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comfort: do you really know your zone?

Brent Holten

How many times have you been told to "Get out of your comfort zone, that's where growth happens?" It's an oft-repeated phrase but, on closer look, it goes against everything that we strive for in our lives. Don't we all really want to be more comfortable, not less? Compared to our parents or grandparents, our daily lives are a model of comfort and ease. Today, we can summon a car or a week's worth of groceries with a tap of our smart phones. We can use the abundance of digital information about wellness to resolve a range of discomforts from insomnia to abdominal pain to indigestion. 

So why would we choose to spotlight discomfort in this issue of our newsletter? We're not trying to be un-American, but we've found that facing (and in some cases embracing) discomfort in our workouts can be beneficial to our lives.

"People who spend time training for a new personal best in a race or tackling a difficult mountain climb find that they don't sweat a difficult conversation at work or a stressful situation at home anymore," Brent Holten says. "Because they push their bodies, they are used to discomfort and can be calm when they experience it."

Research supports this theory. Studies show that moderately intense physical exercise improves brain function. But pushing to the extreme could add another benefit. It could be that performance athletes working in discomfort get a chance to practice suffering. And, like anything else in our lives, the more we practice something the more we are at peace with it. 

Few hone this skill better than professional endurance and adventure athletes, who make a living withstanding conditions others cannot. A recent article in Outside Magazine interviewed the world's top endurance and adventure athletes on the practices underlying their success. Regardless of the sport, the most resounding theme, by far, is that they've all learned how to embrace uncomfortable situations:

  • Olympic marathoner Des Linden said that at mile 20 of 26.2, when the inevitable suffering kicks in, through years of practice she's learned to stay relaxed and in the moment. She repeats the mantra: "calm, calm, calm; relax, relax, relax."
  • World-champion big-wave surfer Nic Lamb says being uncomfortable, and even afraid, is a prerequisite to riding four-story waves. But he also knows it's "the path to personal development." He's learned that while you can pull back, you can almost always push through. "Pushing through is courage. Pulling back is regret," he says.
  • Free-soloist Alex Honnold explains that "the only way to deal with [pain] is practice. [I] get used to it during training so that when it happens on big climbs, it feels normal."
  • Evelyn Stevens, the women's record holder for most miles cycled in an hour (29.81 - yes, that's nuts), says during her hardest training intervals, "instead of thinking I want these to be over, I try to feel and sit with the pain. Heck, I even try to embrace it."

But you don't need to scale massive vertical pitches or run five-minute miles to reap the benefits. Simply training for your first half marathon or climbing competition can yield huge dividends that carry over into other areas of life.

"Exercise isn't just about helping out your health down the road, and it's certainly not just about vanity," Brent says. "What you do in the gym makes you a better, higher-performing person outside of it. The truth, cliché as it may sound, is this: When you develop physical fitness, you're developing life fitness too."