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We’ve all been there. You’ve started a new training routine, or an exercise class, or just something that is uncharted and challenging. Buoyed by adrenaline, motivation, and pride, everything seems to be going fine; perhaps you’re even enjoying things. And then without much warning, things start heading south. The discomfort feels worse than normal, or perhaps the motivation to keep getting up early begins to wane. For some, it’s just the boredom of doing the same thing over and over again. Perhaps you don’t actually stop but you mentally throw in the towel—you ease up or let the other runner or cyclist go because it just feels too hard to stay with them. You go into coast mode, even though you’ve got more in the tank. Before long you just want it all to stop. The argument in your head gets louder and louder as parts of your brain frantically try to cut deals with other parts of your brain to avoid bailing or permitting your body to ease up or come to a grinding halt.
First, the short-term focus appears: Just get to the feed zone and then you can walk or Just 5 more reps and it will be over. This works for a while. Then come the thoughts of escape and decisional regret: How can I get out of this? Perhaps I could let my own tire down and fake a flat? or Why did I decide to do this? I’m never f*cking doing this again! This may soon give way to a groundswell of anger: Where the f*ck is the mile marker? or The instructor is meant to be counting to 1 minute, but he’s not even looking at his watch, for f*ck’s sake!! For the record, these are all perfectly normal reactions to a brain in conflict.
The psychology of resisting the urge to quit is a bit more complicated than the motivational memes would have us believe, even though the choice itself is alarmingly simple. For years, scientists have been baffled by this little humdinger because your brain’s decision to stop doing something that hurts or generally sucks is affected by its ability to process and filter large amounts of neurological, chemical, mechanical, emotional, and psychological data. All of the what ifs and maybes make for massive variability in your tendency to quit. When the scientists look beyond a study of one, it’s even more complicated. It’s important to note that quitting also refers to those instances in which you mentally throw in the towel—meaning you ease up, stop trying, or otherwise reduce the effort despite having the physical capacity to continue at the higher effort level.
To be a brave athlete, you have to determine the type of quit at stake and then make use of a toolbox of strategies to win the brain battle of stick-to-itness. We call this approach quitonomics—the practical science of not quitting stuff that sucks.
How to Quit Quitting
Endurance training is the perfect environment in which to confront this problem. For what it’s worth, we all suffer from the occasional “shit quit” (i.e. quitting when there is no risk of physical, emotional, financial, or social harm by continuing). After all, we’re human. We’re all flawed, irrational, dissonance-reducing people trying our best. However, if your shit quitting has become a habit, we need to intervene because it’s only going to get worse, and you’re teaching yourself that it’s okay to walk away when things get uncomfortable.
It’s worth saying that you don’t need to worry about the occasional shit quit. Think of these like a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card. Used sparingly (e.g. once a month), they provide a guilt-free “phew.” Just don’t make it a habit because shit quitting is a gateway drug. Chronic shit quitters need some help recognizing how to wrangle the part of the brain that wants to throw in the towel. Learning to avoid shit quitting is a skill that will help you reach your potential.
The first strategy requires you to engage in a bit of metacognition—thinking about how you think. You can also impress people at a party by saying “metacognitive.”
Strategy 1: Perform a Self-Audit of Your Quitting
Regardless of whether you think you are in danger of using a shit quit in your current training, start by performing a self-audit of your quitting. As any behavioral science expert will tell you, a task that makes you aware of a problem is half the battle of solving it. Even if you think you’re not a quitter, perform the audit because of what scientists call the Dunning-Kruger effect: the bizarre finding that illusory superiority is inversely correlated with actual superiority. In normal language, this means that people who most need the help are often the least likely to know it.
Think of up to four examples in which you stopped or eased up on a task prematurely, then look through each example and reflect on any patterns you notice. Rate your physical and mental discomfort at the time. If your physical discomfort ratings are higher than your mental discomfort ratings, then you probably need more exposure to physical discomfort to improve your tolerance. If your mental discomfort ratings are mostly higher than your physical discomfort ratings, you need to learn more mental strategies to resist the urge to quit. Proceed to Strategy 2.
Strategy 2: Use Cognitive Priming to Reduce Your Quit Risk
Cognitive priming is the brain’s equivalent of foreplay. Your brain likes it best when you warm it up and arouse it prior to a difficult challenge. In short, give yourself a brain-boner if you want it do something that’s gonna hurt. Exposing our brains to thoughts and feelings about a specific task helps guide our behavior later in the same task. So, before every challenge, help your brain squirt dopamine. Dopamine is motivation’s Sriracha sauce. A great way to open the dopamine floodgate is to watch and listen to inspirational stuff about the activity you are prone to quitting at. Unlike meme-turds, videos are a more immersive sensory experience, and virtually all capitalize on the dopaminergic power of music. Music has the ability to not just arouse pleasurable feelings but also increase craving or wanting—two critical elements of sports motivation.
