Back when I was a high school athlete, the theme song of choice was “Eye of the Tiger.”
Our coaches yelled a lot, pushing us to go to the max and stay there as long as we could. Greatness was achieved, apparently, through Rocky’s last one-armed push up, his angry smack of the speed ball, his last, shaking and moaning chin-up.
The only thing is, this is the wrong approach for most sustained change—in physical activity or otherwise.
How much longer?
For example, as I returned to running these past few months, I noticed that I spent most of my runs counting down how much further I had to go (“only two more hills after this one.”) Suffering, apparently, was not optional.
Then it occurred to me to ask: what would it take for me to have running, at a good pace, just be running? To have it be no big deal, something I could sustain?
At first this felt like copping out on my max-effort philosophy. But that’s an illusion. Over the course of a 40 minute run, at most I might be able to really “push it” for 5 minutes. Why would those 5 minutes, and not the other 35, be where I focus my attention?
Work on the Valleys, Not the Peaks
The point is, we eventually max out on our ability to make our peaks higher.
At this point, we discover the greater opportunity in redirecting our attention to lifting up our valleys.
This means refocusing our attention on two things:
1. Not letting peak effort knock us off our game
2. Spending most of our mental energy on a strong recovery rather than on peak effort
Why Do We Get So Tired?
The reason peak effort kicks our butts isn’t because of physical exhaustion.
Instead, we hit mental overload from crossing a perceived threshold of what we’ve decided we can do. Because we lack a practice of strong, sustained and resilient recovery, we run out of psychological gas.
And, just as we’ve all been broken by a hill or a sprint, we’ve also crossed mental breaking points when someone shouts at us; when the tension in a professional conversation gets too high; when we’re in the thick of a sustained period of heavy work.
When we get through those moments on our last emotional breath, it can take days or weeks to get back on our game.
If, instead, we have trained ourselves (emotionally, physically) to find the ease in the midst of our effort, then we’re able to sustain a higher threshold of effort and we learn to recover more quickly to a comfortable, productive steady state after peak effort. Ultimately, this grace after fire (in addition to grace under fire) makes us more effective.
Focus on the flats
This change only comes when, in our training, we focus on the “easy bits.”
My running will only improve, and get more enjoyable, when I can be completely relaxed on the flats. This doesn’t mean going slowly or not trying. It means finding a place of sustained, comfortable effort and practicing staying calm and present through that slow burn.
This is the work of building up our foundation, of making it more solid and more stable. It is a mental practice more than a physical one, demanding sustained attention and focus, not maximum heart rate.
When we build deeper, not only does our minute-to-minute performance improve, we also get harder to dislodge.
Then, whether it’s a hill or a disagreement, a sprint to a finish line or a sprint to meet a deadline, the act of sprinting no longer unmoors us. We learn the skill of snapping back quickly, easily, and with minimal fuss.
By all means, don’t give up the sprints. They’re fun, and they lead to both discovery and growth.
But, more often than not, a sprint is just another way to get the run over with–it’s not the path to sustained and lasting improvement.