How to Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Coach Julie Young explores ways to develop mental skills to embrace discomfort as fuel for growth and performance.

Richie Porte and Chris Froome battle at the Tour de France
Photo: Velobar+ on Unsplash

“Growth takes place outside your comfort zone.” 

Dawn Staley, Hall of Fame basketball player and coach

To people who aren’t endurance athletes, what we do seems odd, sometimes stupid, and often very painful. Why do you do that to yourself? they might ask.

The reality is, being uncomfortable is as much a part of what we do as why we do it. It may sound cliché, but that uncomfortable feeling is often the sensation that makes us feel most alive.

To truly embrace being uncomfortable—and to make it something we’re comfortable with—takes training. And tapping into why we do our sport of choice is central to our progression as a mentally strong athlete.

Our “why” can be thought of as motivation, and is either fueled intrinsically or extrinsically. We all operate using varying ratios of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and that ratio likely varies from day to day and situation to situation.

Ultimately, the more you understand about why you feel the way you do—whether comfortable or uncomfortable, and whether intrinsically or extrinsically motivated—and are able to put those feelings into the greater context of sport, the better you will become at using those sensation and emotions as fuel for improved performance.

To be intrinsically motivated

Whichever endurance sport we choose to do, when we are intrinsically motivated, we have strong internal reasons and drive to do it. We find deep meaning and personal satisfaction just from participating in that sport. In short, we are driven by the enjoyment we derive from doing it. Furthermore, we thrive on the opportunity to be challenged by that sport and the resulting opportunity it provides for growth and improvement.

When we are intrinsically motivated, we are more focused and less distracted because we have clarity on what we want and where we want to go. And when we are connected to our deep intrinsic motivation—a.k.a our “why”—we are willing to do whatever it takes to get to where we want to go. Tapping into our intrinsic motivation fuels purpose and intention in training and racing, and provides a laser mental focus which places pain on the periphery.

When we operate from greater intrinsic motivation, it facilitates a mindset that allows us to think of, embrace, and welcome discomfort as an opportunity to learn and improve—rather than viewing it with hesitancy and dread. We have a “bring-it-on” mentality because we know that when we are outside our comfort zone, we have the best opportunity to improve mentally and physically.

To be extrinsically motivated

When we are extrinsically motivated, we are doing our sport for external reasons: for example, approval from others; rewards like prizes or status; and, nowadays, things like social media kudos and likes.

When we are extrinsically motivated, we are motivated more by “should do” than “want to do,” and this type of motivation is more susceptible to imparting a greater sense of anxiety and fear of failure.

Good days and not so good days

Every athlete will have days when he or she can tap into intrinsic motivators more than relying on any external factors. And then there will be days when it will be a struggle.

Some days our connection to our “why” comes with absolute conviction and clarity—these are, of course, some of the best days to be an athlete. From personal experience, I also know that these types of days, when I bring joy and purpose to my workouts, I can dig deeper and barely notice the pain.

Inevitably, there are days when we are mentally strained, when motivation is hard to come by, and our connection to our “why” is weak—that’s when the pain feels exponentially greater. But herein lies an opportunity. It’s on these days when we can take that discomfort as a chance to grow and improve. With that change of mindset—sometimes easier said than done—discomfort can be seen as a positive rather than a negative.

Maximize training for physical and mental conditioning

Generally, we fixate on the physicality of training, but neglect the mental training required for successful performances. It can’t be stressed enough: Mental conditioning requires practice and training, just like the physical aspects of fitness. And, like the physical, becoming a mentally strong and resilient athlete requires consistency of practice over time to produce results.

Through a consistent process, we can gain more control over our thoughts, emotions, and impulses. The more we practice, the better we’ll understand and feel that the mental and physical are intertwined and interdependent—and that the thoughts we have strongly influence how we feel and perform.

So, how can we improve our mental conditioning?

At its simplest, we’re trying to find a different focus for the mind, other than the discomfort. Just as each training session is an opportunity for physical progression, each workout is also an arena to hone our mental skills.

For example, mentally optimized training sessions provide a dress rehearsal for race situations. If we’ve mastered the mental strategy on our Wednesday group rides, we can lean on these sessions when we are in a similar race situation. In a circuit race with a climb each lap, for example, we can think to ourselves at the start of the climb, “Hey, this is no big deal, it’s just like the Wednesday group ride. No big deal.”

In fact, intervals are a great crucible for both improving the engine and the mindset. With each session, we can repeatedly improve how we refocus the mind on something other than the act of the interval itself or the pain we’re experiencing—which is not sustainable, fun, or productive.

Instead, try focusing on other actions; for example, pedaling technique, breathing, posture, or keeping a quiet upper body and/or staying light in the arms. In essence, rather than fixating on numbers and pain, focus on actions and chase positive emotions—these are the same productive focal points that you will default to in a race situation when things get hectic, chaotic, and intense.

By focusing on what you have practiced in training—the things you can control—you create opportunities to develop confidence. Rather than simply fixating on discomfort, this new perspective provides mental calm and composure—after all, you’re now focusing on those things that make you fast and efficient. It isn’t about the person next to you in the peloton anymore, nor about the suffering they might be inflicting on you, which can create an unproductive sense of angst and stress.

A purposeful mindset

Many endurance athletes know that entering every training session with purpose and intention for the physiological adaptation (whether that’s anaerobic capacity, stamina, or active recovery) is an important means for getting the most from each workout. Likewise, having a purposeful mindset during each session leads to focus.

There are several ways to do this, so experiment to find what works best for you. For example, some people benefit from repeating a short, meaningful and powerful mental mantra. Focus the mind by repeating a simple mantra like, “Yes, I can!” or “cadence, cadence, cadence.” Again, a short, powerful mantra helps place the mental focus on something other than the pain. As always, use workouts to train this practice, so you know what to expect.

The more you know what to expect, the less stress and the more confidence you command in race situations. This equates to less mental stress and anxiety, as well as less energy wasted. Stress and anxiety-induced nervousness during races is normal and appropriate, but there is a healthy, productive threshold. You can help manage these nerves and keep them in the productive zone by training as many of the unknowns as possible, so they become knowns.

Finally, think about training and racing, and the discomfort that comes with the territory, as an opportunity for self-challenge, to learn and improve, rather than viewing challenging workouts or races as a proving ground or fixating on the chance of failure. This latter attitude can create a heavy sense of pressure and dread.

With this change in mindset, you set the stage to be willing to be uncomfortable. Welcome the opportunity to step out of your comfort zone because it provides the best opportunity for continual growth and improvement.