Strategy 3: Leverage Biology to Boost Your Brain’s Quit Resistance
Early morning is almost always a better time to take on a challenging task. 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 (preferred sleep/wake cycle) and creating a sustainable exercise habit can be a battle. That said, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have discovered that we find it harder to take on a challenge later in the day. The part of your brain responsible for self-control—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)—tires just like a muscle. It activates with less intensity if it’s been used prior to being needed again. This is why your emotional reserves to tackle a challenge and tolerate discomfort get eroded throughout the day. As the day progresses, you are constantly resisting temptation, stifling emotion, and otherwise exerting self-restraint. You may not even realize that you’re doing it. When evening arrives, most of us have simply become too tired to put up a fight. We default to the easiest option. This is why thinking about the large glass of wine at home becomes much more appealing than the thought of being shouted at by a personal trainer or swimming in a cold pool. So if you’re lucky enough to have a choice, hit the gym or take on the quit-risk when your DLPFC is refreshed, happy, and raring to go.
Strategy 4: Cut a Deal with Your Brain by Issuing Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Cards
Your brain has a built-in “pacing and bracing” mechanism called “anticipatory regulation.” The level of suffering you feel at any particular time is based partly on what you think is still to come. If you get the shit quits, your brain may be quitting in anticipation of what’s ahead. Because the thought of having to start something that’s hard when you already feel crappy is a tough sell for your brain. In fact, the thought of having to endure something when you are already suffering, bored, or unmotivated can be far worse than actually doing it. By cutting a deal with your brain, you give yourself limited permission to quit—an “out.” One of our Braveheart athletes, Elaine Morison, cuts a deal with herself to never quit on an uphill. When the thoughts of escape start piling on, Elaine puts off decisions about quitting until she gets to an easy part of the course.
This simple strategy is a remarkably effective way to keep your brain from giving into the quit. When we use this strategy for pain tolerance based on time or distance, we called it “segmentation.”
For shit quits, this can also be framed as a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card—an option to cut and run any time you want. It works like a mental comfort blanket. It’s important to note that this strategy can have the opposite effect on some people. For some, knowing that you can quit makes it easier to quit. Despite our years of experience, we’ve been unable to predict who this will work for and who it won’t. The best recommendation is to try it out for yourself. Here’s an example of what it looks like with a real athlete.
Tanja Fichera is a sprint-distance triathlete. Tanja used to have a tendency to quit mid-interval during high-intensity swim sets in an endless pool (a pool in which you swim in place against a current. It’s like a treadmill for swimmers). It was a debacle that came to be known as the Tanja Tapout. Here’s how it usually went down:
Tanja: But it’s so hard to breathe! I feel like I might drown! I can’t do it!
Coach: You won’t drown, and yes, you can do it! Your brain won’t let you drown! [repeat]
Here’s how we put an end to Tanja’s shit quit. At the start of each 45-minute session, Tanja would place three yellow rubber ducks on the pool deck. Each duck represented a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card. At any point during the session, she could stop mid-interval, and not have to worry about defending her quit to herself or her coach. However, every time she stopped, she used up one of her rubber ducks. She would pick up the duck and hurl it across the yard. Knowing the ducks were there helped Tanja reduce her anxiety about whether she could make it through the anxiety about drowning. This “out” helped her feel more relaxed about the session, which in turn improved her breathing. The challenge became how far she could get through the session before running out of ducks. Once she was able to complete the session, her next goal was to finish and still have at least one rubber duck left on deck. Within weeks she was completing the full session with all her ducks. Yes, still in a row.
Strategy 5: Request a Nudge
Our brains hate being judged for not being good enough. Fear of embarrassment, humiliation, inadequacy, and failure kill motivation and happiness. What our brains love, however, is social support. Being encouraged, praised, and recognized is like dirty talking your amygdala—ground zero in the brain for drives, instincts, and rewards. Why do you think Facebook is so popular? It’s amygdala porn.
When it comes to fitness, friends don’t let friends exercise alone. Group exercise is motivating because it reduces our perception of effort, creates accountability, and offers loads of opportunity to give and receive praise. Plus, we can silently judge people (chill out; it’s perfectly natural). The problem is getting your ass there in the first place. A great strategy is to extend the group’s power to influence us. Next time you’re at a group exercise session, ask someone to be your Thunder Buddy. Okay, maybe you don’t actually ask them that, but do find one or two people willing to swap numbers with you (or ask instructors to recommend it) and text each other the day of the session with a nudge to attend: “Don’t you dare bail on the class tonight! See you @5:45.” Take turns being the nudger and the nudged. Try it—this strategy is gold.
Adapted from The Brave Athlete by Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson, with permission of VeloPress.