The Tyranny of the Comfort Zone

Monday, February 9, 2009 | By Matt Fitzgerald
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Recently I enjoyed an opportunity to interview Dr. Charles Pedlar for my forthcoming book, The Runner’s Edge, which I coauthored with Stephen McGregor, PhD. Pedlar is an exercise physiologist employed by the English Institute of Sport to provide physiological support to elite British endurance athletes. This support consists of administering physiological testing, consulting with coaches, and helping both coaches and athletes plan training and troubleshoot problems on the basis of the data he collects.

Among the elite distance runners Pedlar has worked with are 2008 Olympic 1500-meter finalist Andy Baddeley, 2008 world junior 1500-meter champion Stephanie Twell, 2009 London Marathon runner-up Mara Yamauchi, and 2009 European indoor 3000-meter champion Mo Farah.

I asked Pedlar a series of questions about how he uses speed and distance devices with his elite clientele. I guessed that one use he made of this technology was to sometimes hold runners back from running too hard, and Pedlar confirmed that he does indeed use speed and distance devices in this way. However, I was surprised to learn that he also uses them in the opposite way. Pedlar explained, “Another thing that happens is that, as athletes tend to improve rapidly over the first few weeks of training, they then find a comfort zone and sit there, so we use intensity targets to push them on.”

While I am well accustomed to the idea that most non-elite endurance athletes spend too much time training in their comfort zone and are afraid to really suffer in training, I sort of assumed that elite endurance athletes required no prodding. But if Pedlar’s experience with world-class performers is typical, then the tyranny of the comfort zone is universal in endurance sports.

Very few endurance athletes think of themselves as avoiding suffering in their training, but in my experience most do. They embrace a certain kind of suffering, which is the grind of high volume, but they shy away from exposing themselves to much of the acute suffering of burning lungs and legs that is experienced in challenging high-intensity workouts.

In fact, lately I have noticed a trend of endurance athletes trying to put a positive spin on their suffering avoidance by couching it in terms of a Lydiardian training philosophy. High-intensity training is risky, even dangerous, they say, and therefore its place in the training process must be minimized to prevent injury and overtraining. It’s not that these athletes are afraid of the misery of high-intensity training. They’re just being smart.

Yeah, right. Having been an endurance athlete since 1983, I am experienced enough to see this philosophy for the excuse-making it really is. Now, I must confess that I fear and loathe lactate interval workouts as much as the next runner. But I do a lot more of this type of training than most runners because I have simply been around the block too many times to live in denial of its effectiveness.

It must be clearly stated that the capacity to tolerate suffering is as critical to success in endurance racing as the various components of physical fitness. And like those physical adaptations, the capacity to tolerate suffering can and must be trained. The endurance athlete who is serious about realizing his full potential in competition must suffer for the sake of suffering in training.

Bertrand Baron, an exercise physiologist at Universit√© de la Reunion in France, recently authored a paper entitled “The role of emotions on pacing strategies and performance on middle and long duration sport events,” which makes a scientific case for training with the specific objective of increasing mental toughness. In this paper, Baron writes, “The pacing strategy may be defined as the process in which the total energy expenditure during exercise is regulated on a moment-to-moment basis in order to insure [sic] that the exercise bout can be completed in a minimum time and without a catastrophic biological failure. Experienced athletes develop a stable template of the power outputs they are able to sustain for different durations of exercise but it is not known how they originally develop this template nor how that template changes with training and experience. Whilst it is understood that the athlete's physiological state makes an important contribution to this process, there has been much less interest in the contribution that the athlete's emotional status makes… We suggest that training sessions teach the athlete to select optimal pacing strategies, by associating a level of emotion with the ability to maintain that pace for exercise of different durations. That pacing strategy is then adopted in future events.”

The term “emotion” is a little misleading here. Baron is really referring to a continuum of comfort and discomfort. Through training and racing experiences, endurance athletes learn how much discomfort they ought to feel at any given point in a maximum effort of a certain distance or duration. Thereafter they can feel their way to the optimal pace in each specific effort. But the maximum amount of suffering that an athlete is able to tolerate before slowing down is not fixed. It is influenced by a variety of factors, including experience and motivation.

Baron uses the term “emotional load” (or “affective load” [AL]) to refer to the quantity of discomfort an athlete experiences during individual training and racing efforts.  He writes, “If the object of training is to improve the physiological responses in order that a greater physiological stress can be sustained during exercise, in the same way training could also be designed to insure that a more demanding emotional loading could also be accepted by the athlete. Hence, it might be proposed that the athlete should be trained also to accept high levels of AL during training and competition.”

In other words, exposing yourself to intense suffering—in a controlled and sensible way, of course—will increase the amount of suffering you can tolerate in races and thereby increase your sustainable speed. That’s right: no pain, no gain.

Think about the level of discomfort you experience in races, and then ask yourself how often you approach this level of discomfort in workouts, if ever. If you’re like most runners I know, and you are honest with yourself, the answer is not very often. Once or twice every week you should expose yourself to near-race-level suffering in high-intensity workouts (track intervals, threshold runs, hill repetitions, etc.). And this discomfort should in fact be an explicit objective of the workout, along with the specific physiological adaptations you seek from it. In my experience, actively seeking the misery of high-intensity fatigue in workouts actually makes it more bearable. And like anything else, you get used to it. Indeed, stepping outside your comfort zone can almost paradoxically become a part of a bigger, braver comfort zone. It’s worth doing.

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