Are you getting uncomfortable?

Becoming enamoured with uncomfortable can lead to improvements in all aspects of life.

New and unfamiliar situations trigger a unique part of the brain that releases dopamine, our body’s feel-good chemical. However, this unique region of the brain is only activated when you experience completely new things.

Measure your health by the number of uncomfortable decisions you are willing to make

5:45 am Wednesday morning.

It’s the beginning of winter.

Outside it’s cold, it’s dark… and it’s raining again.

The warm-up has just begun. Your body is sore, your legs feel heavy, you’re cold, out of breath, and you feel like crap.

You’ve been at this bootcamp thing for a couple of months now, and although you’re starting to see good results, you’re still struggling.

Another hill sprint session, urgh!

Your calves and glutes are still screaming at you in retaliation for Monday’s session!

Desperately you try to get enough oxygen in your lungs and your throat feels like it’s been lined with razor blades from sucking in the cold air.

You start to question what the hell you’re doing, and why the hell you’re doing it…

  1. Is it worth it? Absolutely!
  2. When does it get any easier? Never!

Let’s look at the reasons why and how these truths can lead to achievements beyond your current perspective.

The benefits of progressive overload

In the early stages of any type of physical activity, everything seems to hurt.

Our muscles are broken down and forced to adapt to the stresses we place on them. Then they rebuild and recover, struggling through regular bouts of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and each time growing a little bit stronger and more resilient than before.

As time goes on, your body adapts to this level of stress, it learns to recover faster and starts to perform more efficiently. You begin to feel less like you’ve been through a meat grinder and you perceive to use less energy in order to complete the tasks you demand of it, for example:

  • Your first 1-mile time trial. Excruciating! However, with each additional sprint session, your body builds up a strength for that particular activity and it becomes easier.
  • Your first attempt to complete 10 pull-ups. Abysmal! But by incorporating pull-ups into your regular routine you eventually build up the right muscles in your body so that 10 pull ups become part of your warm up.

Think of it like catching public transport for the first time. That first time you had to brave the Sydney Transport system, from unpredictable schedules and complicated interchanges to maddening fellow passengers, it’s incredibly challenging. But make the same trip several times, it becomes less of a challenge.

Before long you’ve adapted and it’s almost easy, becoming just another part your regular routine. You reach a stage where you’re able to relax and can get other things done, like catching up on email on your phone or reading an old-fashioned paperback. You’ve adapted to your environment.

The human body is no different

The human body is designed to be as efficient as possible but in order for growth to occur, it needs a reason to adapt. If we pick something that is physically challenging for us and over a period of time become really good at it, we don’t continue to get the same boost to our strength or stamina. In fact, our body can actually become more efficient elsewhere.

The Hadza of Tanzania

A study was conducted of the daily energy expenditure among the Hadza people of Tanzania, one of the few remaining populations of traditional hunter-gatherers. Most days the men in this tribe would set out alone to gather food or hunt using handmade bows and poison-tipped arrows, often covering 25 to 30 kilometres. This is what the study found:

“…despite all this physical activity, the number of calories that the Hadza burned per day was indistinguishable from that of typical adults in Europe and the United States. We ran a number of statistical tests, accounting for body mass, lean body mass, age, sex and fat mass, and still found no difference in daily energy expenditure between the Hadza and their Western counterparts. How can the Hadza be more active than we are without burning more calories? It’s not that their bodies are more efficient, allowing them to do more with less: separate measurements showed that the Hadza burn just as many calories while walking or resting as Westerners do. We think that the Hadzas’ bodies have adjusted to the higher activity levels required for hunting and gathering by spending less energy elsewhere. Even for very active people, physical activity accounts for only a small portion of daily energy expenditure; most energy is spent behind the scenes on the myriad unseen tasks that keep our cells humming and our support systems working.”

What does this tell us? That in order to progress, in order to adapt, in order to get stronger… we need to constantly increase the difficulty.

Up the ante

This is a difficult but crucial change that a lot of people struggle to make. Stop looking at your workouts like something you are being forced to participate in and suffer through. Stop thinking “how much longer” or “it’s too cold” or “I can’t do this”.

Instead, start looking at it in terms of a challenge:

  • “What am I capable of today that I wasn’t capable of yesterday?”
  • “What can I lift this week that I couldn’t lift last week?”
  • “How much further will I get in my run this week than last week?”
  • “How many more sessions can I make it to this month than I could last month?”

Accept that every time you exercise it’s going to be uncomfortable.

You’re going to be out of breath.

You’re going to sweat.

But every time you do those things, you are slowly turning up the dial on your “baseline” of what comfortable is. While you’re squatting the lightest sandbag and feeling miserable, that person next to you at Bootcamp squatting the heaviest sandbag is as just as uncomfortable as you are. They’re drenched in sweat, their legs are shaking, and they’re gasping for air. And so are you. The only difference is, they’ve invested years building up their baseline level of strength and as a result, they have to squat the heaviest sandbag to feel that same level of discomfort you feel.

Life gets pretty boring without different levels of difficulty

Most of us have played the game “Tetris”.

Imagine if the game pieces in Tetris never fell any faster? You could slowly place them and get rid of each line, one by one. Very quickly you’d start building complex structures with the pieces because just clearing lines would become mind-numbingly boring. Luckily, Tetris consistently gets more difficult; your brain is forced to adapt as the pieces continue to fall faster and faster in order to continue succeeding.

Your muscles work the same way.

Our muscles need to be constantly challenged because they are constantly trying to become more efficient and provide you fewer results.

Increase the difficulty and become friends with uncomfortable

To get anywhere in life, we need to accept the fact that the things that will help us grow are going to make us uncomfortable.

Without physical discomfort, our muscles are never be forced to adapt.

Without mental discomfort, we will never do things that challenge us.

As soon as the uncomfortable becomes comfortable, you’re no longer getting the same benefits out of it anymore. This is the time to reach for that next challenge that pushes you beyond your comfort zone, beyond your impossible.

The couch is comfortable.

Netflix is comfortable.

Getting good at something and then just doing that thing, over and over is comfortable.

Learning new things can be hard.

Trying a new routine can be hard.

Building new habits can be hard.

Getting out of bed when it’s dark and cold can be hard.

Pushing your muscles to lift heavier weights can be hard.

Running harder and faster can be hard.

Seek out new challenges

Challenge yourself today to accept the fact that anything worth doing doesn’t get any easier, you just get better at it. Every time you find yourself getting too comfortable, or things are getting too easy, then reach for something that produces discomfort. Seek challenges that push you beyond your comfort zone, beyond your impossible, and you will be rewarded. As you progress, you’ll be amazed how other aspects of life also get easier!

If doing new things fills you with a sense of dread, you’re not alone.

Your body and your mind may hate you doing these things. That’s GOOD!

Here’s how you can reduce the discomfort:

  1. Take small steps. If the thought of running a marathon terrifies you, start with just 1km, then keep adding small increments to your distance… before long 1km is just your warm-up.
  2. Do ONE more. During your workouts aim for one more rep each set, run one more metre, or complete your workout one second faster. You’ll be surprised how quickly you improve if you practice “Do one more” often enough.
  3. Celebrate small wins. Are you’re paralysed at the thought of talking in front of a large crowd of people? Start by talking in front of just a few people, and prove to yourself that you can do it. Slowly up the ante and keep reminding yourself “I can do this.”
  4. Don’t give yourself the chance to back out. Tie your fate to somebody else and follow their lead. Jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft in a tandem skydive, the guy you’re attached to makes the decision to jump, not you. Say yes to opportunities that scare you before you get a chance to say no. You can figure out the rest later.