume that he’s planning to pack this one for a trip, but as the conversation continues, De Sena becomes somewhat breathless. He explains that he is now out on the street, carrying the weight to his next appointment on a boat in Boston Harbor.

Millions of Spartan racers look to De Sena as an incredible example of fortitude, yet carrying a kettlebell across a city seems like an unnecessary extra burden. De Sena has acknowledged the pressures of running a business, inspiring and motivating people, and being a husband and father. But he’s not carrying the weight to prove a point—he’s carrying it because he has the good fortune to be able to do it.

Instead of “I have to do this,” De Sena says he tells himself, “I get to do this.” He points out, “That’s a big difference, right?” When he’s running in the rain and the dark, De Sena reminds himself he has his legs, he’s alive and he gets to run—and if things really get tough, he reminds himself that things could be worse. He laughs and says he sets the bar really low, but it’s clear he appreciates that he has something to be grateful for.

After gratitude, a nonnegotiable commitment to yourself

For anyone who’s made a resolution that requires any degree of discipline, physical or mental, De Sena’s attitude is refreshing. Still, the demands on De Sena’s time and attention are extraordinary as he travels the world and the Spartan empire continues to grow, with new city events, a trail race series and more in 2019—and gratitude alone doesn’t seem sufficient to protect his regimen from others’ priorities.

When asked about this, De Sena says simply, “I make it nonnegotiable. I’ve created some really healthy habits over the years. Every single morning when I wake up, I’ve got to do my workout, take my cold shower, do my breath practice no matter what.” He adds for emphasis, “I’ve got to exercise on planes, trains and automobiles, and then try to eat as healthy as I can every single day. … This body that your brain and organs live inside—you have to take care of it, and if you don’t, everything else does not work as well,” including supporting the people who depend on you.

Seize the morning

De Sena also has the answer for anyone who might object that it’s just not possible to keep life from interrupting. His secret is that it’s the morning that counts. “I think the problem people have is that they skip the morning and then life gets in the way,” he says. That sets us up for a day full of distractions: “I can’t do it now, I’m working. Oh, I can’t do it now, I’ve got to pick up the kids.” Then, De Sena says, you miss the day.

Still not convinced that it’s possible to make it your morning? Here’s how De Sena makes it work. “The night before, you know when your day has to start. So (unfortunately for you), if your day starts at 6 a.m., I’m sorry, but you’ve got to get up at 4:50 and get your workout done.” In fact, it’s best if you work backward to the night before: “That means you’ve got to go to bed early tonight. Get out of the bar, don’t eat a late-night dinner, don’t watch Netflix. Go to bed.”

Even De Sena has to defend his time: “By the way, I have this battle everywhere. I have it with friends, family.” De Sena’s personal routine is 21 bodyweight moves and 50 to 100 reps per move. It’s a regimen that’s years in the making, as he’s collected exercises from all over the world: “I picked them up in Japan with an ex-samurai wrestling coach. I picked them up in China, in Machu Picchu, New York … and they’re all based on mobility and flexibility first, and then strength and conditioning.”

Yes, De Sena does them seven days a week. “Obviously, the burpee’s in there,” he adds, referencing the move that Spartan racers must do if they don’t complete an obstacle. Thanks to his routine, De Sena says he can run 15 miles and ski with his kids after a year’s hiatus. He also finds that he doesn’t have any issues thanks to the daily discipline.

Build one proficiency, then another—and another …

Of course, for a comprehensive approach to success, there is “The Spartan Way,” De Sena’s road map based on his own experience. “The reason people don’t achieve success is because they get focused on the here and now and ‘Oh, I’ve got to stop and smell the roses,’ De Sena says. “Well, who is watering and fertilizing and trimming the roses? Because if you’re not doing that, there’s not going to be any roses to smell.”

“The Spartan Way” reflects 10 principles to master based on 10 Spartan virtues: self-awareness and extending to perseverance, passion, discipline, prioritization, grit, courage, optimism, integrity and wholeness. In case that sounds daunting, De Sena has organized these principles in a progression that naturally lends itself to internalization.

And in case “The Spartan Way” sounds rigid, De Sena counters, “I think discipline gives you freedom.” A 5 a.m. wake-up call to work out is no more enjoyable for De Sena than it is for anyone else. He continues: “It sucks getting going. But when I’m getting through it, I’m starting to enjoy it and then I’m saying to myself, ‘All right. That’s done. Now I’m free for the rest of the day.’”

His point is to get the really big task, the task you dread, done first. No matter what it is, it’s over and done, or, he says, “You could have these things hanging over you all day, and then you’re not free—you’re miserable and it’s weighing on you.” To put an even finer point, he observes that the act of thinking about the task, talking about it, feeling frustrated by not doing it only makes the task that much more monumental than if it were done in the first place.

Failure leads to success

From De Sena’s perspective, failure is instructive: “Failure teaches you what not to do.” Instead, he says that ego is what kills the chances for success because it’s focused on what other people think. In fact, De Sena says, “I like forcing myself out of my comfort zone. That’s the only time we grow,” and he cites studies of the effects of learning on the aging brain.

“Make those commitments and then stick to them. But don’t do the stuff that you do every day, right? Do crazy stuff. Do new stuff!” And then he’s off to make up time reaching the boat on the harbor.

Video credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com
Photo credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com; Solovyova, iStock; jacoblund, iStock; FlamingoImages, iStock; RobertNyholm, Adobe Stock


Don’t leave without becoming a 24Life Insider! Get free 24Life workouts, recipes, lifestyle hacks and more direct to your inbox.



A mighty and fiercely curious team focused on creating stories and curating ideas for you.