How to gut out the tough workout

Today I had a really tough workout. It was unexpectedly tough, not expectedly tough.

I went for a run in the trails of Frick Park. The route was my usual 5-mile rather hilly out and back (down to Fern Hollow and back up) that is a staple for me, and which I last did almost a month ago. As I mentioned then, in winter I have not usually run in the trails of Frick Park, because of snow or ice, but this winter, I’m trying to do more trail running when feasible, because road running and “treadmilling” (because of some friends using the term recently, I’ve recently decided to use it myself and no longer call it “running” at all, since the biomechanics are so different) are not as fun for me.

The run quickly turned out to be very challenging. I thought of bailing out. Here’s how I gutted it out.

Should I even gut it out at all?

The first question we should ask when thinking about whether to gut it out is whether we actually should. Ego often prevents us from asking the question. Sometimes there definitely are legitimate reasons for just “following orders” and turning off the mind and doing what one has planned to do. If you’re trapped in the wilderness and need to survive, you need to stay focused on doing what needs to be done, and never once question whether you should, because else you will probably die. We should definitely always be prepared to do what we need to do, without question.

However, in the case of a workout that is not a matter of life and death, I have come to believe that it is wise to question what one is doing. This is tricky, because it takes energy to make decisions, while it takes no energy to just follow orders. In a previous post I’ve tried to break down the dilemma into three questions when you doubt your planned workout. Also, I have described situations in which I have backed away in one controlled manner or another from the planned workout.

This post is about the case when you know you don’t have a truly valid excuse to back out. You feel healthy, you feel you can probably accomplish the task, but something physical or mental is hurting and tempts you to back down.

My difficulty today

My friend Chris recently started a running blog, and just today he put up a great post about his experiences with winter running. In the comments I noted in agreement that running in snow is tough. Amusingly, this gave me the idea to go out and test just how tough running in snow is, when in the hilly trails of Frick Park. Trail running in anything other than a trivial layer snow is not something I have done recently.

Well, it’s really tough. Running up hills has never been my strong point in any case, but with snow and little traction, running uphill proved to be immensely difficult. I felt like I was sliding while inching uphill, while my quads and inner thighs were burning with the effort to stabilize my body while pushing uphill.

Given that I knew how hilly the rest of the course would be, I had concerns about whether I would give out early.

Analysis: physical, then mental

So my doubt started with some physical anxiety, followed by a mental anxiety combined with projections and calculations in my head. What to do?

One thing to remember is that it is not possible to trust on-the-fly mental anxieties. We do not only fool ourselves self-servingly in various ways when we are under physical duress. Our bodies may also be fooled by our minds even against our wishes. There is a hypothesis that has been gaining favor in the endurance sports communities that there is a central governor that works to try to protect us from overdoing ourselves.

I believe the central governor could not have been an issue for me in my workout, which was really not all that terrible, but I think it may have been an issue in long races where I really have pushed myself to my limits.


When you feel like maybe you won’t finish what you set out to do, it is easy to get emotional and lose objectivity. Frustration, anger, shame, anxiety, too easily arise, if one is serious about one’s exercise program, and especially if there is some concrete milestone or goal to achieve, like a big race you’ve sacrificed a lot of time and energy (and maybe money) for. But it’s important to remember that whatever you’ve already put in is a sunk cost. The rational thing to do is to examine the present, not the past or the future.

Think of the worst case scenarios

To avoid wishful thinking, I find it useful to examine the worst case scenarios and ask whether they are so bad. If so, then scale back and examine the probable scenarios. If the worst case scenario is not so bad, then I tend to push through, because I don’t have that much to lose. “Negative thinking” is a useful trick that is a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy.

So, for example, today, the temperature was something like 35F, which is not bad at all. If I got too tired to run and had to walk, I would not be in any danger of hypothermia or anything. So it was totally worth pushing on in order to test my limits even if I had to stop eventually.

And, needless to say, there is no shame in walking. I have very rarely had to resort to walking during a run that I planned, but it has happened before. No big deal.

Change some variable to make your workout more likely to “succeed”

Once I realized that my run was going to be very tough, I redefined my workout. I slowed down and focused on the goal of maintaining a steady (and still considerable) effort and not having to walk, and finishing strong.

Learning to fail is laudable and useful, but so is learning to accept small successes. Small successes breed confidence and therefore the foundation for attempting larger successes. So despite what I just said about walking being OK, in my experience it does have a demoralizing or questioning effect, so I prefer to finish strong at a lesser task rather than fail to finish a more ambitious task.

Sometimes it’s a judgment call. But one thing for sure is that I was very excited to emerge from Frick Park with my quads having burned for an hour but still able to pick up the pace back on the roads home.

An advantage of succeeding at a lesser task is that there is a clear path toward upping the difficulty. If you fail, it’s harder to find out where to scale down the difficulty.

Endurance vs. strength

Here I’ve been talking about tasks of endurance. When it comes to strength, the opposite is true: you want to fail in order to determine the parameters. You want to lift weights to failure, rather than mindlessly doing twenty reps of some light weight.


I had a pretty good run today despite initially not being sure I should go through with it. I reasoned that it was worth a shot and that I had backup plans for both my body and mind if I didn’t make it. I look forward to doing more super-hard snowy uphill trail running this winter. It will make me stronger.

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