The Comfort Zone

>> Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I have come across a range of blog posts and articles in the past month on the topic of pushing yourself during activity, specifically during running. Some preach to go easy and celebrate all accomplishments, big and small. Others insist if there's no pain -- and there SHOULD be pain -- there's no gain.

Of course, two extremes.

The way we see it, which should be no surprise, is that balance is best. Our bodies are more capable than our minds allow them to be. I have much of a harder time pushing myself than Stephen does because I let my brain rule. The mental aspect of training is what gets me every time.

We all have different capacities to endure discomfort, however. The key to finding a healthy balance is defining your own comfort zone. Doing so will take trial and error. To find your basic zone, consider visiting a nearby track and having a friend time you as you run an easy mile. (We could get much more specific, but we'll save that for another post.)

The pace should be light enough that you can carry a conversation. Once you've figured it out, you can begin experimenting with pushing beyond it. But working out hard shouldn't be a daily thing.


  • When your plan says you should. Most training plans are divided up into easy days, quality workouts, and rest. Track workouts and hill repeats are the times when you should leave you comfort zone. You don't need to go crazy, but working harder will yield results.
  • During races. Pushing it when it counts the most. Throughout, but especially in the final mile or miles of a race, depending on the distance. After all, it's a RACE. That's sort of the point. Right?
  • When the mood strikes. Some days, you might just feel like pushing hard. Maybe you need an energy release. Maybe you have missed some days in your regular routine. Whatever it is, go with it.
There's a difference between pushing through pain and pushing through discomfort. When the sensation hits you, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish between the two. Oftentimes, that burning feeling in your muscles at the end of a hard workout is the buildup of lactic acid.

Runner beware: Pain can also mean injury. For example, I DNFed at the Wineglass Marathon (wrote about it here and here) in the fall of 2010. Something just didn't feel right. I ended up having an acute IT-band issue that took months to heal.

I hate to think about it, but I have zero shame in stopping. It was the right thing to do in that situation. It doesn't make me any less of an athlete. Taking it easy throughout the healing process helped me bounce back. Being "hardcore" isn't so cool if it's at the expense of your health.

In perspective, it was a mere blip in a long relationship I hope to have with running.


  • During injury/illness/etc. If you're sick or feeling a pain in a specific area time and time again, it's probably time to rest. Visit the doctor. Reevaluate goals. In my experience, pushing through will only hurt more in the long run.  
  • On easy days. Or between training cycles. As I mentioned above, you should really only being running hard a few days a week as defined in a training plan. Those quality days are what make you a stronger runner. The easy days are for maintenance, base mileage, and active rest/recovery. Enjoy them.  
  • During mental burnout. I am prone to this one. It's why I leave my watch behind on most runs. If you're experiencing true burnout, take some time off. Sometimes all you need is a few days for fresh perspective.
The truth is: Unless you push beyond your comfort zone at least some of the time, you likely won't see significant changes in your race times. If you're a hobby runner, that might be fine. But if you want to see results, experiment.

I started by simply signing up for more races. It was my way of getting in more speedwork while having some fun. Over time, I became s.l.i.g.h.t.l.y more disciplined and have been able to carry over some of it to my training. Stephen has some more specific methods we'll examine in another post.

How do you feel about pushing yourself during exercise? Any experiences to share?

Today on Writing Chapter Three, we have a bit of a photo-bomb for you of 9 month photos at the park. Nine months? REALLY?!

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