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Throwback Thursday: How to Build Character

I miss Calvin + Hobbes.

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?


24 responses to “Throwback Thursday: How to Build Character

  1. I’ll often say I know that this hour of time is going to pass, whether I spend it completing my run or workout or not. So an hour from now I can feel great that I stuck to the plan on a tough day, or an hour from now I can feel miserable for the rest of the day because I quit the workout and it would have been done if I’d stuck to it. There is no run/workout that is ever bad or I regret.

  2. After 44 years of running and 33 years of triathlon (sprint to IM distance-124th coming up..) I guess I have built a lot of character. But I feel I have built more by being a single parent (daughter is 28) and working with special needs kids for almost 40 years. The running/working out thing was a diversion from the really difficult parts of my life.

  3. What a great post. I went for a run this week that ended up being farther than I expected…one of those, if I stop now, I’m not getting home moments. I’m really trying to increase my distance and speed…neither of which are impressive at the moment. These are some good things to remember. I usually just have to talk myself through my workout…you will be stronger when you are done, you are being a good example for your boys, it doesn’t matter if you are slow, just finish. I always feel awesome when I’m done!

  4. I have been listening more to Pandora, the other day the Rocky Theme Song, Eye Of The Tiger, came on at the perfect moment. I imagined I was running up the stairs in the snow and how victorious he must have felt completing his workout. Suddenly the treadmill didn’t seem so tough.

  5. My Sunday run was a tough one. It was just over 6 miles, but it was hot as Hades outside and I was incredibly uncomfortable. With about a mile to go I just had a loop left. I could see where I would end, but I had to turn away from it to do the loop first. I was so tempted to skip it and cut the run short because of how my body felt in the heat. But what I told myself was, “this is about your head and not your body; your body can do this, so get your head out of it’s way”. When I finished my planned course, I felt incredible!

  6. I’m having *exactly* this issue with my recumbent bike workouts (the RB is still the only machine I’m allowed to do hard cardio on as I work on fixing my damn back). At first, I was fired up by the idea that this was going to keep my running fitness intact, and it has….but it’s also started to get so old….

    This morning I got through the workout by telling myself that I could do the last 20 minutes hill walking on the treadmill (which I’m also allowed to do in moderation)–and then I would get a hot chocolate at Starbucks afterwards.

  7. I like the idea of playing the alphabet game. I’ll have to try that one. Otherwise I imagine how guilty I’ll feel if I skip a workout (#6), or I mentally recite the rosary while running (hooray for multitasking!).

  8. I really try not to drop out of a workout unless I am physically ill or injured…it is just too easy to bail the next time. Then, my confidence drops. Just better to muscle through it and know you lapped everyone on the couch.

  9. I needed this today. I absolutely talk myself through my runs…especially now that it’s getting hot. On Saturday I promised myself a long, cool shower – uninterrupted by my kids, and that thought was what powered me home. I’m trying to be better about thinking about my runs as “me time”. It’s not always easy to appreciate it as I’m hoofing along, but once I’m and in the thick of screaming kids and dirty diapers, I immediately appreciate the hour I had of peace and quiet to start my day.

  10. Great article! Sometimes I use a thought process similar to your #6. I post all my runs on Daily Mile, so I think about what I will type in the comments box under my distance and time after the run. I think about my friends who will read it and respond. I tell myself how much I want to post something positive instead of something negative. Finally, I just decide to go ahead and *earn* whatever positive comments I might have coming my way!

  11. Perfect timing with this post. I am in a slump right now and needed to hear this. After getting sick and dealing with finals, etc. I have only ran TWICE in 5 weeks. In fact, I have a race on Saturday and was thinking about not going. I made myself pick up my packet today and made plans to ride with my brother so I have to go. When I was contemplating getting my packet, I started thinking about how I would feel on Saturday if I didn’t go. That got me out of the office and to packet pick up.

  12. When I feel myself dragging, I often repeat one of Jimmy Duggan’s lines from A League of Their Own: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” Great post!

  13. Absolutely everything about swimming is hard for me. There is no other workout that I have ever done where I go into it filled entirely with self doubt. For a while I enjoyed it and felt successful but now I dread it because I suck at it. And the only thing that keeps me going back is that I committed to doing a tri with my friends and somewhere along that course (and across the finish line) I’ll feel like a rock star. Right??? So, I just tell myself to suck it up and replay in my head the incredibly encouraging words from my friends and family – it’s better than the negative self-talk I do. Plus, that feeling I’ll have when I cross the finish line – it will make it all worth it in the end…… provided I make it out of the lake… 🙂

  14. I needed this post. I cut my long run short by a mile last Saturday, but my confidence has been in the toilet all week. Your suggestions on how to kick our butts into gear are great. Thank you

  15. The #1 way I keep going and make any workout (though usually it’s a weight/ab workout) a character builder is to remind myself that if I quit this workout, if I quit at all, I make it ok to quit ANY workout.
    That is NOT ok, and I know it would be a slippery slope.

  16. I always tell myself that I have never regretted a run and I always feel better afterward. And sometimes I turn my music up a little louder. 😉

  17. Love this post! When I want to quit I sing to myself or sometimes out loud if it really hurts. I sing either motivational songs like Eye of the Tiger or Simply the Best by Tina Turner or I go for something loud and fast like Lady Gaga or AC/DC.

    I’ve also been known to have a kid’s song like Bingo- really the 2nd grade I’m way too cool for Bingo because I’m all grown up version- stuck in my head so I focus on anything else to get that song out of my head. That works like a charm!

  18. Same as Dim’s #1, I play number games of all sorts after I finish my mental grocery list. When I can’t do the “hard math” any more then I know it’s time for some calories or water to keep going.

  19. When I’m struggling I actually recall a line from a post you wrote (is this creepy or did it just resonate?). It was along the lines of I can handle this [insert workout/distance here] for the next x block of time. I break it down to the largest manageable chunk my brain can process – some days it’s the next 10 minutes… 😉

  20. Loved this article! So many great ideas, many of which I’ve used without really realizing it! I think the “suck it up” is the one I use most often when a part of me wants to quit. I focus on how good I will feel after pushing through and how lucky I am to even have the ability to run/bike whatever miles I am struggling through at the time. Working through my injury (PF) has made me so much stronger and resilient and appreciative of my abilities and opportunities.

  21. I like the serenity prayer. It gets me through the tough workouts that NM weather can dish out. Sand is not my enemy any longer just a cheap facial. 🙂 Happy Hump Day.

  22. “Because I knew it would be easier next time.” Now that I have enough experience under my belt and know this to be true, there are times where this is the only thing that keeps me going. Sure, today there might be a headwind, but next time there won’t be and I’m going to look like a rock star.

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