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Triathlete Blog

The Discomfort Zone

By November 23, 2013July 21st, 2015No Comments

A few weeks ago, I did another 5K.

I’ll give a quick recap: I stood at the start line with yet another 12 year old.  Drafted off of him for the first mile.  Hey, when you’re 5’2” you can actually draft off 12 year olds.  Knowing he would fade, I made a move in the second mile, dropped him and found myself leading the race.  The whole thing!  And then in the last 800 meters, a guy in a cotton sweatshirt and white socks pulled halfway up his ankles surged past me for the overall win.

The end.

But this isn’t about the 5K.  Or what happened after it.  About that – the car battery died.  When Chris said “the car needs a jump,” Max started jumping in the backseat asking if that helped.
It didn’t.

This is about the person standing behind me at the start line.  Jen and I talked about this on our most recent podcast.  Let me set the stage.  It was 48 degrees.  Sunny.  Warm for November in Chicago, if you will.  The person was wearing full tights, a windbreaker, full gloves, an iPod and an Ironman finisher hat.

It struck me that this person might represent a problem with many triathletes. Note that I don’t have problems with triathletes – I am a triathlete and I coach triathletes.  But tell me one triathlete out there who doesn’t want to be a faster runner.  A faster athlete.  Anyone?  We all want that.  And from what I’ve seen, very few get uncomfortable enough to get there.  Here’s why.

We habitually try to avoid what is uncomfortable.  In real life, we overdrink, overeat, withdraw or create emotional high drama to distract from the discomfort within ourselves.  In sports, the discomfort might be wind, cold temperatures, hills, heat, humidity or the chatter in our head.  We do all sorts of things to avoid facing those “discomforts.”  In other words, we don’t like to suffer.

The truth is, most of us live very, very comfortable lives.  Too cold in the house?  Turn the heat up.  Too warm in the house?  Turn the AC down.  Too windy to bike outside?  Sit on the trainer.  It’s raining?  Run your treadmill.  Too much negative self-talk, chatter or doubt?  Turn up your playlist.

We have ample choices to avoid the uncomfortable.  And we’re not afraid to make them.

Yet the place where learning, breakthroughs, even ephiphanies occur is outside of your comfort zone.  That’s where the good stuff is.  

Inside of the comfort zone, you are focused on one thing: staying comfortable.  You’ll slow down, walk, heck you won’t even try so as to not risk getting uncomfortable.  I’ve played the game myself.  Hot, humid day on a long run – I’ll stop at the water fountain to refill bottles (but they’re already full).  I’ll stop on the way back to go bathroom (what, you can’t hold it?).  By the end of the run, the Garmin file doesn’t lie – I stopped a half dozen times.  Do I plan on doing that in racing?  Does the workout say “take 6 mini breaks to gather yourself, collect your thoughts & let your HR come down along the way.”

The last I checked, NO.

We think we want to be uncomfortable.  We think we are tough.  But I’m guilty of this too.  Take a look at your past week of training.  How many times did you make the more comfortable choice?  How many times did you settle for less?

Most frustrating is when this happens in a race – did you ever cross the finish line feeling that you gave less than 100% of your best self?  You’re disappointed in yourself.  Because, ultimately, you choosing to shrink back from the challenge is your choice.  Entirely under your control.  But you can’t wait until race settings to make this happen – there’s too much pressure, anxiety, too much at stake.  The longer the race, the harder the race, the more tired you are, the less likely you will choose the uncomfortable.  It won’t happen – unless you practice it daily in training.

Without realizing it, we set up our training to be comfortable.  We ride out with the wind so we get a nice tailwind on the way back.  We put ourselves behind the biggest guy in the lane.  We run the last mile slightly downhill to be sure we finish fast!  All of these tricks are negotiations with ourselves.  On one hand, you’re doing the work.  On the other, you’re doing all of these little tricks and deals to make sure that you get a little bit of your way while the work is getting done.

But what happens on race day.  Does it go all your way?  Have you ever seen the race course reversed to ensure you get a tailwind on the way back?  Or the day it was 90 degrees, did they shorten the course?  Nowadays, you know that at times they do change the course which is even more frustrating.  We’re athletes.  We like a challenge.  Don’t make it easy for us.  We like what’s uncomfortable.

