The muscles above your knees are tense. You feel the splitting pain in your shins as each foot pounds the concrete beneath you. What was once a controlled breath through the nose and out the mouth is now a labored gasp as your body arches further and further forward. Your clothes are soaked. The sweat is dripping down your brow and into your eyes, obscuring your vision and focus. Your mind has shut down most complex and abstract functions and is now looking for a way out. You are running through a mental list of your afflictions for the one that will serve as an adequate excuse.
The moment I’m describing comes in various forms across an infinite number of intense scenarios, both physical and psychological. It is the primal, visceral feeling just before quitting. We have all had the feeling in some way or another.
Before I go further, I feel it important to clarify in light of a criticism that was raised about my post, “Contend. Contest. Compete.” and a criticism that I’m sure has been made countless times before (If you weren’t able to read that post, you can catch up HERE). It comes from a positive spirit of inclusivity that says, “Don’t these principles apply to anything challenging I do in life? Why do I have to do something physically rigorous?” My response is two-fold:
- I truly believe that pushing physical limits transfers to all other aspects of your life in a way that doesn’t necessarily work vice versa. You see this in many advanced military schools that push students to edge of exhaustion not so that they will be in really good shape, although that is a worthy biproduct… But rather, so that they will build a mental fortitude that can ultimately transfer to anything else they do in life.
- These principles most definitely apply to anything challenging you do in your life, physical or not. But analogically speaking, communicating about these principles is most powerful when conveyed in a framework of physical competition, sport, and exhaustion because these feelings are the most universal, relatable, and visceral. While I am a fervent advocate of challenging yourself physically, I am in no way discrediting or excluding the vast challenges that people overcome in all aspects of life.
All this being said, the feeling of hitting your limit has a nasty way of manifesting itself well before you are anywhere close to your limit.
This is where the idea of finding your fuel comes in.
Motivational quotes may inspire you to get out the door and get after it, but abstract aphorisms don’t fair well in the inhospitable habitat of the exhausted mind. When your body is shooting signals of pain to your brain and you are subconciously looking for excuses to quit, well-meaning proverbs don’t necessarily translate to fuel.
For this reason, being deliberate and taking inventory of the internal and external factors that provide fuel to your fire when you are on the precipice of quitting is critical. The rest of this post will be devoted to covering a few areas that I draw upon for mental fuel.
As I spoke about in past articles, the emotions following failure are incredibly hard-hitting. The disappointment. The self-inventory. The emotional nature of these emotions make them incredibly powerful for counteracting the mental fatigue of pushing yourself to the limit.
Didn’t finish that half-marathon that one time you got the courage to sign up? Good. Use that failure to push through the exhaustion at mile nine.
Were you beat by someone who you had written off as a lightweight? Good. Tap into that loss to make sure you don’t come up short again.
Were you made fun of for being out of shape? Good. Use that visceral emotion of embarrassment or self-doubt to prove them all wrong.
Leveraging your failures is an incredibly effective fuel that works against mental exhaustion.
Walking Away With a Win
Long-term goals can be overwhelming and abstract. Furthermore, long-term goals might as well be a fairytale when you are trying to convince yourself to push harder in the face of adversity.
To counteract this, make those goals smaller, and daily. No matter how many times you come up short during the day, try to walk away from every day with a win.
-You wake up groggy after you’ve been making consistent efforts to get better quality sleep… You take the “L” in the “Better Sleep” column.
-You get on the scale 1st thing in the AM, because you’ve been trying to get down to a manageable pre-college weight. The scale has you up two lbs from yesterday, despite you eating super well the last week… You take the “L” in the “Weight Loss” column.
-You get on the treadmill at your gym and begin to run. You want to be able to run a mile at an 8:30 pace so you set pace on the machine. Three quarters of the way through, you can’t continue on at that pace and so you drop the speed down to a 10 minute mile pace… You take the “L” in the “Mile Run” column.
–After running the mile, you realize that you can probably keep going, so you push yourself to run at that 10 minute pace until you can’t do that anymore. You make it five and a half miles, which is the furthest you’ve ran nonstop since as far you can remember… YOU TAKE THE “W”.
Finding “wins” no matter how many L’s you take is a crucial tool in the arsenal of fighting exhaustion and pushing yourself beyond your limits. The crossfit community realized this early on with their system of “personal records”, where all exercises are recorded, measured, and evaluated against your prior performance.
Walking away with a win every day will allow you to see progress in a tangible way to keep you going, despite coming up short in other personal goals.
If I am shooting for a tough physical goal where I know I will be tested, my playlist is never on “shuffle”. As much as possible, I attempt to map out the musical journey in order to keep it in tune with what I think I will need to hear in my exhausted state. There is a list of ten or fifteen songs that I used to listen to when I was in a trying time in my life. Throwing those songs back on put me in a head space of power that makes it much harder to quit on myself.
Music is an incredibly powerful tool in overriding the pressing urge to quit. Be deliberate about it. Set up your playlists to counteract the pain you will undoubtedly feel. Have multiple ready to go. Seek out new music so that you can count on some freshness and variety.
Finding Your Fuel
The ultimate intent is that you explore different tricks to cope with adversity. Finding your fuel. Calling forth the emotions of failure will help you fight the urge to quit again. Looking for that win everyday will keep your goals grounded in reality and get you in a mindset of progress. And ritualizing your music will summon real strength when you need it most.
I hate to write disclaimers, but these ideas are by no means exhaustive. Everyone has different things that work for them. If you have something you think would help people push their limits, please share it with us below.