Make the Overwhelming Feel Routine

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“It’s 10 pm, I’m going to bed,” is what I told the group of friends, teammates, and strangers who were gathered in our house for a get-together during college. It was a Friday night and I had a long run the next morning.

For much of my life, I was a bit obsessive. I wanted to run fast, so I prioritized things like sleep to an extreme degree. It might have been a little strange for a high school or college kid to eschew partying for sleep, but to me, it was normal. The upside is that from my childhood until recently I was a master at getting sleep.

My routine went like this: Go to bed at 10 pm. Wake up sometime between 6:30-7 am. A good eight to nine hours of sleep every night. The downside? I felt absolutely horrible if I only got six or even seven hours of sleep. My body was adapted.

Fast forward to the last four months. We have a newborn baby and that means the days of nine or eight or seven or six or even five hours of sleep are gone. Instead, especially for the first two months, the routine was essentially wake up every hour or two. Total sleep may have been four to five hours, and that’s on a good night. But even then, it was like doing intervals: 90 minutes sleep, 30 minutes awake. Rinse and repeat. As any new parent will tell you, this is not fun.

And yet life goes on. You have to figure it out. Eventually, it gets a little better. You start getting three-hour stretches of sleep, or only two wake-ups instead of four or five, and you feel fresh. Once you get to something like two-by-three-hour blocks of sleep, it’s like you’re a new person. Despite only getting six total hours, you feel energized, alert, and ready to take on the day because you finally got enough sleep to get through a full cycle.

Now, I’m not saying that six or seven hours with intermittent wake-ups is ideal. But the point is that your body is remarkable at adapting to the demands placed upon it. What would have left you drained a year ago now makes you feel great. Why? Because relative to the terror of waking up every hour or two, a few long stretches are golden.

Just because I slept great every night didn’t mean my running career wasn’t without challenges. Consider this dilemma my teammates and I faced in high school. We were running twice a day, but because of the summer heat, we had to run early and late. The evening run would begin at around seven, and by the time we were finished up and back home, it was already past nine. That meant scarfing down dinner (and a big one; we were growing boys running a ton of miles per week), showering, and going to bed all within an hour, so that we could wake up early and get the next run in.

As teenagers, we put our heads together and came up with a plan: eat before our run. But not hours before our run, as we couldn’t convince our parents to eat dinner at 5 pm, so instead it was right before our run. We’d eat dinner, drive 10 minutes to the park, and do our six to nine-mile run.

Those first few runs were slow and filled with stops for cramping or even bathroom breaks. Everyone struggled. But then, after a few days, things got better. We moved from slowly jogging (with stops), to easy running, to even being able to get down to a steady pace. We even pushed what we could eat, turning it into a kind of competition to eat the densest food, and then head out the door. Sure, we couldn’t hammer out intervals, but it got to the point where it was normal to knock out eight miles at a good clip.

Again: our bodies and minds are remarkably adaptable. What once made us miserable can become routine.

This applies beyond sleep and digestion. As we proposed in the original growth equation (stress + rest = growth), it applies to just about everything we do. That’s not an excuse to suffer through being miserable for no purpose, but what it means is that sometimes we need to give our body and mind time to see if it will adapt. To know that the miserableness of that first run after dinner will probably dissipate; the first time you go for a run in the heat will feel better over time; your first few days at school or in the workplace may feel overwhelming, but soon they’ll feel normal.

The only way you find out is by being patient. You have to sit in the discomfort for long enough to see what will happen. Too often, we stop before we hit the point where the body and mind adjust. To be clear, it is a balancing act between knowing what to stick through to see if you’ll adapt and knowing when you are just digging a hole and the smart thing is to quit. This balancing act is the scourge of all athletes. But sometimes, to see where that point is, we have to push the bounds a bit, we have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable just long enough to see if we’ll get over the hump. It’s why research shows that those who have more of a wait-and-see mindset when starting a new job tend to do better than those who expect the perfect fit going in. Patience allows us to dabble, to sometimes sludge through the mud, and see what’s on the other side.

Give yourself a chance to adapt, to see if what was once challenging or even overwhelming eventually becomes routine. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, then you’ll know it’s time to move on.

-Steve

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