When a 12 year old Carl Jung banged his head in a scuffle with a bully, he heard his inner voice telling him ‘this would be a good excuse not to go to school anymore’. Most of us aren’t as perceptive as Jung, and excuses like this can be hard to notice, automatic and influence our decision making.

When we exercise, excuses appear and invariably lead to a way out of doing the work. Excuses often sound intelligent, fair and rational. For example, “I don’t want to overdo it and get an injury” sounds perfectly acceptable to me, and I use it all the time because it gives me an easy way out. Like water running downhill, we find the path of least resistance, and over time, a groove will form.

Let’s look at a few different kinds of excuses that commonly appear during a run.

The Nerves

“I think I ate something bad last night, I don’t feel very good.”

Why do I always need the toilet before I race? I guess I’m no different than my competitors. We fill our body with water and calories and want to clear out anything extra. No one wants to stop, think about stopping or <insert worst case scenario>. Usually this is explained by nerves, or where the blood is rushing, but if you look at this phenomenon another way, an upset stomach 15 minutes before starting a race is a great excuse to not race. Likewise, if you’re doing 10x200m sprints, it’s interesting that you’re suddenly feeling a strong urge for the toilet on rep #8. It’s a good excuse to wrap up early.

The Cramp

“It’s so annoying, I was feeling great, but my leg is totally locked up.”

Athletes fear the cramp. It’s because of their power to stop you in your tracks. I believe cramps serve a similar purpose to pain in general. A cramp is a very bright neon sign that says “Hey, please check out this damage.” For good measure, they also immobilize the body part. A cramp is a big parking ticket slapped on the windshield and a wheel clamp. The maddening aspect of cramps is that the more you ignore them, or fight against them, the worst they get. The clamp tightens. Cramps are confounding, but also offer a very obvious excuse out.

The Bargain

“Let’s do the long run another day.”

When I’m nearing the end of a run, some strange things start happening. Although I had planned to follow my regular loop, all of a sudden I find myself hatching several new plans out of thin air. They involve stopping earlier, getting groceries, taking back streets, doubling back. Anything but what I’m doing now. If I had planned to run to the cafe, suddenly I’m deliberating if stopping at street before ‘counts’. Is that close enough? The water wants to run downhill.

The Reward

“Omg we did it! We’re so strong. Ahh, let’s put our feet up.”

When we do something physically hard, like run up a steep hill, it’s pretty common to stop at the top. I do this all the time, but I’ve never questioned why. Is it because I’ve reached my physical limit at that exact moment? The fact that my heart rate continues to rise afterwards tells me probably not. I didn’t consciously tell myself I would stop. And even if I stopped because my body had slammed on some imaginary self-preserving hand brake, why does it seemed to happen so much more frequently at some obvious ‘finish line’ point, like the top of a hill?

One answer might lie in what you are thinking, rather than anything physical that is happening. Maybe I’m both encouraging myself as I run up the hill and congratulating myself at the top. With that warm congratulation, I automatically offer myself a nice sweet rest. I didn’t want to stop (I’ve got a time to beat), I didn’t need to stop (my legs feel fine), but I’ve listened to a very persuasive excuse.

Try it yourself: Next time you reach the top of a steep hill, don’t try and prevent yourself from stopping, but notice if you do anything else automatically. For example, when I finish running an interval on a track, I put both hands on my head and let out a big sigh. See what yours is.

We’ve looked at some common excuses that tend to appear when the run gets tough. Here are two strategies that, in different ways, work by challenging our usual automatic responses or habits.

Do the opposite

To treat a strong fear response, Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) asks patients to do what they are afraid of doing. If someone is fearful of rabbits (something that actually poses no real danger), they need to spend lots of time with rabbits. While spending time with rabbits, they should carefully look at what is actually happening and most importantly notice that they are safe. In doing so, they can learn to move against their surging emotional currents and hopefully start scratching a new groove for their habits to flow in. Our excuses that emerge when we exercise are also a kind of automatic emotional response and I think we can treat them in a similar way. 

Stick the plan

The psychological concept of pre-commitment is a means of committing to a specific plan or decision before any excuse crops up. This could look like simple goal setting, like ‘run for 5 km’. No matter how small the goal, because we tend to automatically twist and bend things, it’s harder to complete than you think. Run 5km, no longer or less. Brag to your buddies that you’re going to do a thing, then do exactly that thing. It’s not about the content of that goal. The power of pre-commitment is in doing exactly what you stated.

As long as you run, excuses to stop running will present themselves. What’s important is to notice them and aim to prevent them from making you act in ways you didn’t intend.

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