2011-07-06

Fear and Exercise

If you run, you have almost certainly been asked, "How far do you run?" I am not really sure why non-runners consider this question topical. In my opinion, the idea that someone runs any distance with regularity - even a very short distance - is more significant than the particular distance they choose to run. In my opinion, the more pertinent question is, "How often do you run?" Nonetheless, we runners frequently find ourselves describing how far we run.

A common follow-up to that first question is some variation of the following exclamation: "If I ran that far, my legs would fall off!" Upon hearing this, I usually like to mention something you may have heard before: that human beings are designed to run; it's evolution. At this, my non-running friends typically engage in a variety of hand-waving explanations for why - no, really - they're unique in that running is particularly bad for them, whereas it's perfectly okay for people who are "naturally gifted" at running.

(Naturally gifted? But what did they think I meant by saying that we humans are designed to run? I suppose it's only a "natural" gift if it belongs to only a few of us.)

At this point, it becomes obvious: They are afraid to run.

Now let's turn the tables. I certainly know plenty of runners who are convinced that they could "never" bench press their own body weight. I know - I used to be one of them. Then I met a good runner friend of mine, call him DC, who could bench press nearly double his body weight, and could still run further and faster than I could. What was my excuse? I furrowed my brow and proclaimed that I couldn't understand his ability to lift weights.

But by then it was obvious: I was afraid to lift.

Another friend of mine insists that Crossfit training is stupid and dangerous. People "get hurt" and the trainers "don't care." Similarly, people insist that training programs like P90X and Hyperfitness are "crazy" or "insane" and loudly proclaim that it's all a dumb gimmick, that real people don't really redefine their bodies and reinvent themselves as fitness demigods.

The naysayers are afraid. This is a tragedy.

It's a tragedy because physical fitness - and indeed, life in general - is about pushing the limits, testing oneself, finding out what one can do. Another way to say this is this:

Trying is the only obstacle between something good and something great.


Yesterday I was running 600m repeats at 4:25/mile pace as part of my marathon training program. When the going got tough, I remember that for me running is a game of mind over matter. As I started running progressively slower and slower repeats, I calmly reminded myself that my body was only failing because I was afraid to push through to the end of the workout. Knowing this on a logical level helps one overcome the emotional indulgence of going slow.

Try it yourself, next time you don't think you're capable of finishing a tough workout. Tell yourself that the only thing standing in your way is fear. Then, brush that fear aside. It's easier than you think. Exercise is not particularly fearful. (Really - think about it. It's not scary.) Logically you know this to be true. So when you get tired, don't let your fear get the better of your mind. It really is mind over matter. Conquer your fear.

Then, go out and apply the lesson you've learned to your life in general.