“In just about every race, I looked for a way to quit.”

This wasn’t a novice runner I was talking to. It was an elite, one of the best in the world, who admitted to me that they searched for an out—a hole to step in, an injury to fake, a bathroom to duck into—during every race.

This isn’t something to be ashamed of. We all do it. From the beginner to the Olympian, we all experience a strong urge to quit. During a race, we all face an inner battle. A feeling of pain, fatigue, and uncertainty arises. At first, it’s a whisper, before turning into a scream. An internal debate soon follows; an angel and devil on our shoulder argue over whether we’ve got it or should call it quits. Finally, we experience an urge to act—to quit, slow down, or find our way through.

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This feel-debate-act cycle is a kind of protective mechanism. It’s our brain’s way of preventing us from pushing too far into the unknown and facing danger. This could be the physical kind, from running so hard that you put your health in danger, or psychological, in which your ego has to face the fact that it’s not good enough. The feelings, doubts, and urge to quit are just a way for your brain to keep you in check. It’s looking for an escape hatch, communicating a reminder that things are getting tough, we might be in danger, and there’s a way out.

In my new book, Do Hard Things, I set out to understand why our conventional notions of toughness—gritting our teeth and pushing through the pain—often fail. But that often backfires. When we resist, it’s as if our brain gets the message, “Aha! We must really be in danger because we’re fighting back.

Do Hard Things

Do Hard Things

Do Hard Things

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The latest science and the world’s best performers tell a different story. Pain and fatigue aren’t something we should avoid or ignore. It turns out that the best way to deal with the inner chaos we all face isn’t to fight but to learn how to navigate through it by working with your feelings, dialogue, and urge to act.

The tighter the bond between stimulus (i.e., feeling pain) and response (slow down, quit), the harder it is to interfere. When we train toughness, we’re trying to loosen that bond, to delay the jump straight to freaking out, to create space. How we master this sequence ultimately determines whether we make the “right” decision in just about whatever we face. The secret to developing toughness lies in mastering this pattern and creating space so we can choose instead of spiral. Toughness lies in mastering freak-outs. Here’s how the world’s best runners do it.

Learn How to Listen to Your Body

When you feel pain in your thigh while you’re running, do you immediately stop and make a trip to the physical therapist, or do you continue? It probably depends on the type of pain. Is it dull, achy, burning, or sharp? The feeling lets you know whether it may be a muscle tear or simply pain or fatigue. Learning to distinguish between pain and injury is a vital lesson we all have to learn.

The same applies to the discomfort we feel in racing. If we can understand the feelings, sensations, and emotions we experience during a hard workout or race, we can navigate them. We can figure out which ones we should listen to and which we should let float on by. The better we can sort through the shades of grey and understand the nuance of complex feelings, emotions, and sensations, the better we can navigate them. As with learning to distinguish between pain and injury, we all have to learn to sort through our inner world.

Research shows that tougher athletes are better able to make sense of whatever feedback their body is giving them. And it’s not just athletes. In an intriguing study out of the U.K., psychologists found that stock traders who were better at reading their internal signals not only were more profitable but also lasted longer in a business that’s notorious for turnover.

Improving this skill involves three steps: contextualizing, naming, and reappraising it. The first step is adding context. Think of a kindergartner. They may have a limited vocabulary and tell you they are sad. Well, what does that mean? You have to guess. An adult might say they are lonely, disappointed, or embarrassed. Nuance adds layers, which allows us to inform and categorize what’s going on.

The second step is to name it. When we name something, we take back control—converting the ambiguous to something tangible that we can understand, manipulate, and come to terms with. The nerves you feel before giving a talk? Call it your performance adrenaline. The voice commanding you to stop? Call it the devil on your shoulder. When we name something, we exert power and control over it. We are saying, “I know what you are and how to handle you.”

The final key is reframing the signal as helpful information. Now that you understand the nuance of feelings and emotions, and have a name for what you’re experiencing, take control of the message. Can you see anxiety as excitement? The fear you experience is a reminder that caution has value. The sadness after a loss reminds you to cherish and reconnect with those you still have with you. Reframing emotions and feelings as information that you can choose to listen to or simply let float on by is a powerful tool for navigating our messy inner world. The more we understand the feelings, the more we can deal with them. Your brain hates uncertainty. It does better when it knows what the feeling means.

