"I wish I could, but..."
This is one of the most common phrases we hear in the fitness industry when we ask clients what has prevented them from adhering to a routine in the past. There is certainly no lack of desire to make those changes they need to make, but desire does not correspond to drive.
I run. A lot. Most of you know this. I'm that really annoying person at the coffee shop, sweat still dripping off my forehead and down my legs, debating between the large and extra large coffee milkshake while laughing that maybe I shouldn't go crazy because it was "only 20 miles". You've probably seen someone like me and fought back the urge to tie her laces together while she rambles on about how awesome that 2,000 foot climb was halfway through the run.
Trust me, I haven't always been like that!
During middle and high school I had enough natural speed to work my way up among the junior varsity runners, often placing in the top three. Every now and then one of the varsity girls couldn't run and I'd get to compete in her place. Sometimes, I'd even do well there. But it was not for my training. No, I happened to be able to run pretty well and sure, I did my track workouts so long as a coach was there to yell at me. But I didn't run much on my own and hardly at all during the summer.
I'd complain about the middle-schoolers brought up to run on the high school teams because they hadn't hit puberty yet so of COURSE they were faster than all of us, what with all of our new and quite sudden extra "baggage". But they ran, a lot. And I did not.
I'd lament the fact that my track coach would just throw me into events where he had spaces to fill, so I'd be racing 100's and 200's one week and 400's and 800's the next. I wasn't assigned any distance or speed-specific workouts but then again, I never sought them out, either. I could run hard enough for long enough to earn points in certain events but at the end of the day and the end of the school year, I was on to other things. It was all too easy to quit running when I got to Germany for my junior year and realized they didn't have any sports teams at my school. No cross country or track? Oh well, guess I can't run.
Fast-forward several years. I'm out of high school, working in child care while taking classes at my nearby community college. My days started at 7:00 AM and often did not end until 9:00 PM. I wanted to get my butt back in shape and clean up my eating, but convinced myself for some time that I had "no choice" but to rely on gas stations and vending machines to get through the day. I'd admire others around me, also working and in school AND with families of their own but would manage to pack a healthy lunch every day. I thought "Oh, well, they must have help." Never would it occur to me that they simply made the time to take care of themselves... while I was going out 4 nights a week.
You see the common theme here?
There were so many times during my life that I would sit on my sofa, staring at the TV, maybe even hearing someone talk about the dramatic transformation that changed her life, thinking, "I wish I could do that, but..." insert excuses #1, 2 and 3.
Something needed to change about my approach to running, and my overall well-being, and it wasn't going to happen just by running more. Of course, running alone was the start of it, and that first mile back on the road hurt like a you-know-what as every muscle in my body (my arms and shoulders, too, somehow) struggled to remember exactly how to move in that way. But the act of running itself was just one item on a very long checklist of things I needed to do to regain control of my life and health.
Nearly a decade back into running, with my next big race being my TENTH ultra (that's any distance longer than 26.2), I strongly believe it was the cognitive shifts more than the physical training itself that helped me get past those excuses. Obviously, I still needed to put the miles in to keep my legs accustomed to the distances I ask them to cover. But there's so much more to being successful at reaching one's goals than simply putting in the legwork, either literally or figuratively speaking.
Lately, I've been reading The Ultra Mindset by Travis Macy. He touches upon the mental shift that must take place for that success to be possible.
I often meet people, healthy people, who tell me they wish they "could" run, wish they "could" bike, wish they "could" get in shape. They wish they had the discipline or self-control needed. They act as if you are either born with this mysterious gift of willpower or not. The latest research on the subject supports the idea that self-control really can be developed and trained, just like you can train your muscles or your memory.
And this is what I had learned over my decade-long buildup to where I am today; slowly, sometimes painfully. This is why I can run far. As soon as I realized I really wanted to get serious about my training, that no one was going to wave a magic wand and make me fast - or at least able to withstand the mileage without wanting to die - I knew I had to train my brain as much as my body. I know I have talked about willpower in previous posts but it is so important and bears repeating:
You are not born with a finite amount of willpower.
Your willpower is determined only by your perceived limitations. Imagine willpower is the water in a lake you must draw from for your home. There's PLENTY there, plus it rains so it's constantly replenished. Your limitation to how much you can draw from the lake is simply the size of your container. If you're afraid of being uncomfortable and the strain of carrying too much, your cup will be quite small. If you're willing to work a little harder and move a little more, but are afraid of tripping or spilling you might use a pitcher. Ready to make a big haul? You're marching down to the banks with the largest buckets you can find, one in each hand.
The important thing, is that if one method does not work for you, you can't give up entirely on moving the water to your house. You have to drink, right? Maybe you started too big and it really is too much to carry at once, you take a step down from two buckets to one. Maybe you were afraid of taking on too much but are starting to get tired of going to the lake dozens of times a day to fill your cup, so you step up to carrying a pitcher. But again, you're not giving up, just trying something different.
This has been my approach to running. I knew I was not going to be an "all-in" kind of person, who would just wake up and start running 20-milers before breakfast every day. But I was past the point of doing a slow, regimented mileage increase or a 16-week training plan. I knew I needed to draw enough willpower to be aware of my efforts and consciously try to do a little more than what I'm used to, but that it would be unrealistic for me to try to mimic an elite's training plan. I know that if I had to, I probably could run 80-100 mile weeks, but the risk of burnout is higher than the reward of eventually running my bucket list races. So I'm willing to take the slightly slower approach.
And that's OK, because each trip down to the shore to draw from my lake makes me stronger.
So the next time you start to question your abilities or goals, ask yourself honestly if you're still making excuses. Ask yourself just how willing you are to take on not just the physical challenge of finding your optimal fitness, but the mental one as well.
What major strides have you made in your own mental training?
What advice would you give to someone struggling to reach their goals?
Next week: "Shifting Perspectives: Pain Management"