Coach Tip Tuesday: Face the Discomfort Dragon

Posted On:
Tuesday, February 20, 2024
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Facing the Dragon.

We love comfort.  There are entire segments of industry and our culture that are solely and wholly dedicated to the cause of helping to make our lives and existences more comfortable (hello, fuzzy blankets, yoga pants, and smart thermostats).  While there is no doubt that humans do still experience times that feel challenging to them, the truth is that our lives in the developed world are actually not hard in the way that they’ve been for our species before now.  For tens of thousands of years up until about a mere 70 years ago, the following things were true:

  • Disease was prevalent
  • An accident or a severely broken bone could be a catalyst for imminent death
  • Food was challenging to obtain and store
  • Childhood mortality was high and it was unusual for parents to see all of their children reach adulthood
  • Shelter wasn’t as comfortable
  • Work was manual, physical, and hard

Comfort: A New Phenomenon

In the last 70 years, those of us who live in the developed world have learned to live very comfortable lives.  Although it’s true that we may have tough days, we no longer face daily or weekly imminent threats to our actual existence.  Our biology is such that we are essentially hardwired to relax in times of plenty; we are programmed to bask in comfort (which our body sees as safety) if it shows itself to us so that we can save our energy for when we might need it to face a predator, find food, or discover adequate shelter.  Our round-the-clock comfort status is such a new phenomenon that we haven’t yet evolved beyond this biological response to comfort as a species.

As Michael Easter points out in his book The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self, the fact that we bask in comfort isn’t “our fault,” per se.  But the lack of discomfort in the big picture of our lives is harming us, even if we’re biologically wired to bask in it.  Simply put: We’re too comfortable for too much of the time, and this impairs our growth and development as individuals, as a culture/society, and therefore as a species.

Consciously or Subconsciously Actively Choosing Comfort

It’s extremely common for me to ask athletes why they did something or made a particular choice.  A very typical answer to these questions that I’ve heard over the years is “I did this [insert choice or behavior here] for convenience.”  Here’s the hard truth: When someone says “I did this for convenience”, the more accurate statement is often “I did this because it’s more comfortable for me and I didn’t want to do something different because that would mean that I would be uncomfortable.”  Consciously or not, athletes often default to choosing the comfortable path.  Comfort is not necessarily convenience, though it can be.  Sometimes, comfort is actually more than convenience.  Comfort allows us to exist in and operate in a world that feels very safe to us (hence why we choose it).

Toughness comes in so many forms, and one of those forms of toughness is choosing something that is hard for us to do, whether it’s hard because of a mental or physical reason.  The hard thing that I’m encouraging in this week’s conversation is choosing discomfort.

Don’t Fall into the Trap of One and Done

I’ve watched too many athletes try something once, have a negative experience, default back to what they were previously doing, and then never try the new thing (any variation of it) again.  Here’s a wonderful, liberating truth: The body (and mind!) can and will adapt to new and varied stimuli that are imposed on it.  You may need to sit through a period of discomfort while the body figures out how to make those adaptations to those stimuli, but it can and will adapt.  One negative experience shouldn’t cause you to never try again.

To illustrate this, I’ll share a common example of something that I see athletes doing: fasted workouts or low-fuel workouts.  Athletes often do this because they are in a rush and/or because consuming food before or fuel and hydration during a workout causes GI distress for them.  Rather than risk experiencing that GI distress, athletes will insufficiently fuel and hydrate their bodies for workouts and races.  This leads to a snowball of undesired results, to include reduced adaptation to workouts and diminished or impaired performance on race day.

I share the same thing I said earlier with athletes when they engage in this type of behavior: The body is extremely adaptable, and it will generally adapt to stimulus that is imposed on it.  That being said: Never practicing fueling or hydrating workouts will not yield adaptations; you will never magically be able to do something if you don’t practice it.  Additionally, only practicing fueling/hydrating on a key (long) workout per week will not yield GI system adaptation.  You will likely always be uncomfortable and have issues if you do it this way.

Instead, impose an appropriate amount of stimulus consistently for a bit of time, and have the curiosity and patience to see what happens.  The body may just adapt differently than you expect, and in a good way.  In the case of the workout fueling example: Experience and research data shows us that your body will likely learn how to process and utilize fuel during a workout and race, which will elevate your performance.  That being said, it is also possible that it may not adapt differently than you expect, and if it doesn’t after a true consistent effort, then that is when you know it’s time to move on and try something else.

I use this example to illustrate that while something can be uncomfortable - and may actually be uncomfortable for an extended period of time - positive results and desired adaptations can arise from sitting and working through that period of discomfort.  Furthermore, if the first thing you try doesn’t work after an honest attempt, the best strategy is to try something else to see if it will work, rather than giving up.  Growth and change occurs on the other side of discomfort, and that growth and change is earned by persevering through and learning from discomfort.

The Discomfort Toolbox

When it comes to navigating discomfort, research shows that elite marathoners flexibly cycle through different strategies.  They go from internal to external, distraction to focused, from being present to zooming out, and more.  In contrast, beginner or immature athletes often pick one strategy and commit to that single strategy.  Sometimes, they do get lucky and the strategy that they chose works for a bit.  But any single strategy will ultimately fail, and when this happens, these athletes succumb to the stress of the moment because they don’t have another strategy to turn to.

Author and coach Steve Magness tracked the focus of collegiate and professional athletes during their workouts and learned that the athletes defaulted to particular coping strategies when they were left to their own devices about how to cope with discomfort.  These athletes got very good at using a handful of ways to navigate the discomfort they were experiencing.  Steve then changed the dynamics of the exercise and gave the athletes new coping strategies to implement when experiencing discomfort.  When these athletes were given these new strategies, they didn’t fail; they expanded their ways to cope.

These examples all highlight an important truth: Contrary to what cutesy social media posts, quote snippets, and our culture might be telling us, navigating discomfort isn’t about willpower, positive affirmations, or mentally fighting your way through something.  Instead, it’s about acquiring and applying a wide variety of coping tools and strategies.  The good news for all of us is that these tools and strategies are not a secret and they are not unique to any one individual; they can be taught and learned by anyone at any phase of life.

Seek Discomfort

One way to begin expanding your Discomfort Toolbox is to face the Discomfort Dragon by intentionally setting out to do one thing every day that makes you uncomfortable.  That discomfort can be mental, physical, or both.  Intentionally introduce the discomfort; something uncomfortable that happens to you is useful, but doesn’t “count” in the same way.  You need to introduce discomfort so that you can deliberately and intentionally practice your coping tools, learn which ones are best to deploy at what times and in which situations, and so you can learn to trust within your own self that you can handle and manage any discomfort that does happen to you.

Here are a few examples of intentionally introduced discomfort that you can deploy in your training:

  • Doing your workout on a new-to-you route
  • Going out to do a workout in conditions that you have previously shied away from
  • Choosing different terrain than you usually seek out for your workout
  • Adding or subtracting a layer of clothing to make yourself hotter or colder than you prefer to be
  • Leaving your phone behind when you go out on a walk or a workout
  • Doing a workout without music or outside stimulus (such as a screen or a show if you’re indoors)
  • Doing a type of workout that you have previously resisted doing
  • Meet a new group of people for a workout

The Bottom Line

We’re all victims of The Comfort Crisis.  That being said, because we have free will and choice and the ability to develop self-awareness, we do not have to remain victims of it.  We can choose to seek out and introduce discomfort into our lives so we can give ourselves an opportunity to learn, grow, and expand our personal, athletic, and mental skills toolbox.  Don’t shy away from the Discomfort Dragon.  Instead, be self-aware enough and brave enough to face it head on.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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