Why Is It So Hard to Go Easy?

You know your workout is supposed to be easy, but you just can't help dropping the hammer sometimes. A leading neuroscientist lifts the lid on what's going on in your brain when this happens—and what you can do about it.

Why is it so hard to go easy?
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Ask any coach about their biggest challenge and you will hear all about the old days: wool shorts with tubular cement stains, downtube shifters, how we would have been a contender were it not for so-and-so… We can be very literal. Ask us about challenges with our athletes and we’ll tell you that many cannot seem to resist “hard-ish” training when they should be going easy. We (yes, I have often sinned myself) just can’t seem to help it.

Tune into this week’s Fast Talk podcast with Dr. Scott Frey: Episode 261, Diving Deep into the Pain Cave

The data is in, and we all know it. Top cyclists do loads of long, easy distance work. The same goes for high-level rowers, runners, Nordic skiers, and triathletes. What’s more, spending a substantial percentage of time training in a low-lactate state is vital even for those of us with more modest time, goals, and—yes—talent. Yet when Saturday rolls around, many of us will find ourselves right back there again, slamming gels, chasing Strava segments, and trying to drop our shadows on every climb. Maybe your mom was right, and you really are special (but probably not).

So why is it so hard for some of us to go easy? As a cognitive neuroscientist, I think the answer can be found in one of our brain’s most systematic biases: temporal discounting. Put simply, we perceive the value of a reward as decreasing the longer we must wait before receiving it (Critchfield & Kollins, 2001). This evolutionary adaptation serves us and many other species well in scarce and uncertain times by incentivizing behaviors that gain immediate rewards because tomorrow may never come. In modern life, however, temporal discounting contributes to a host of self-defeating behaviors ranging from gambling and substance abuse to procrastination. If the promise of nailing your goal race in several months holds less sway than racing your training partners this weekend, then you have yet another reason to blame your ancestors.

Hold on to your water bottle because it gets even worse. We also discount the value of rewards that have less certainty of being achieved (Green & Myerson, 2004) or require more effort to attain (Prevost et al., 2010). Delayed, uncertain, and difficult-to-achieve rewards? Congratulations, endurance athletes, you have hit the trifecta!

The neurobiology of these phenomena is complex and only partially understood, but we do know that discounting behaviors are closely tied to graded patterns of dopamine release in brain networks involved with anticipating future rewards (Schultz, 2013). Think of this as a neurological wrestling match behind the curtain of your awareness. The brain’s limbic system is committed to seizing immediately available rewards by putting in the effort now. Simultaneously, prefrontal networks involved in reasoning and impulse control are waging battle to stick to the plan by keeping our intensity in check and making incremental progress toward our goal. And you thought that you were just going for a bike ride.

RELATED: The Science Behind Going Slow to Be Fast

How to Go Easy in Your Training

Cheer up, because things are not as hopeless as they might seem. Research on health-related outcomes indicates that we are less prone to discounting behaviors when we use strategies to make choices more deliberately, with a mindful, future orientation (Scholten et al., 2019). When working with other athletes, and in my own training, I have found that simply taking a few moments to reflect on the key objective prior to each training session works wonders. It’s surprising how frequently we neglect this step when our limited attentional bandwidth is consumed by filling bottles, preparing the bike, locating a missing sock, and meeting the group on time. Trust me, reminding yourself of why you are training today has far greater benefits for your long-term performance gains than making certain that your tire pressure is spot-on—and it requires less time.

Take this to the next level by including cues to remind you of the ride’s purpose along the road. “Easy” written on a piece of tape and stuck to your top tube is one low-tech and effective solution, and it might also stimulate some interesting conversations. Now brace yourselves for the Jedi Mind Trick level. Grab your head unit and delete “average speed” from the display. Worse than pointless, average speed is a toxic training metric because few can resist pushing to round it up. You are not one of them, and things won’t be different next time. Do it right now.

None of this is rocket science, it’s brain science. Next time you’re faced with the urge to race through an endurance session, try seeing it dispassionately, a natural vestige of our shared evolution, rather than some personal failing. Remind yourself of the big payoff ahead and choose to do the thing that moves you one step closer.

Dr. Scott H. Frey is an accomplished endurance athlete and scientist who works with individuals and groups seeking the latest in evidence-based solutions for performance enhancement. He can be reached at freyneuro@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.


  1. Critchfield, T. S., & Kollins, S. H. (2001). Temporal discounting: basic research and the analysis of socially important behavior. J Appl Behav Anal, 34(1), 101-122. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2001.34-101
  2. Green, L., & Myerson, J. (2004). A discounting framework for choice with delayed and probabilistic rewards. Psychol Bull, 130(5), 769-792. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.769
  3. Prevost, C., Pessiglione, M., Metereau, E., Clery-Melin, M. L., & Dreher, J. C. (2010). Separate valuation subsystems for delay and effort decision costs. J Neurosci, 30(42), 14080-14090. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2752-10.2010
  4. Schultz, W. (2013). Updating dopamine reward signals. Curr Opin Neurobiol, 23(2), 229-238. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conb.2012.11.012
  5. Scholten, H., Scheres, A., de Water, E., Graf, U., Granic, I., & Luijten, M. (2019). Behavioral trainings and manipulations to reduce delay discounting: A systematic review. Psychon Bull Rev, 26(6), 1803-1849. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-019-01629-2