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Ask A Pro: Why is Everything Good for Me Stuff I Hate?

You're not just being lazy. It's years of human evolution that lead us to avoid things we dislike. But there are ways to overcome those obstacles.

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The ‘Ask A Pro’ series with Sam McGlone originally ran in Triathlete Magazine—and we’ll be bringing back some of her advice here. This question was first answered in the September 2012 issue. 

Q: My coach says I need to swim with a band, do more hill repeats, and cut down on my Pop-Tarts habit. Why is everything that’s good for me stuff I hate?

This question reminds me of a facetious, yet surprisingly accurate, piece of advice I once heard: “If it tastes good, don’t eat it.” We are hardwired to crave things that are bad for us and we tend to avoid things that will make us healthier, such as broccoli and hill repeats. What gives?

We are attracted to things that will make us strong and healthy—certain amounts of fat, protein, and sugar are essential to survival. Humans instinctively seek out delicious and highly-caloric foods to avoid the threat of starvation. The problem is that our environment has changed too quickly for human instinct to adapt. Plentiful food and sugary snacks have only been widely available for the last hundred years or so, whereas the human sweet tooth developed over millions of years of deprivation. Hard physical work in the form of hunting or farming was essential to survival, so we naturally tended toward resting when possible to save our energy for more important things. 

OK, anthropology lesson over. So we need to do things we dislike in order to improve upon an area of weakness. Things are more fun when we are good at them, and we naturally avoid doing tasks at which we are not as good. Getting over that initial learning curve is the key to developing proficiency and building enjoyment. Ask any triathlete what his or her favorite part of the race is—the answer is almost always the sport they started in and is therefore the one in which they are most proficient. Doing anything inefficiently means the energy cost is much higher than a similar activity with which we are more comfortable.

Let’s take a look at running vs. swimming. Running being a weight-bearing sport, it will typically use up more energy than swimming. However an efficient runner who is also a weak swimmer might find it much less taxing to run for 90 minutes than swim for 30. Some of us live for the long rides; some only endure them so they can get to the run.

But as your coach pointed out, it’s the stuff that you dislike doing (and are inefficient at) that will make you stronger and faster. There are ways to plan your training to make the “less fun” activities less painful and still leave plenty of time to enjoy the things you love. (I’m not sure I can help you with the Pop-Tarts, though.)

  • Do the hard stuff first. Get up and get at it before you have too much time to think and talk yourself out of doing it. This is the same reason we eat salad at the beginning of the meal, at that point we are hungry and enthusiastic about eating anything. On the flip side, when you are so stuffed and couldn’t possibly eat another bite, there always seems to be room for dessert. So make sure to do your salad workouts (hill repeats, band swimming) first then save your dessert workouts (group rides, long run, yoga) for the end of the day or week when motivation and energy are waning. I always have energy at the end of the day for a social jog/gossip session with friends, but if I save a hard swim till 6 p.m., it has little chance of happening.
  • Plan a reward. Use music, friends, or the promise of brunch to motivate you through a hard workout. I am a proponent of treadmill running to improve form and leg speed, but I am the first to admit that it is the most monotonous workout of the week. My deal with myself is that I am only allowed to run with music while on the treadmill. A new playlist is enough to get me through even the toughest of workouts on the hamster wheel. Social time works wonders too, so try to rope a friend into doing those hill repeats with you. Misery loves company.
  • Set goals and measure your progress. The point of doing those things you dislike should be to improve upon a weakness and make you a better athlete. It helps to set direct goals for what you are trying to achieve and have an objective way to measure your progress. Seeing improvement over the weeks can reinforce motivation and demonstrate that all your efforts are not wasted. Set up a specific course and do a time trial every few weeks, or have a coach analyze your stroke and give you feedback.
  • Be accountable. Write down your workouts and keep a log. It is easy to convince yourself that you have been doing enough salad workouts when in fact you’ve been loading up on dessert. You may find looking back you actually only squeezed in three core sessions last month instead of the twice weekly you were aiming for. I find if I write down my swim workouts beforehand and take them to the pool I won’t skip over drills like I would without a plan.

Take comfort in the fact that professional athletes are not immune to this problem either. As I write this, I am procrastinating a swim workout that includes 2x800m with a snorkel. I hate swimming with a snorkel (so I know it must be good for me). Can’t I just eat a salad for lunch instead?

Olympian Samantha McGlone is a former 70.3 world champion and was runner-up at the 2007 Ironman World Championship.