Or do we?

Back to the 5K.  Most people run a 5K in 20 to 30 minutes.  In the big picture of a 24 hour day, 20 to 30 minutes is, well, nothing.  And that’s why dressing like it’s winter on a 48 degree day when you’re only going to run 20 to 30 minutes is a problem.  It says I don’t want to risk feeling cold.  In other words, I don’t want to get uncomfortable.  Folks, if you feel “cold” during a 5K, you are not running hard enough!  Not only that, but you’re not focusing on the task at hand.  If you are truly focusing on executing the race, you will not notice the cold.  If you are noticing it, you haven’t faced those conditions often enough in training to learn how to ignore them and push past.  Above all, it’s race.  It shouldn’t feel warm and cozy.  It shouldn’t feel comfortable.

What about the iPod?  Another distraction from discomfort.  Without it, you have nothing but the chatter in your head. Learning to manage that chatter and race well despite of it is what good racing is all about. We do anything we can to not be left alone with the voices in our head.  We enlist training partners.  We watch tv.  We listen to music.  All of that distracts us from feeling or thinking.  A bike test with your favorite tunes pumping through your ears loudly is going to go much better than one where you’re staring at a brick wall.  Research has shown that music makes you go a little faster.

But there’s no music on race day.

Don’t distract yourself from yourself.  Face yourself instead.  You must if you are going to reach your full athletic potential. You must become the master of managing yourself.  The voices in your head – the chatter, doubt, the noise – they always talk on race day.  The more you face them in training, the better you’ll be at managing them on race day.  I remember listening to Bobby McGee a few years ago where he was talking about a strategy for dealing with pain or discomfort.  He suggested athletes literally say in their head: well, hello, pain, I’ve been waiting for you.

When you feel pain and discomfort, were you waiting?  Were you waiting for that moment where it becomes real and raw, sitting right on that edge?  You know that edge where you’re about to do something scary, special or that surprises yourself – you can either step back from the ledge where you know you’ll find safety or take a running leap with eyes closed over the edge.  It’s that leap of faith.  Most of the time, we hear the voices, we feel the pain and we throw up the white flag- fine, you win, I’m calling it a day!  If you want to go faster, if you want that next level, you’ve got to manage the chatter and then take the leap of faith.

Truth be told, you have to taking that leap between comfortable and uncomfortable.  You have to want to go over.  Close your eyes and dive head first over the edge. To me, that edge affirms that I’m alive and being challenged.  There’s no rush or feeling like it.  Like many of you, at times I’ve been scared to push past it.  This summer I worked very hard at pushing over that edge.  Trusting myself.  Welcoming the pain.  Risking failure.

All worth it.

So you take the leap of faith – what next?  You’ve gone somewhere you haven’t before.  You’re uncomfortable.  You’re expanding your comfort zone.  If you’re going to go there in racing, you’ve got to go there in training.  If you don’t run nonstop for an hour in training, how are you going to do it in racing?  If you don’t tell the voices to shut up because you’re too busy being awesome today, how are you going to do it on race day?  Race day those voices are going to talk loudly, they will be very persuasive.  They know you’re tired – and when you’re tired, your defenses are down.  You give in easily.  You’ve got to talk louder, in other words, give them a little shut up legs.

Don’t make things easy for yourself.  Don’t avoid being uncomfortable.  Trust that after 20 to 30 minutes of running, if you do get cold, you’ll be so focused on the task at hand (running – HARD!) that the cold won’t even matter.  Trust that if the voice in your head is telling you this hurts, stop, slow down, you’ll be ready to say ZIP IT, I’m too busy racing!  And know that practicing all of this in training over and over again is how you do it on race day.

By nature, sports performance, especially a breakthrough sports performance is difficult.  It will hurt.  It will be hard.  If you practice dealing with those discomforts in training, when you get to racing, that’s when you get to the point where you’re running on autopilot – you feel nothing because at that point you’ve learned to tune it all out, override it and what was formerly uncomfortable is now comfortably tolerated.  Note that I did not say comfortable.  It never stops hurting.  You just learn to ignore it a little better.  No magic involved – just making choices that allow you to get to that place.  Little by little, make those choices in your training.

Looking to read more on getting out of your comfort zone?  Check out these two articles: