Race week comes and you don't feel as prepared as you expected to. Race day arrives, and when you've crossed the finish line, you don't achieve the result you wanted or thought you were capable of. Why did this happen?
Rewind to four months earlier...
You check your weather app for the third time that day, and see that the forecast is calling for challenging conditions on the day of your key workout. You start your internal dialogue of “how can I move this so it’s on a day when it will feel easier?” and then proceed into an internal negotiation where you are justifying to yourself how you will adjust your training schedule so that this workout will be on a day that you perceive to be “better.”
Three months earlier...
You decide to snooze your early morning alarm and miss your window of opportunity for a speed workout before you go to work. You promise yourself that you will get it done when you get home. Throughout the day, the missed workout is on your mind and hovers there, almost nagging you. You have a tiring day at work, and by the time you’re heading home, you’re having an internal dialogue with yourself about how you’re really too tired to do the workout, and doubt that you can execute the sets as your coach planned them. You then self-modify and go easy for the entire session.
Most - if not all - of you reading this are probably familiar with some version of those internal dialogues. While many athletes who engage in these types of thoughts are likely aware of these internal conversations, they are not always aware of just how impactful - and damaging - they can be. Athletes don’t realize that they are micro-quitting, and that this will lead them down a road where their probability of success at reaching their goals the way they want to is significantly lowered.
What is Micro-Quitting?
You’re probably familiar with quitting, which is when you give up entirely on something. (Most athletes I’ve worked with detest the idea of quitting.) But what is micro-quitting?
Micro-quitting differs from quitting in that it’s subtle; it can therefore be challenging to detect (and especially challenging to self-detect). It’s the practically invisible and seemingly inconsequential ways we quit on our goals on a day-to-day basis. Even if you know what it is, micro-quitting doesn’t appear as damaging as full-on quitting because it’s easy to view it as “better” than quitting.
As a full-time endurance coach, I see examples of micro-quitting on a weekly basis from the athletes I work with on Performance Coaching. Often, the athletes themselves do not realize that the sum of these little micro-quits means that their goals are slipping from their grasp. However, I have seen that micro-quitting can be more dangerous and damaging than fully quitting simply because of its subtlety. They truly can and do snowball into a full-blown avalanche. Here are some of the most common examples of micro-quitting I see on a regular basis (in no particular order of importance):
Stopping the workout before its planned ending (i.e. Not completing the full mileage or duration that was planned, even by 10 minutes or one mile.)
Not communicating with me (the coach) about how a workout went
Not communicating with me (the coach) about that is going on in one’s life
Not talking about one’s goals (i.e. secret/hidden goals)
Why Do We Micro-Quit?
In my experience working with athletes, I see two main reasons why micro-quitting becomes an “easy” option for people.
First and foremost, our brains and central nervous systems have evolved to keep us safe. Part of keeping us safe is avoiding discomfort, as discomfort (as perceived by our lizard brain) can lead to failure and/or death. Thousands of years ago, this part of our brain was entirely necessary because we were constantly encountering environmental threats that literally threatened our existence.
Now, in the 21st century, we don’t necessarily face that immediate threat. However, that defense system built by our brains and our nervous system is still with us. It perceives potential failure of any kind (such as not meeting a goal) as the same level of threat that it would have perceived a lion chasing us. So while we have evolved, this mechanism in our brains is still wired for safety. Negative emotional experiences (like the possibility of not executing a workout properly or not hitting a goal) make us feel unsafe. The brain isn’t inherently programmed to take that emotional risk, so micro-quitting enters the picture.
The second reason I’ve seen for micro-quitting is related to the first reason, but it’s more specific in our evolution over the last century in the developed world. In the developed world, we have become increasingly resistant to discomfort, and this is especially true as our lives in general have become more comfortable. Unlike our forefathers who lived more than 100 years ago, we now have climate-controlled environments all the time, easy access to an overabundance of food, easy access to transportation, and medical treatments that ease our experience dealing with disease. All of this feeds that lizard brain, which only makes it easier for us to default to “protection mode” - aka micro-quitting.
How Micro-Quitting Holds You Back
Micro-quitting is - in its simplest terms - avoiding discomfort and potential for failure. If you have a training session on your schedule that calls for efforts you perceive to be hard (for any reason - duration, intensity, type of workout, etc.) or that will be taking place in conditions that you perceive to be challenging, your brain wants to “protect you” by choosing not to take on that risk. And so, you avoid the situation and micro-quit.
I find micro-quitting to be incredibly dangerous because it slowly detracts from an athlete’s progress. With whatever “rationale” an athlete deploys for justifying why they are micro-quitting, they are also (incorrectly) convincing themselves that they are doing enough to reach their goals. (Remember: Excuses are not reasons.) In reality, the athlete is choosing not to face the dragon and is taking the easy way out. After all, there is a method to the madness. There are very significant reasons why things are planned the way they are. By micro-quitting, they are not acknowledging this, and thus they are not being honest with me (their coach). However, more importantly, they are being dishonest with themselves.
At the end of a long training block or season, an athlete who has micro-quit consistently throughout their training will realize that they are not where they thought they would be. They may feel overly tired while simultaneously realizing that they are in the same place they were when they began the season or training block. They may have fallen short of hitting their goal, but they can’t put a finger on exactly why that result is the one that came to fruition. This can feel especially frustrating to athletes because (due to the aforementioned justification and rationale they’ve deployed) they truly feel that they have put in the work necessary to reach their goals. Since they truly believe that they’ve put in the work, this then leads down a spiral where the athlete starts to question their abilities.
How to Transform Away from Micro-Quitting
Instead of questioning their actual abilities, I encourage athletes to take a hard look at what they actually do. Not what they wish they would do. Not what they wish they had done. Nope, I encourage an honest self-assessment of what they actually do - mentally and physically - day to day, week to week, and month to month.
More often than not, I (strongly) encourage athletes to write everything down. Thinking about something in our brains is not the same as recording it on paper to review and digest. It may feel scary since then it’s physically “there” confronting us, but writing out the ways that we’ve micro-quit over the last day, week, month, or training cycle is the best way to stop the cycle and transform away from micro-quitting.
All this being said, there is a nuanced balance here. Some days, listening to one’s body is absolutely the right call. However, being able to truly listen to/for that means that one also needs to have the self-awareness to know when the body needs rest vs. when the mind is seeking to avoid discomfort. Other days, there may be incredibly legitimate reasons why things need to change. And that’s okay! The most important point I’m trying to drive home here is that one needs to be very honest with themselves - is what is being sought truly justified? Or is it actually the easy way out?
The number one reason why people micro-quit is because they fear failure. However, as Samuel Beckett said, “Fail better.” Do not be afraid of failure; instead, embrace it as a necessary part of the process to get you to your goals and where you want to go. If you can transform your micro-quits, you will unlock potential within yourself that you never dreamed possible. Choose to intentionally give your best effort each and every day rather than micro-quitting and giving a sub-par version of yourself. Your future self will thank you. :)
“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”
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.