A Tale of Two Workouts: Stopping, overcoming, and the stuff between the ears

Yasso 800s on the treadmill. It was a workout I had done several times leading up to my marathon last December. Challenging, yes. Brutal, no. One month after the marathon, they were on my schedule again. The first couple felt okay, then they got progessively harder. Normally, the first couple are the hardest while my body tries to adjust to the pace. This time when I finished the sixth one, I was spent. I had been in contact with my coach about how I had been struggling with some of my workouts. His advice to me was “When in doubt, rest,” so I decided to pull the plug. Since I had so much experience with this workout, I knew something was off and I felt that trying to finish might set me back more than it would help.

Fast forward a couple weeks. Same workout. The first few 800s were challenging. Number four was worse. I considered bailing out. During my recovery “lap”, I remembered a quote that went something like, “Once you start quitting, it becomes a habit.”* I still felt like I had made the right decision the last time, but was the fact that I had bailed out weakening my resolve? Would I start taking the easy way out during races? I knew that I was physically stronger than last time, so I told myself that I needed to at least make it through six. Then I pushed through number seven so I would at least be able to say I had made progress. I felt I could do another, and after number eight I knew I’d make it through all ten. Victory was sweet.

Knowing when to stop or modify a workout is tricky. People who have been exercising a long time develop a mental toughness that allows them to push through extreme physical discomfort. As Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own “The hard is what makes it great.” This kind of attitude can lead to tremendous accomplishments, but if we ignore everything our bodies are telling us, we can end up doing ourselves harm. Some good reasons to stop or scale back a workout include:

  • Illness
  • Injury
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Feeling the after affects of a race or hard workout
  • Staganting or slowing down despite consistent workouts
  • Mental burnout

While “quitting” can be the smart thing to do, it’s also important to make sure a detour doesn’t become a U-turn. Let’s face it – exercise is often inconvenient and uncomfortable. There’s a reason why most people don’t stick with it. A pattern of skipping workouts leads to diminished fitness and discouragement which makes it even tougher.

I still think that ending the first workout was the right choice, but I was surprised at how much it affected me the next time around. Training my body continues to teach me a lot about my mind.

* The official quote was Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.  -Vince Lomardi

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