During this holiday week—in the U.S. at least—we're recycling a few posts (this one is from May of 2012.) And we're talking about building character, so you're fired up once you leave the beach/cabin/lake/staycation at home that you're probably hanging at right now.
Let’s just preface this post by saying I’m no expert on building character. I don’t subscribe to the Kelly Clarkson/Nietzsche idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There are a lot of things that don’t kill me that don’t really make me stronger. Parenting, for one, comes to mind.
But I am definitely familiar with those character building workouts (CBWs) that slowly chip away at the fortitude you thought you had, and within a few miles, all you are is a bundle of doubts, anger, weakness. I can’t handle this. I'm too tired. I'm too slow. My legs weigh too much and they jiggle. Who do I think I’m kidding?
Just so we're clear: CBWs aren’t about pushing through pain that you know isn’t normal. You don’t build character by not listening to your yelling body. They’re also not caused by going much longer or much faster than you’re used to. You also don’t build character by causing injury.
CBWs are when the only thing that really hurts in that I-wanna-quit-now way is your ego--or your head. You get through those suckers, and you build character.
Surprisingly enough, CBWs aren't the hardest or longest workouts of a training plan. When you're staring down the longest run you've ever done or a lung-burning session at the track, you've likely mentally prepared yourself for the challenge simply because it's hung over your head like a thundercloud for days (or weeks).
CBWs happen most typically when the wind/sun/cold/rain is wearing you down; when you’re in the middle third of a training plan and the initial glee of following a schedule has worn off but the race—and fitness rewards—aren’t close enough to taste; when you were supposed to meet a friend for a workout, but she bailed, and with her went your momentum; when you just can't stomach another four-miler on your exact same route.
How do you know if you're in the midst of a CBW? One sure clue: you want to cut it short for no good reason except for that you’re just not interested in finishing it.
I had one of those workouts a couple weeks ago, when I (conveniently) composed this post in my head. I was riding my bike for ideally 35 miles, and within a mile of setting out, I just knew I was going to struggle. The wind was whipping, the pavement, far from smooth, were those annoying little pea pebbles that make every inch of me vibrate. My legs didn’t get the memo that I needed them to feel fluid and strong. Instead, they felt as strong—and breakable—as a piece of uncooked spaghetti.
Here’s seven ways I built some character that day:
1. I played games in my head. The clock was ticking soooo slowly—only 43 minutes? I feel like I’ve been riding for 1 hour, 43 minutes. So I started on the alphabet game, using license plates and road signs to find all 26 letters of the alphabet. When I got to Z--a real score, by the way (I gave myself a pass on X and Q), I started on numbers. I thought about what kind of dog I'd like to adopt. I remembered bringing Amelia home from the hospital. In other words, I thought about anything but the numbers in front of me and the fact that I was riding into the wind on pea gravel.
2. I gave myself just one goal: finish the workout. I didn't care if my average mph was slower than my typical running pace. I was going to ride for 35 miles, even if it killed me. (At least then I'd die stronger, so that's something.) Reduce your workout to the lowest common denominator--lose the tempo, the hills, the splits--but don't lose the most important number.
3. I tried to think positive, which is not my strong suit. I am healthy, I get to move my body, it is sunny, I am riding my bike while my kids are in school. What's not to love there? Flipping the situation so you can see the good isn't always easy--I get to run--but it's always worth a shot.
4. I promised myself a hot chocolate and breakfast burrito at the cool coffee shop at the end of the ride. But only if I went the full 35 miles. Bribery works as well for this 40-year-old as it does for three-year-olds.
5. I only focused on getting to the halfway point. Because after that, every minute/mile/step/pedal brings you closer to being done. And if you're doing an out-and-back route, there's no choice but to get home, right?
6. I sucked it up. There are so few pockets in my week where a two-hour ride is possible, and if I would’ve flipped around and headed home, I knew I would’ve really regretted it as soon as I reached my minivan to drive home. When you're struggling, place yourself mentally at the end of the run. In one scenario, pretend you bailed. In the other, you finished. Which one do you want to feel? Thought so.
7. Because I knew it would be easier next time. Somewhere during this hellish workout, I remembered this tiny pocket of resilience, which usually hides somewhere in my quads, that I forgot I had. I ripped it open, let the strength course through my body and soaked it up. It honestly made a difference. I'll forget about that pocket until I'm in the middle of my net character-building workout, and suddenly I'll remember to look for it; it won't be as hard to find.
I know there's enough character out there to fill Hollywood; what other tips do you have for building character during those tough workouts?