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Discipline, The Muscle

<10 Minute Read

We runners are great at exercising discipline. We're also great at overusing it. 

Starting up a new training plan often begins with a huge rush of motivation, excitement, and discipline to get through workouts. This is very common in the early stages of any training block, where meeting the demands of a structured regimen feel quite easy. But as weeks progress and training intensifies, our discipline & self control wears out like the treads of a Nike shoe. 

This psychological phenomenon is known as ego depletion.

What is Ego Depletion?

Ego depletion is the gradual depletion of our self-control and willpower reserves over time. The theory states that self control can be “used up” over time, and if not restored properly, we can run out. As we tackle rigorous training sessions day after day, our capacity to exert disciplined effort diminishes. This doesn't mean our actions are out of control; rather, it signifies that maintaining high levels of self-control becomes increasingly challenging.

Micro and Macro Impact on Training Intensity

Ego depletion happens over long periods of time, but also day-to-day. For example, consider the mental effort required to do an hour-long workout, consisting of hill repeats and sprints, in the rain, in 35 degree weather, [insert any other worst-case scenario factors]. After exerting all your energy and willpower to push through a crazy session, mundane tasks like showering, house chores, or cooking dinner suddenly feel like a ridiculous imposition for the rest of the day. The mental fatigue from training spills over into everyday activities, showcasing the taxing nature of sustained high-intensity workouts.

In the broader context of a training program, our motivation to engage in consistent training can dwindle. Even for the most passionate athletes, who require very little mental effort to go out and run, may still experience a degree of mental fatigue over time. This shift reflects the psychological toll of prolonged training on our self-control reserves.

The Pitfalls of Excessive Self-Control

There's a misconception that more self-control equates to better performance and discipline. However, applying aggressive degrees of self-control, especially when it comes to diet and training, can seriously backfire over time. Research indicates that rigid, obsessive control can lead to psychological burnout and loss of control in other areas of life. Remember - ego depletion is teaching us that we only have so much self-control to allocate. Aggressive degrees of discipline will inevitably lead to the ironic loss of self-control.

For instance, applying a high degree of control and implementing overly strict dietary restrictions can trigger unhealthy eating patterns and eating disorders. Interestingly, mental health issues such as eating disorders are born from an incredible degree of self control. And eventually we lose the ability to control the way we act. 

The same effect too can take place in our daily training efforts. Say you’ve been consistently running for weeks, and you’re starting to notice that each run requires a bit more mental effort to get yourself at the door. It may be easy to ignore at first, but over time, you may find yourself completely devoid of passion and the discipline to run. We used up all of our self-control, and ego depletion can rob us of our passion! Everyone has their own discipline thresholds, and it changes with time and fitness.

The key lies in striking a balance. We should seek to apply a reasonable degree of self-control, in a consistent manner, while acknowledging that mental strength is just like a muscle - it needs recovery time. Recognizing when to ease off and allow flexibility is essential for sustainable progress and genuine enjoyment when applying discipline. 

Navigating Ego Depletion: Strategies for Athletes

Periodization: Structure your training plan to incorporate periods of varying intensity and recovery. Cycle between challenging workouts and lighter sessions to optimize performance and prevent burnout.

Mindful Recovery: Prioritize adequate rest, nutrition, and sleep to refuel. A fueled body is a fueled mind. Recovery is as crucial as the training itself.

Goal Setting: Break down overarching goals into manageable milestones. Celebrate achievements along the way to maintain motivation and counteract ego depletion. Achieving small goals over time allows you to recalibrate the mind and continue training with intent. 

Flexibility: Embrace adaptability in training. Listen to your body and adjust workouts based on how you feel to prevent excessive strain on your self-control resources.

Ego depletion is a natural consequence of sustained high-intensity training, affecting athletes both physically and psychologically. By understanding the limits of our self-control and implementing strategies to mitigate ego depletion, athletes can navigate training intensity more effectively and sustainably. Prioritize balance, recovery, and flexibility to optimize performance and well-being in the pursuit of athletic excellence.

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