Over the past few years I’ve gotten considerably faster as a runner, cutting my PRs by about a third at all of the major distances from the mile to the marathon. I’m still not super fast, but I guess you could say I’m normal person fast. I’ve been asked a few times to write about how I did it, and the truth is that I didn’t really do anything special. I just followed the standard suggestions you’ll find in any running publication: regular speed work and tempo runs, running with faster people, strength training, a bit of fat loss so I was carrying less body weight when I ran.
But it’s occurred to me that there’s one big thing I’ve done that I’ve never seen mentioned in any of those “how to get faster” lists, and that’s making the conscious decision to embrace discomfort.
In the past whenever I tried to push myself, I’d notice that I was breathing harder or my muscles were burning or that I felt like I was going to throw up, and I’d back off. In retrospect, it’s hard to say what exactly it was I was so afraid of. I think it was mostly that instinct towards pain avoidance that’s part of most people’s psychological wiring. My brain was like, “Holy shit, this feels weird, something bad might happen, let’s stop doing this immediately before we burst into flames and die.” I didn’t know the difference between pain that leads to injury and just the normal discomfort of serious physical exertion, and so my brain interpreted it all as DEFCON 1.
I found that when pushing myself up against my perceived limits, a little bit at a time, that I not only didn’t burst into flames and die, but I also felt pretty good once that discomfort went away. Plus, the gains to my performance were undeniable. Over the course of several years, I went from struggling to run a mile in less than 10 minutes to being able to easily run several miles at a 7:30 pace. The only thing that really happened was that I made the choice to stop recoiling from discomfort, and to instead find a way to sit with it and make it work for me.
I’m not the only one who has made this realization. For instance, here’s an article by Charlotte Hilton Andersen that talks about this very concept:
However, there’s also another option that’s equally viable and totally transformative: Learn how to become comfortable with discomfort. It may sound like a yogic cliché, but developing the ability to be steadfast in the face of stress has the power to unlock a world of benefits for your physical fitness and your life.
The entire article looks at the question from the perspective of pursuing physical fitness, which I am obviously all about, but as with so many of the psychological skills I’ve developed while I’ve been up in the gym workin’ on my fitness, this skill has been applicable to the rest of my life.
Every bit of personal growth I have ever experienced in my life was preceded in some way by discomfort. Learning new skills and ideas, becoming a more ethical person, absorbing new experiences, seeing the world through perspectives other than my own: every single bit of it came with some discomfort.
Here’s a short but by no means exhaustive list:
- I agonized for months before finally making the decision to leave the Mormon church, even though I knew it would hurt my parents. It’s been almost twenty years since then, and I still don’t regret that decision.
- When I was in eighth grade, I struggled with geometry for most of a semester, pulling mediocre grades at best. I hated it and wanted to give up every day, until one day, the concept of theorems clicked, and suddenly I loved geometry.
- I was busted for stealing quarters from my stepmom’s dresser when I was in high school, so I could buy soda at school. She was crying when she confronted me, and told me she had been saving those quarters for a trip to Las Vegas. Since then, I’ve never taken a single thing that didn’t belong to me.
- I don’t even want to lay out all of the dumb shit I’ve said to people as a result of being a clueless white straight girl raised in the land of the clueless white straight people (aka Utah). Let’s just say that a) that shit still plagues me even if it happened twenty years ago and b) I’ve never said any of those things again.
- I am a miserable public speaker. I get so nervous whenever I have to talk in front of a group of people numbering more than, say, three. It’s even worse when I compare myself to Brian, who is a brilliant off-the-cuff speaker. I want to get better at it, so I’ve done the following: spoken on panels, read my writing in front of an audience, given radio interviews, been a guest on podcasts, reported on live TV. Every single time has been terrifying, and yet never once did I finish speaking and think, “Gosh, I wish I’d never done that.”
There’s so much more I could include in this list, but I’ll leave it there. All of these are deeply uncomfortable experiences – some of them admittedly much worse than others – and yet I like to think I’ve used those experiences to become a better human being. And what I’ve found as I’ve gotten older is that I’ve come to embrace a little bit of discomfort – and all of its feelings-cousins, like awkwardness, nervousness, even fear – because I know that if I use it the right way, it will make me stronger, better, and yes, faster.
I am like most people in that I really like being comfortable, and pointless suffering and martyrdom isn’t really my style. However, I also know that growth is inherently an uncomfortable experience, and because I’d like to keep growing as a human being, I know that being uncomfortable is just going to be a part of the life I want to have. So I figure, why fight it? It’s going to happen whether I want it to or not, so instead of hiding from it, I’ve chosen to embrace it and make it work for me.