I only start counting when it hurts!

I only start counting when it hurts!

When hosting an open training session Mohammed Ali is said to have been asked “How many sit-ups are you doing?” by an observing reporter. His answer “I don’t count the sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting because they’re the only ones that count”.


This speaks volumes regarding his mindset and mental resilience. Although perhaps a little extreme, there is now much evidence to show that a controlled amount of discomfort or stress produces positive adaptations within both the human body and mind. Both physical and mental resilience can be built through the controlled application and then progression of training stress. And if you always do what you’ve always done then its unlikely anything will suddenly begin to change for the better.


Much of humankind is now in the privileged position that we can choose to welcome discomfort and hardship in the short-term knowing full well that it is in our longer term benefit. Suffering now for a better result (life) in the future: Eat less now and you may feel the discomfort of hunger but your waist size, cholesterol and blood pressure could well benefit. Work harder now and as your business grows then you may be able to retire earlier and have greater economic stability later. Lift weights now to maintain or build muscle mass that will keep you healthier and able to maintain a better quality of life as you age.


A key consideration when aiming to tolerate discomfort is that perceived effort (RPE) is crucial. All of the abundant data sources that we now have available to measure and control our training need to be viewed within the light of ‘how it feels’ in that particular moment. Our minds and bodies fluctuate in their readiness and response to exercise on a daily basis and we cannot out run, ride or lift our perception of effort.


What does this mean when training?

  1. Rarely do we need to train at 10/10 but more often attempt to tolerate effort levels of 7-8/10. When performing intervals the aim is often to hold that feeling of moderate discomfort for longer periods rather than pushing harder to get it over and done with.
  2. If a particular pace goal feels too difficult very early in a session then adjust it so that it meets the above guidelines. The first goal is to get through the whole session close to the desired effort level. Effort however relates to your RPE and not the actual pace from a GPS device.
  3. To ENDURE temporary hardship or discomfort lies at the heart of endurance sports such as triathlon. Exposing yourself to a controlled degree of suffering when swimming, cycling and running will build mental fortitude and physical resilience if done regularly. When completing sessions make notes on how it felt and perhaps give a rating out of 10 for the discomfort in the early stages versus the later stages in combination with the actual output from the session (pace, power, HR etc..).
  4. Progressively push as physical improvements are made. As your training takes effect, your typical run pace (for example) will begin to feel more comfortable. A sure sign that fitness has improved. You may then want to lift the pace of your runs to the point that the previous level of discomfort returns. The maxim, it never stops hurting you just get faster applies here!


There is a caveat to this; not all training has to push you to your physical or mental limit and we must ensure adequate recovery is achieved between sessions as that is, after-all, when the positive adaptations (fitness gains) are made. But with a heightened focus on factors such as nutrition and sleep then it should be possible to absorb a little more stress in training too.


Be mindful that stress comes in all guises and if you’re encountering significant or increased mental or physical stress outside of your training then this is likely to impact your ability to absorb stress when exercising and needs to be accounted for when setting short-term goals and expectations.


So, go forth and embrace being just a little outside of your comfort zone safe in the knowledge that this is where good things start to happen…

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