Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Imagine you’re in the middle of an interval workout.
Wait, that’s impossible. The exact sensations you feel during a workout are pretty hard to conceptualize at rest. Sitting here at my computer, almost any workout seems doable. Fun even! 5 x 3 minute hills? That’s just 15 minutes of adventure. I can do that in my sleep!
Before getting to this paragraph, I ran that exact workout at altitude outside Aspen. My resting brain thought it was going to be challenging and rewarding, a chance to push to the edge with love. My workout-brain took a different perspective.
WHAT THE CRAP IS THIS?!
WHY DO I TASTE PENNIES AND HAVE TO POOP?!
STOP, YOU JERK. STOP NOW. STOP STOPPITY STOP-STOP.
Within a few minutes of finishing the last interval, my resting brain returned. “Not that bad,” I thought. “Heck, I should have gone faster!”
For the purposes of this article, the rest-brain can take a hike. The rest-brain, being the kind and open-hearted optimist it is, will now frolic in a field of wildflowers.
Is it gone? That little do-good b*tch? Off to make the world a better place or some crap? OK, now let’s see what the mid-workout brain has to say.
THE UNIVERSE IS COLD AND WE ALL DIE, NONE OF THIS MATTERS. EAT ARBY’S.
The difference between the workout-brain and rest-brain is usually not that extreme.
The rest-brain has some understanding of what workouts entail, and the workout brain can see the big picture and find some joy or purpose in the grind. But in every single hard effort, the workout-brain’s worst impulses can shine if given the smallest opening.
Two weeks ago, I did another simple workout. 20 minutes moderately hard, up Mt. Sanitas in Boulder. That one ended a bit differently–hands on knees, then hands on hips, then kicking the dirt. Just 10 minutes of the effort had passed, and I didn’t make friends with the workout-brain before I started. So I quit.
I had a secret intent to snag the best time on the climb. That type of results-oriented goal-setting allowed the workout brain to get out a bullhorn.
YOU WORTHLESS JAR OF EXPIRED MAYONNAISE, YOU AREN’T ABLE TO DO THIS.
The workout-brain won because I gave it a context where the point wasn’t to embrace that feeling, but to get past that feeling so that my rest-brain could have glory and accomplishment. I jogged back down, feeling sorry for myself and my rancid mayo legs.
So even though I know all of this, and I coach athletes from pros to beginners through the process of some brutally hard workouts, I still mess up and quit workouts. The problem is that once that workout DNF door is nudged open, it can stay open. The lack of self-compassion embodied in quitting a workout can even have consequences far off the trail.
That’s why I like athletes to apply a general rule: as long as you’re healthy (physically and mentally), you finish the workouts you start. Even if you have to slow down a ton. Even if you need to take a longer break in the middle. Even if the workout brain convinces you that you’re a useless slimy condiment.
Disclaimer: Still listen to your body and brain most of the time. You can always cancel or move a workout. Instead, don’t let the workout-brain be the one that makes that decision if you ever have issues with self-judgment. That framework isn’t necessary for everyone. As described in the amazing book “Running With The Kenyans” by Adharanand Finn, some of the elite athletes would only stick in a workout as long as they could hold the pace, even if it meant doing a small portion of the total session. Different approaches work, so think about what your personal limiters are.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article on “compassionate completion,” the general idea of practicing love and self-acceptance during workouts. This article is a bit different, acknowledging that some days, self-love might not be possible, especially for the nihilistic workout-brain. What do you do then?
Answer: you still finish the damn thing.
It all gets back to what is actually happening in the brain during hard efforts. The controversial central governor model of exercise regulation (see this 2001 article for an intro) predicts that the brain and spinal cord determine motor unit recruitment during exercise, essentially to ward off catastrophic failure of body systems. Other theories rely on task dependency based on the type of exercise (2006 review article), anticipatory fatigue regulation where the brain predicts effort levels and modulates performance accordingly (2014 review article), and other psychobiological models that create a more unified system between the nervous system and working muscles (2008 article). As outlined by the great book Endure, no matter how the final accounting comes out, it’s certain that the brain plays a major role in exercise performance, particularly when things are really, really hard.
