Good Cop, Bad Cop

To train with maximal effectiveness, you have to be mean to yourself. And you also have to be kind to yourself.

Every week I do two full-body functional strength workouts at a local gym. The specific exercise selection evolves over time, but there is one exercise I never fail to include among the dozen or so that make up each session: side planks.

“Why side planks?” you ask. “Is it because they’re so effective you consider them indispensible? Or do you just love side planks?”

Neither. The true reason I do side planks every single time I hit the gym is that I hate them. A properly executed side plank is quite painful. About halfway through each 75-second hold I begin to feel an unpleasant burning sensation deep inside my mid-back area on the floor-facing side, a burning that gradually intensifies through the remainder of the hold. And when I work my weak (left) side, my body begins to literally quiver with fatigue in the last few miserable seconds.

No doubt there are other, comparably effective core exercises that I would find less dreadful, but I force myself to keep doing side planks because I believe it’s good for an endurance athlete’s mind to do some things that suck for the suck’s own sake. It’s a bit like the practice of taking cold showers to build mental toughness. Although some folks claim that cold showers confer physical benefits, the real point of the practice is to do something not necessary that sucks. Endurance racing is extremely uncomfortable, and to do it well you must be comfortable being uncomfortable. If you suffer in training only as much as necessary, you won’t reach the same level of mental toughness you’ll get to if you sometimes do the exercise equivalent of taking a cold shower.

On the flipside, one element of my training that I really enjoy is running laps. For me, going around in circles is sort of the opposite of doing side planks. Unfortunately, the running tracks in my area are protected like Fort Knox, so the laps I run are on roads and bike paths in my neighborhood. There happens to be a circuit of precisely two miles’ length that starts and ends at my front door. I use it way more often than necessary and in ways few other runners would. For example, if I have a 20-mile run with alternating easy miles and marathon-pace miles on my schedule, it’s likely I will set up a little makeshift aid station at the end of my driveway and run 10 laps around this circuit. I think a lot of runners would rather drink paint, but I love going in circles and I have no qualms about indulging this predilection in my training.

As with my insistence on doing side planks every time I hit the gym, there is a principle behind my heavy use of lap running, and that is the belief that it’s good for an endurance athlete’s mind to do some things that are enjoyable for enjoyment’s own sake. In much the same way that physical preparation for racing requires a balance of hard days and easy days, mental preparation for racing requires a balance between misery and fun. There is no single perfect way to train for any given event. Among the various options that will yield similar results, you should feel free to sometimes pick the option you most enjoy.

A runner I coach currently absolutely loves running uphill. Even though she doesn’t run hilly races, I give her more hill work than I otherwise would because A) it yields more or less the same benefits as “flat” workouts done at the same intensity, and B) it keeps her happy, and a happy athlete is more invested in the overall training process. This is just one example of the many ways I incorporate methods that aren’t strictly by-the-book into the training of the athletes I coach for the sake of a psychological benefit.

There’s another athlete I coach who loathes track workouts, not because they hurt but because his times are always slower than he thinks they ought to be. To his credit, this athlete recently told me he wants me to give him more track workouts. As a trail runner, he could get away with making only occasional visits to the track, but he wants to do more than the minimum because he recognizes their physical and psychological benefits. Track workouts are his side planks, if you will—his cold showers.

How about you? Which part of the training process do you hate the most? Do it regularly. And which part of the training process do you most love? Do it often.