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How to Quit Quitting

with Lesley Paterson

Let’s face it, we all quit stuff. Sometimes quitting is the best option – quitting a bad relationship, quitting a job that makes you miserable, quitting midway through a training session or race because of an injury pain or a crash, etc.

Sometimes quitting is the brain’s way of saying, “I care about you. You deserve better.” I call these Legit Quits. When it comes to your training and racing habits, legit quits should be extremely rare. Why? Because the events that cause them are rare: injury pain, sickness, mechanical problems, and even unforeseen emergencies at home or work. Legit quits arise mostly from events not in your control. But this blog isn’t about legit quits, it’s about a far more common type of quitting among athletes: the Sh*t Quit. You know you’ve experienced a sh*t quit because it equates to mentally throwing in the towel and then having some level of guilt, regret, or annoyance about it. Sh*t quits are when we bail, soft pedal, sit up, cancel, leave early, or otherwise wimp out for no apparent reason other than you couldn’t be arsed any more.

When faced with a sh*t quit, some athletes try to pretend it’s legit. After all, no one aspires to wimp out or wants a reputation as the athlete who folds when the going gets tough. In brain world, holding opposing thoughts is called cognitive dissonance and your head hates it. So, what does it do? It tries to rationalize the quit to restore internal equilibrium: the comfort that comes from knowing your thoughts match your actions. Your mind spins more wild tales about why your actions were justified. Heck, you even start believing it! If you get into a habit of quitting, your brain becomes weaker at resisting it and your frontal cortex has to dig deeper to rationalize why the quit was justified. Welcome to the land of excuses. 

“Yeah so on lap 2, this guy just pulls in front of me and almost takes me down. I must have lost 2 minutes.” “The traffic was so bad.” “Work got so busy.” “I just didn’t have the time today.”

Does work get busy? Sure. Do people get short of time? Absolutely. But the mentally tough athletes find way to get it done. Meanwhile, you’re turning into that guy or girl. The one who has a million excuses for why it didn’t happen. If I asked you to come and collect $1000 from me, 6 days a week for 8 weeks, I guarantee you’d be there. Exactly. 

I’m not blaming you for it. After all, we’re only human. We’re trying our best. We’re good, honest people, and sometimes, quitting is an easy way out. However, quitting is a gateway drug. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And if there’s one thing that sabotages more athletic goals, more training programs, and more races than any other, it’s sh*t quitting. Learning to avoid quitting is a skill you can learn. Here are a few strategies that really stop me from “getting the quits”:   

  1. Cognitive Priming.

    Cognitive priming is the brain’s equivalent of foreplay. Your brain works best if you warm it up prior to a difficult challenge. Before every challenge, help your brain produce dopamine, motivation’s Sriracha Sauce. A great way to open the dopamine flood gate is to watch and listen to inspirational stuff on the way to sessions or, if it’s safe, actually during workouts. Just type in “Sport Motivation” in YouTube, and you’re off to the races.
  2. Segmenting.

    Your head likes things in manageable chunks. Whether it’s solving problems, running a marathon, or dealing with life’s problems – it’s evolution’s way of helping us persist through hard times. When things get hard, our brain pleads with us to not think too far in the future. So don’t! “I can’t get through 8 weeks of this, but I can get through today.” “I can’t endure 2 hours of this, but I can do 10 minutes.” The beauty of segmentation is that once the segment is completed, you get a mini squirt of dopamine (your brain’s pleasure juice) that helps recalibrate the ability clock. Running 5km twice is easier than running 10km. Use this to principle to your advantage by cutting a deal with your brain. For example, if I’m feeling vulnerable to a sh*t quit, I just commit to doing 25% of the session and see what happens. (Clue: I usually keep going).
  3. Try to do it early.

    When it comes to self‐control, early mornings are almost always better for fitness. We’re all busy people and we sometimes don’t have much choice about when we can fit exercise in. Jobs, kids, traffic, daylight – you name it – we live in a world of external restrictions. Throw in factors related to our own circadian rhythm and creating a sustainable exercise habit can be a battle. Scientists have discovered that we find it harder to take on a challenge the later in the day it becomes. This is because your self‐control tires just like a muscle. Your emotional reserves to tackle a challenge and tolerate discomfort get eroded throughout the day because you are constantly resisting temptation, stifling emotion, and otherwise exerting self‐restraint. You don’t often realize you are doing it. When evening arrives, most of us have simply become too tired to put up a fight. We default to the easiest, most comfortable option. This is why thinking about the large glass of wine at home becomes much more appealing than being yelled at by your spin teacher. So, if you’re lucky enough to have a choice, get your sessions in early.
  4. Become Rain Man.

    Well not exactly, but you can more effectively avoid quitting if you develop a prodigious capacity for rhythmic repetition. One of the best effort‐busting strategies is to count to 6 or 8, over and over again while in the hurt locker. If you’re already doing a rhythmic activity such as running, swimming, cycling, you can count in time with arm or leg turnover. Counting helps improve pain tolerance by taking up valuable bandwidth in your brain that would otherwise be used for wishing it was over and thinking about why you won’t be coming back.
  5. Request a Nudge.

    Our brains hate being judged for not being good enough. Fear of embarrassment and failure kill motivation and happiness. What our brains’ love, however, is social support. Being encouraged, praised, and recognized is like dirty talking your limbic system, ground zero in the brain for drives, instincts, and rewards. When it comes to fitness, friends don’t let friends exercise alone. Group exercise is motivating because it reduces our perception of effort, it creates accountability, and offers loads of opportunity to give and receive praise. That said, the problem is getting our butt there in the first place. A great strategy is to create accountability buddies. Swap phone numbers with your training partners and invite them to start texting encouragement and support: “Don’t even think about bailing on me tomorrow! See you @6am.” This strategy is gold. Try it. I dare you.

Lesley Paterson is a Liv ambassador, a 3-time World Champion triathlete, professional mountain biker, and co-author of “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion.” (VeloPress).  Available from www.braveheartcoach.com.

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