Learn to Respond, not React

The key to navigating discomfort is to create space between fatigue and freak-out. If it’s compressed, we jump straight from a tinge of pain to finding an out. That’s reacting. The more we react, the more we feed our threat-detecting brain. We’re telling it, “Hey, you were right. This is something to really worry about!”

Responding is developing the ability to coolly, quietly, and nonjudgmentally work your way through a difficult situation. When we somewhat dispassionately observe the pain and work through it with equanimity, we send the opposite message, “There’s no threat here. We’ve got this.” I like to call this having a calm conversation. You notice the discomfort, acknowledge it, and work your way through it. Your inner dialogue goes like this: “It’s starting to hurt now. It should. I’m running hard. ButI am separate from this pain. It’s going to be okay.”

The best way to learn to respond instead of react is to do hard things. Put yourself in a place of discomfort, and then learn how to quietly, nonjudgmentally sit with it. While you can do this in workouts, this doesn’t have to be running-specific. You can train your mental muscle by sitting in an ice bath, giving a speech in front of a crowd, or simply sitting at your desk with your phone in front of you, trying to sit with the urge to pick the device up and check it. Or it could be in watching the mistakes you made during training or an important race. The key lies in sitting with the experience, not fighting it.

Create Distance and Perspective

Learning to sit with discomfort gets you only so far. The alarm in your brain will eventually activate, no matter how collected you are. We used to think the best runners were always focused to deal with fatigue, while beginners primarily used distraction to get through difficult moments. But that’s not true. The top marathoners in the world use just about every coping strategy they can. They can bounce back and forth, shifting their attention to deal with their present dilemma. Novices tend to get stuck, using a single strategy (e.g., distraction) and then spiraling out of control once that doesn’t work.

Elite runners develop the capacity to zoom in and out. Sometimes they narrow their world to what’s right in front of them. Other times they zone out. When we face massive levels of pain and lots of doubt, the key lies in altering our perspective. In Do Hard Things, I outline several forms of zooming, including:

Linguistic Zooming

How we talk to ourselves impacts how we handle discomfort. Research shows that when we shift from using first person (“I’ve got this!”) to second or third person (“You’ve/She’s got this!”), we create distance between the experience and our emotional response. This linguistic trick allows us to zoom out. When we create psychological distance, we slow the path from emotional reaction to inner battle to action. By simply changing our vocabulary, we regain control instead of defaulting to the easy decision.

Another linguistic trick is moving your voice from the inside to outside. Give your pep talk out loud. One reason this works is that inner talk is cognitively more sophisticated. Research from clinical psychologist Steven Hayes showed that when people used overt self-talk, it made them accountable to whoever was in earshot, as opposed to inner dialogue, which only sets the standard for yourself.

Perspective Taking

Difficult moments tend to cause us to narrow. While there are many benefits to being in the here and now, one downside is your brain over-indexes on what’s going on right in front of you. The pain you’re experiencing feels as if it’ll never stop. It can seem like the race you’re in is the most critical thing in the world, and if you don’t run up to your potential, you’re worthless. We need to remind our brains that our current experience is just a blip in time. Imagining how you’ll feel in an hour, day, or month helps bring perspective and nudge your brain out of getting stuck on the pain you’re currently experiencing. How will you feel at the end of the race, looking back on the decisions you’re making right now? Will you remember this race five years from now? Or, as former professional runner Phoebe Wright told me about lining up at the Olympic Trials, “It’s just track. No one really cares besides your family and friends. And they’ll still love you even if you get dead last.”

Physical Zooming—Mood Follows Action

When we’re feeling down, trying to alter our mood seldom works. But if, instead of trying to force your mood to change, you change your behavior—getting out of bed and going for a run—you often find yourself in a much better, happier place. Your behavior dragged your mood with it.

Not only does our mood follow action, but so does our thinking, and perception. In running, that often means taking bold action when your body is screaming at you to do the opposite. A short surge when you want to slow down or talking out loud when you think you’re out of breath can often be the trick to getting your body and mind back on track.

Conventional wisdom plays up the grind of trying to exert effort and push through whatever is in our way. Modern science, and the best performers, tell us it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes, we need to pause, zoom out, accept, and let go in order to navigate our inner chaos. When we practice opening ourselves up to discomfort, we’re better positioned to handle it. Our brain dampens the tendency to jump straight from feeling a sensation to sounding the alarm. And then we’re free to perform up to our capabilities.

Headshot of Steve Magness
Steve Magness

Steve Magness is a performance coach who has worked with Olympians and professional sports teams. His new book is Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and The Surprising Science of Real Toughness.