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Monday, September 22, 2014

Comfort, Risk, Danger Zones in endurance training

...and are we electing to suffer?

Suffering is different for everyone. "Suffering" could be pain, it could be fatigue or too much unfamiliar experience. Suffering may be due to noise, wind, heat, or psychological/emotional factors, such as uncertainty, too much perceived risk or outright fear.

I think about this often in Kettlebell Sport training. Especially when I have a high goal in mind for myself such as the most recent training cycle. Challenging my physical and mental Comfort Zone, going into the Risk Zone, is the only way to stretch my capacity.

Let me define the physical and mental "Zone" concept:
  • Comfort Zone: refers to familiar experiences or ideas. We feel in control physically and mentally. We know what to expect, how to act and can predict a likely outcome when life is in the comfort zone. In general, our areas of expertise are in our Comfort Zone. Communication is easy, light and supportive and the attitude is slow-paced and confident. The benefits here are relaxation, rest, creativity and the ability to engage in communication (give-and-take conversations). The main disadvantage is a narrow perspective. In the Comfort Zone we filter new experiences to make them more predictable, thus reduce exposure to things that will generate a learning curve. 
  • Risk/Safety/Courage Zone: experiences or ideas that are outside the normally chosen realms. We do not know what to expect and often venture into this territory knowing we have something (or everything!) to learn. This is where greatest potential for growth and improvement can be found. The name associated here elicits a mental/emotional response, so it can be called whatever gives a feeling of adventure and alertness. Communication is inquisitive, the attitude is curiosity, humility and slightly excited/accelerated pacing. The benefits here are the rich potential for new experiences, adaptation, and learning. New skills are found in the Risk Zone, new friendships and greater perspective on previously acquired knowledge. People maximize their potential by staying in the Risk Zone to broaden the Comfort Zone. The disadvantages of the Risk Zone are 1) the outcome is unknown and we may learn through failures and 2) that new experiences will change us. This may be difficult to integrate with previously established Comfort Zone parameters. 
  • Danger/Terror Zone: experiences or ideas that send internal warnings, red flags and emotional responses. Communication becomes defensive or shut-down, the attitude is emotional, aggressive or retreating. Not a productive learning zone, when we reach this physical or mental state the best thing to do is calmly retreat to the Comfort or Risk Zone. In other words, the building is on fire, you cannot put it out but you can find a safe exit. Too much time here will result in injury. The parameters of the Danger Zone are not the same for any two people. The benefit of this Zone is that we get a full-body experience of our inner safety mechanism. This is Red Alert, and if not heeded will lead to damage. The disadvantages of the Danger Zone can be either 1) too much time here may desensitize someone to the natural self-preservation impulse to find safety or 2) it causes physical and emotional trauma.
Back to the original point, "electing to suffer" in Kettlebell Sport means getting more comfortable in the physical Risk Zone, but keeping a watch for the type of suffering that signals physical Danger. For athletes who have their eyes on great achievements the line between mental Risk and mental Danger is much less obvious. But it's there for everyone.

Now I want to give a personal example with intention to help others develop deeper understanding of endurance athletes.

A week before this competition I crashed on my bicycle and sustained deep scratches on my left ribs and abdomen.  Immediately I re-evaluated my goal for the competition. This set was more than a year in the making. I had endured 20kg Biathlon to prepare for this 24kg Long Cycle set so pulling out of the competition was not an option. Two training sessions remained, I informed my coach and proceeded. Session one showed me just how wrong the position of those scratches are and session two showed that lifting on the left side will be mental and emotional Danger Zone territory.

I made a plan to Duct Tape my injuries before the competition. Somehow planning a solution I had never tried brought everything back into the Risk Zone, maybe it was the excitement of a calculated risk. I headed for Las Vegas, followed the plan and slid into my warm-up on Saturday, taped around the ribs and in a state of controlled fear.

Well, in the end, the Duct Tape came off during the warm-up. My suspicion was confirmed, that I could get reps on the left but not what coach had programmed. I saw the Danger Zone on the platform, created the mantra "Go Until It Cannot Be Done or Time Runs Out," and endured until I could not distinguish between physical and emotional pain. If there had been $3k on the line, I might have gone deeper into this experience.
For the record, if I cry after a set I've sustained trauma on some level. Coaches and athletes, make note of this, as you may know people with a similar mental/emotional Danger Zone.


Top of the weight class! Photo by Sergey Rudnev.
Now, two days after the event I can say achieving Master of Sport rank on my first 24kg LongCycle attempt was worth the pain. Mostly. Retreat from the sport is an idea deep in my Danger Zone, but a complete rest-and-heal stage feels like a new level of Comfort (previously would have been a Risk).
I do not know if I will be ready for the One Hour Long Cycle in less than a month, an idea which totally pushes my emotional Risk Zone into Yellow Alert, but appreciate everyone who has already elected suffering for the great cause this year, research for effective treatment of Autism.

For those who have read this far, thanks for letting me debrief this experience in a  public forum. It is a Risk Zone exercise. If you have similar stories or comments to share, please leave them here or in the comment lines.

Best wishes for your growth in whatever sport you choose!
I'll be in the mountains for a while....
Christian