It’s dark. You are standing there staring into the trees to what looks like a trail path. You are trying to block out of your mind the monsters, ghouls and lions which have escaped from a zoo nearby that so obviously reside in that dark space straight ahead. You haven’t been told about any escaped lions, and there is no zoo nearby but that hardly matters. That enclosed and lightless den of claustrophobic fear plays tricks with your head. Your heart rate has leapt noticeably. You hear a noise that didn’t happen. You see something that isn’t there. The rain pitter patters against your head. You switch on the headtorch and the illumination against the rain-drops gives them a false size boost, as if they have double, nay tripled, in scale. The path looks obvious now. You step in after a deep breath…
How many of us had that very same experience the first time we went on a night-time trail run? In company it is easier, but on your own… man, I was bricking it first time. It was a couple of years back, running along the canal. There were green eyes everywhere, branches would crack and I would run faster and faster. Now? It’s second nature. I just do it. Sometimes I even switch the torch off to enjoy the sheer bounty of beauty that the dark can bring. It accentuates the other senses.
Before this, I was in a world of streetlights and safety, not realising that running alongside dark roads is probably significantly more dangerous than a nice illuminated towpath or recognised trail. I found the outer limits of my comfort zone and I stretched it.
What we sometimes don’t recognise is that it is fear which stops us getting to the outer edges of our comfort zone. In our zone we are happy, content and able to function without too much stress. But you see, that’s not a good thing if you want grow and develop in life, or as a runner.
When you stretch your comfort zone, its elasticity means it stays stretched and thus you widen it. In that trail run example, I expanded my playground by pushing my own self-imposed boundaries. It was exhilarating at the time.
A fantastic person I used to work with had a brilliant sign on her computer, it read, “Everything you want is just outside your comfort zone!”
And for many this is so so true. The area just outside your comfort zone is known as the stretch zone. It is where you feel a pang of discomfort in being, sometimes seasoned with excitement and anticipation. It is where adrenaline can kick in and you develop.
In running terms, you could argue the journey from 1 mile, to 5k, to 10k, to a half marathon, to a marathon, to an ultra is a brilliant example of someone simply continuing to stretch that comfort zone. It is everyday development.
Or, it could be going from the track to trails, from flat to vert. The one I think that resonates hardest with me is moving from same pace plodding to doing things like speedwork, intervals and tempo sessions. The amount of runners who say “I wanna get faster”, or “I am going to this time, next time…” is incredible. The reality for many is that they are not stretching their comfort zone in training. Stretching your comfort zones is something that in parallel could result in a similar growth in pace zones.
Think about it. You go out, 3, 4, 5 or more runs a week. They are all at the same intensity. You enjoy it for the sake of it but you want to do better. You need to stretch that comfort zone, that comfortable pace zone. You pick up the intensity. It is hard. Really, really hard. It is, well, uncomfortable. Your heart heaves and things hurt, things you didn’t know could hurt. But you learn to love it. The effort versus benefit maxim. What used to be hard effort is now easier, but still you push to an even harder effort. You embrace the heavy breathing that comes with heavy effort. Yesterday’s tempo pace is today’s easy pace. You have stretched pace and comfort zones.
Of course, it is not always about how fast. The how far is covered above. It could also be about what. What type of race you do. A half-marathoner on roads moving to UTMB. That is going to need some serious comfort zone stretching!
There is some danger in pushing the boundaries of a comfort zone. In the Clutch song Earth Rocker the opening line is a brilliant one. I love to hear it when I am doing a tough session. It goes, “What’s this about limits? Sorry, I don’t know none.” It gives me a lift. A spring or jolt in my step and reminds me why I am doing this hard session. But there are limits.
Beyond your stretch zone is the panic zone. If you end up in the panic zone it can cause serious damage to your confidence. Imagine putting someone who is shy in front of the camera in front of say, The White House Rose Garden to address national TV. That would be a definite panic zone for them. For runners, that might going into the mountains too early, too ill prepared. Or it could being put at a place in a handicap race with expectation that they cannot meet and they know this. It causes panic. Panic causes poor decision making. Panic will generally result in failure, perceived or otherwise. Panic is the 3 steps back after 1 forward.
Once you recognise your habits and the zone in which you are operating, you have a choice to make. If there is something you want, and in running that might be a certain race, a certain time or a certain event or experience, the chances are it will need you to push yourself. It will need you to step into the stretch zone. And if what you want is in the panic zone, if you keep stretching your comfort zone, well then, today’s panic zone is tomorrow’s stretch zone.
So, what you gonna do? I plan on pushing into that stretch zone as much as I can and for as long as I can. I hope you’ll join me.