Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. – Romans 5: 3-4
I ran a race with Hubby the day before New Year’s Eve. It was a 5-miler that we have done many times before. This year, runners ran the usual course in reverse. That meant that the big hill, which usually appears at mile one, now showed up at mile four.
I checked my running log. This race was the first time I attempted to push the pace since last June due to my injury.
The race started out fine. We ascended a small hill on the road, then turned left to run on a cinder trail that followed a creek. It was pretty, fairly flat and not too cold. When we got to about mile three, however, I told Bill I needed to take a short walk break, even though we were not climbing. I was not used to the discomfort of running fast.
We walked for about 10 steps then began running again. Until we got to the hill. The hill at mile four is steep, long, and nasty. I took many walk breaks as we climbed the hill. It seemed as though I no sooner started running again than my body began complaining, telling me to slow down.
Fortunately, what comes up must come down (especially when the course is a loop), so we finished on a downhill, which felt great. I flew down the hill and crossed the finish line. Of course, “flew” is relative. My “flying” these days would have been “crawling” two years ago.
As I sipped on a post-race cup of cocoa, I thought about the discomfort I felt and my reaction to it.
I think that the majority of a long distance runner’s training is not really done to strengthen muscles or increase endurance. I think it is done to increase our level of comfort with discomfort.
When I first began running many years ago I could barely run 1/4 mile without walking. I covered a three-mile course, but I walked whenever I got tired, and I got tired a lot. Within a month, I had built up the distance I ran without walking to the entire three-mile course. I don’t think my legs or lungs changed enough to increase my stamina by a factor of 12 in that short time. I think I just became comfortable being uncomfortable.
The same concept is true for other fitness goals. When I first got on Twitter, almost a year ago, I noticed many of the runners I followed participated in plank challenges. In a plank challenge, you begin the month by holding a forearm plank for 30 seconds. Gradually, throughout the month, the length of the plank increases by a factor of 10 or 15 seconds. By the end of the month, you are (theoretically) holding a plank for three minutes.
I tried to join in, but by the middle of each month, I always got distracted. Holding a plank is hard. It’s uncomfortable. My arms would begin to shake, my middle section would begin to droop, and I would lose interest in the entire project.
Then I read an article about how older runners (like me) need to maintain high levels of core strength to prevent injuries and my motivation for planking spiked. I followed my own schedule to increase plank time and eventually reached four minutes and 45 seconds.
My core muscles didn’t drastically improve; I became more comfortable being uncomfortable.
I recently watched an excellent TED talk by Mellody Hobson, one of only two female African-American CEOs of publicly traded companies in the U.S. Ms. Hobson told a story about an exercise assigned to her by her swimming coach.
She was instructed to swim the entire length of a 25-meter pool without taking a breath. Every time she failed, she was directed to go back and try again. She failed many times before she finally succeeded, swimming the length of the pool in one breath. Annoyed, she asked her coach the purpose of the breath-holding exercise.
“Mellody,” he said, “that was not a breath-holding exercise. That was a drill to make you comfortable being uncomfortable, because that’s how most of us spend our days.”
The point was for her to learn to deal with discomfort. If we can relax into our discomfort, we can live a better life; we can grow as swimmers and as human beings. Mastering a little discomfort, even looking forward to it, can improve the quality of our lives in so many ways.
Many people run into trouble by avoiding discomfort. Rather than allowing disconcerting moments into our lives, we attempt to mask them through alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, or fatty, sugary foods. We don’t exercise because not exercising is more comfortable.
Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, donuts, and fried chicken are called comfort foods for a reason. When we eat these calorie-dense foods, we initially feel a reassuring sense of solace. Initially. Until we step on the scale or get an unsatisfactory report from the doctor after weeks, months, or years of eating too many comfort foods. Then regret and even self-loathing may seep into our psyches.
Eating healthy foods, exercising, meditation or prayer are not soul-crushingly painful. They may involve stepping out of our comfort zone, but they are not torture. We can insert them into our routine a little bit at a time if we get used to the concept of embracing discomfort.
Once these new practices become habits, the perceived discomfort decreases, ask any runner. Your future matters; your dreams are possible. Make your own hope through discomfort. Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope.
I am linking up with Jessica and Amy at Live Life Well, Fairytales and Fitness for Friday 5, Susan B Mead for Dancing With Jesus, Spiritual Sundays for Welcome, The Blended Blog for Friday Loves, Counting My Blessings for Faith ‘n Friends, and Lyli Dunbar for Faith on Fire.