Q: My coach says I need to swim with a band, do more hill repeats and cut down on my Pop-Tarts habit. Why is everything that is good for me stuff I hate?
A: This question reminds me of a facetious, yet surprisingly accurate, piece of diet advice I once heard: “If it tastes good, don’t eat it.” We are hardwired to crave things that are bad for us and we tend to avoid things that will make us healthier such as broccoli and hill repeats. What gives? We are attracted to things that will make us strong and healthy—certain amounts of fat, protein and sugar are essential to survival. Humans instinctively seek out delicious and highly caloric foods to avoid the threat of starvation. The problem is that our environment has changed too quickly for human instinct to adapt.
Plentiful food and sugary snacks have only been widely available for the past hundred years or so, while the human sweet tooth developed over millions of years of deprivation. The hard physical work of hunting or farming was essential to survival, so we naturally tended toward resting when possible to save our energy for more important things. We have learned over the years that running around in circles serves no purpose and we are much more comfortable lying quietly in the shade with a cool drink. Millions of years of evolution have created a strong preference for laziness, and it requires will power to overcome the little voice that says take it easy and eat up; you never know what is coming next.
Essentially, we need to do things we dislike in order to improve upon an area of weakness. Things are more fun when we are good at them, and we naturally avoid doing tasks at which we are inefficient. Ask any triathlete what his or her favorite part of the race is—the answer is almost always the sport they started in and is therefore the one in which they are most proficient. Doing anything inefficiently means the energy cost of it is much higher than a similar activity with which we are more comfortable.
Let’s look at running versus swimming. As a weight-bearing sport, running will typically burn more calories (and cost more energy) than swimming. However, an efficient runner who’s also a weak swimmer might find it easier to run for 90 minutes than swim for 30. Some of us live for long rides; others only endure them so they can get to the run.
But as your coach said, it is the stuff that you dislike doing (and are inefficient at) that will make you stronger and faster. There are ways you can train to make the “less fun” activities less painful and still leave plenty of time to enjoy the things you love (I’m not sure I can help you with the Pop-Tarts, though).
Do the hard stuff first. Get up and at it before you have too much time to think and talk yourself out of doing it. This is the same reason we eat salad at the beginning of the meal: At that point we are hungry and enthusiastic about eating anything, even if it’s green. Likewise, when you are stuffed and couldn’t possibly eat another bite, there always seems to be room for dessert. So do your salad workouts (hill repeats, band swimming) first then save your dessert workouts (group rides, long run, yoga) for the end of the day or week when motivation and energy are waning. I always have energy at the end of the day for a social jog/gossip session with friends, but if I save a hard swim till 6 p.m., it has little chance of happening.
Plan a reward. Use music, friends or the promise of brunch to motivate you through a hard workout. I am a great proponent of treadmill running to improve form and leg speed, but I’m the first to admit that it’s the most monotonous workout of the week. My deal with myself is that I am only allowed to run with music while on the treadmill. A new playlist is enough to get me through even the toughest of workouts on the hamster wheel. Social time works wonders too, so try to rope a friend into doing those hill repeats with you. Misery loves company.
Set goals and measure your progress. The point of doing those things you dislike should be to improve upon a weakness and make you a better athlete. It helps to set direct goals of what you are trying to achieve and have an objective way to measure your progress. Seeing improvement over the weeks can reinforce motivation and demonstrate that all your efforts are not being wasted. Set up a specific course and do a time trial every few weeks, or have a coach analyze your stroke and give you feedback.
Be accountable. Write down your workouts and keep a log. It is easy to convince yourself that you have been doing enough salad workouts when in fact you’ve been loading up on dessert. You may find looking back you actually only squeezed in three core sessions last month instead of the twice weekly you were aiming for. I find if I write down my swim workouts beforehand and take them to the pool I won’t skip over drills like I would without a plan.
Remember that you are struggling against human nature to waste valuable energy practicing doing something you dislike. Take comfort in the fact that professional athletes are not immune to this problem either. As I write this, I am procrastinating a swim workout that includes 2x800m with a snorkel. I hate swimming with a snorkel (so I know it must be good for me). Can’t I just eat a salad for lunch instead?
Olympian Samantha McGlone (@samanthamcglone) is a former 70.3 world champion and was runner-up at the 2007 Ironman World Championship. She lives, trains and attends medical school in Tucson, Ariz.