Back to Fitness: Do the Hard Stuff

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John Andersen

During a recent conversation with a friend on the way to a trail race, we were philosophizing about why we race and do endurance sports. We came to the agreement that we race not because it’s fun, but because it’s hard. This is a mindset that comes easily to an experienced endurance athlete, but one that is likely more difficult to embrace for someone new to or getting back to fitness.  

For most people who are starting a new fitness routine, whatever they are doing is a new stress to the body and is generally HARD. I firmly believe that it is much harder for someone to accomplish a couch-to-5k program than it is for someone to go from a half marathon program to a marathon program. When you are just starting out running or biking or whatever, it is typically all pain and little gain. How in the world do we go from just trying to get out the door to signing up and training for some long, hard race or event?

And then there is all of the social media out there – Facebook, Instagram, Strava, etc.– with imagery of running/biking/swimming/working out, etc., looking quite effortless and downright fun. This can make it even more discouraging.  

But back to the allure of doing hard stuff…

I like to race, and I like to race a lot. And if I’ve signed up for a race, I’m typically going to give it my all and put in a hard effort. Thus, I can say that racing is definitely anything but fun or easy.  Whether running a 5k or 50 miles, it’s going to get very uncomfortable, more uncomfortable than anything else I ever do in my life. There is physical pain, mental exhaustion, and the constant emotional strain of expectations and self-worth.  

I feel confident that I can speak for anyone who is out there giving their all at a race or endurance event, whether 5k or marathon, bike race or triathlon —races are not fun, they’re hard!

Why in the world would someone who is having a hard time working up to a regular fitness routine want to sign up for something like a race, that from the sound of it won’t be any fun?  Yes, that is what I am saying here—you should sign up for a race or event!  You should do the hard stuff!

Let me share that as much as I find racing to be extremely hard, it has been the most life-changing activity that I engage in as an adult.  Let me count the ways:

Racing is rewarding.  Completing a new distance or finishing a race in a new personal best time is always an extremely satisfying feeling. In one event, you have shown yourself that hard work pays off and you can truly feel that these races are more of a celebration of all of the work you put in to get there. But you don’t have to set a personal best or complete a record distance to feel that reward. Most of us are battling all of the pressures of life on a daily basis and sometimes just making it to the start line and the finish line is a huge accomplishment in itself. Racing provides a venue for you to ask yourself important questions like, “Who am I?”, “Do I care?”, and “What else can I do?”  

Racing provides personal growth.  When you are hurting, discouraged, or losing faith, but somehow you overcome those feelings and accomplish something, you will grow as a person. As the saying goes, “When it’s easy, it’s easy.” Those good days are great, but you don’t always learn and grow as much as on those tough days. If you race enough, you will have tough days. You’ll have days when you quit, when you fail, or when you simply underperform. Those are tough! I have learned more about myself on those tough days, and I feel fortunate to have had plenty of them.  

Racing provides great camaraderie. If you like people, races are a great way to connect and make deeper relationships with those who also challenged themselves that day.  Especially when you see each other struggling and overcoming, both in training and on race day. More often than not, racing is about encouraging each other, rather than beating each other. That spirit does indeed impact our behavior in our daily lives.  

Racing helps you handle all those other challenges in life. Hard day at work? You’ve done harder things on race day. Kids driving you crazy? You’ve had to focus like this on race day. People not believing in you? You’ve believed in yourself on race day. Life in this 21st century is on one hand mentally complex and overwhelming, while on the other hand physically the easiest we have ever had it. Racing and training for races is a way to remedy both of those issues. We can build mental toughness and resiliency while also keeping our bodies moving like they are supposed to. The combination of an inactive lifestyle with a stressful life is a recipe for disaster and disability. Don’t count on anyone else to solve this problem for you. Get out there and fix it yourself.

I know many of you have no desire to push yourself at a race, and many of you just don’t want to be around that many people. But the point remains—get out there and do the hard stuff. Find a venue and challenge! 

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