Some of how the brain responds is likely genetic–especially in the complex interplay of brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin with performance modulation. I have seen athletes that can dig so deep that they need to be excavated from every finish line with a backhoe. While that seems like “choosing toughness,” it’s probably just as much “being born with a brain that processes fatigue signals slightly differently than average,” then reinforcing that trait over time. Working from that genetic baseline, though, our nervous systems can get better at coping with fatigue.
Or, they can get worse.
And that’s why I don’t like quitting workouts to be an option when healthy.
There are three big rules to apply before you start any workout.
First, make sure that you are not thinking past the workout–focus on the process of it, not the outcomes of it. Like me bailing on the climb, if you don’t stay present in the effort, the reality of every neuron screaming at you may become apparent all at once, impossible to ignore. Think “I am going to enjoy this because it’s hard,” not “I am going to enjoy this because I am going to excel and create some sexy Strava porn.” This is self-belief practice.
Second, tune into what you actually feel, not what you anticipate feeling later. Three-minute intervals are a great example. If you had no context and were plopped down 55 seconds in, the sensations would be manageable. At 2:55, maybe it’d be a bit more uncomfortable. But if you spend a couple minutes anticipating the coming discomfort, you’ll down-regulate your performance due to the abstract knowledge of a monster that may be under the bed in the future. Stay where you are, because that 2:55 feeling is only meant to be felt for a life-affirming 5 seconds, not anticipated for a soul-crushing 2 minutes, 5 seconds.
Third, start relaxed and get vulnerable. It begins in the first 20 seconds–make them anti-climatic and underwhelming. Most athletes self-select paces that are too fast at the start of intervals, and even if not, it’s always better to progress the effort as you go. As you work into the effort, remember that it’s OK. It’s OK if it’s stressful or hard or slower or faster, if there is a yawning pit of existential despair where compassion should be. The workout is self-exploration, and the coolest self-discoveries are found outside of your comfort zone, yawning pits included.
Oh no! Crap crap crap. The dark space outside of your comfort zone is where all of the monsters are. The lactic acid cyclops, the GI tract dragon, the muscle failure Congressperson–all are lurking there in the blackness, waiting to pounce.
But shine a light on them.
THIS SUCKS. STOP. REALLY, I MEAN IT. WHY ARE YOU NOT STOPPING?
The monsters are just the workout brain, disguising itself in physiological processes designed to protect our health, hijacking them to manifest our deepest insecurities into one action.
But it’s OK. Workout-brain, you are loved too. And if you’re in a mental space where love isn’t possible, then workout-brain, you are at least not going to get in the way. This is happening.
The fatigue byproducts from the muscles and cardiovascular system that the workout-brain can interpret as threats are actually all just signals. Maybe we need to slow down a bit–as a coach, I’d much rather a controlled and uplifting session than pushing the athlete to the point that they require an overnight soak in dish soap to be scraped off the trail. That’s especially relevant with external stressors, like heat or altitude, that make the pace unreflective of the total stress. Faster does not mean better for adaptations.
Or maybe we can push through. The key thing to remember is that each workout is a gateway to the next workout, so don’t set up a system that undercuts your ability to complete and enjoy the next session. One workout is cool, but 100 workouts start to give a hint of long-term potential. Either way, embracing those fatigue signals can make it so that they get easier and easier to understand and push past.
SO IT’S ALL GOING TO BE OK?
Yes, workout-brain. Not only that, you are loved, and every journey outside of the comfort zone is a chance to put some light in a dark place.
Yes. You’re still going to scream sometimes. But whether a workout goes amazingly or poorly, as long as health isn’t at risk, working through it will help the brain adapt from a genetic baseline. The body follows. And what started as an intellectual approach to the complex perception of fatigue works its way into cellular- and systems- level shifts in what we are capable of in future workouts.
In other words: It’s going to be hard, and that’s the point. Get with it, or get out of the way. Because we got this. Slow or fast, fun or misery, Strava porn or Strava abomination.
WE GOT THIS.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.