A couple of weeks ago I wrote that doing hard things makes us stronger. And while I’m not about to go back on that thought, I should probably add this. When you’re in the middle of doing the thing that is making you strong, you are very unlikely to feel strong. In fact, that is the time when you are most likely to be aware of your weakness. It’s a time when you face your limits and push against them, and that never feels comfortable.
Inevitably, I had this thought as I was running up a steep incline connecting two contour paths. The incline was rocky and uneven, it was towards the beginning of the run when I felt barely warmed up and, as I think I may have mentioned, it was steep!
I was about halfway along this 1km stretch, my breath was a little ragged and my calves were screeching for mercy, when I remembered the ‘lesson’ I had described just two short weeks earlier. ‘Hard means strong,’ I told myself, and then it dawned on me. Building strength is a process which forces us outside of our comfort zone, to a place where we face our lack of strength. That is, we come to outer edges of our strength and then dig deeper into depths we haven’t had to reach before. That zone - beyond our known capability and before failure - is the place of growth.
Physical training is one area of life that teaches us the benefits of failure. In weight-training, for example, it can be a good thing to lift a weight ‘to failure,’ that is, until you physically cannot lift it again. Working to failure causes you to push up against that mental or physical boundary between what you feel capable of and what feels impossible. Slowly but surely the boundary shifts: you have built strength, the limit of your capacity has been extended.
In running, at least trail running, we don’t necessarily push ourselves to the point of gut-wrenching failure (we leave that to the track meets). And yet we do train in ways that consistently see us pushing into the uncomfortable place of wondering how much longer we can keep going. We are building not just physical strength, but also mental strength. We can push further and stay longer with the discomfort than our minds would have us believe.