Learned Discomfort

Contrary to what half of this blog might tell you, I actually have a very love/hate relationship with Zwift racing and racing in general. For starters, I’m not that competitive with other people. When my mind is in it, I can push myself incredibly hard and be highly motivated to race hard and do well. But until you reach the pointy end of the racing scene, you’re so rarely the one in control. There’s someone else driving the pace and forcing you to work harder than you may want. And that’s where the “hate” part of the “love/hate” comes in. Racing hurts. A lot. If your mind isn’t committed to the effort then there is perhaps no more excruciating way to spend your time on a bike.

So how does one get motivated to push themselves hard – be it in a race or any other activity? Well. That’s a good question. If I knew the answer that worked all the time, I  would probably race a lot more and be stronger for it. But the answer that works for me a decent chunk of the time is learning to accept the pain and discomfort through repeated exposure.

The first hard effort is always going to hurt a lot. That’s just a fact. Whether its your first race, a new brutal type of interval, or even just your first long ride or run, it’s going to hurt. But as long as it doesn’t leave you a broken mess on the floor, you’ll realize you can get through it. Then the next time you find yourself in that situation, you’ll know that you made it through last time and you can make it through again. Eventually, you can approach the most painful of efforts with calm state of mind that dissociates the physical effort from the instinctual panic in your brain. But it never hurts less. You just go faster.

A Fitness Analog

Gradually, as the physical adaptations come, so too do the mental ones. You build up a mental fitness to the hard work and a confidence that your body will pull through even when your mind wants to quit. It’s this progressive tolerance to the pain that I think of as “learned discomfort”. It doesn’t stop being uncomfortable but you’ve learned how to get through it, and hopefully enjoy it.

Now the unfortunate thing is, like physical fitness, the stronger your willpower and “learned discomfort” gets, the greater the stimulus needed to maintain increasingly high levels of strength. After a while, hopping on the bike and going for a long ride or lacing up and going for a long run might not be perceived as that uncomfortable – it might even be enjoyable – but maintaining that same confidence and acceptance of the discomfort when the intensity is ratcheted up is hard.

And that’s about where my learned discomfort waffles. I’ve learned to enjoy higher volume training even if it is taxing. I can consistently do and enjoy two and three hour medium intensity rides on the trainer multiple days a week, but I struggle to work up the motivation to do the hard intervals and join races. When I get the ball rolling, I can consistently do 2-3 races a week and enjoy tolerate it for more than a month . Once I let it slip a bit, weeks can go by where I won’t enter a race – even if I really want to want to race.

How does this help?

No one is ever perfect at training (or anything, really). However, knowing the tools in your toolbox that will help you take the next step towards whatever it is you want achieve is key to striving for that ideal. For me, at least, that’s figuring out if I do really want to push myself to that next level or I just want to ride my bike and be half-decent at it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The takeaway from this ramble is that the hard efforts don’t magically happen. You have to build yourself up to it. Learn to manage the effort. Learn discomfort.


Cheers and Ride On!



One thought on “Learned Discomfort”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s