The key to improving physical fitness lies in adhering to a concept called progressive overload. You work a specific muscle or function in a specific manner, progressively adding intensity and duration over time. Hard days are followed by easy days.
I’ve thought about this concept a lot, especially as I’m coming up on my first 100 mile trail race in less than two weeks — the Javelina Jundred in Arizona on October 30.
AND I’M SUPER ANXIOUS ABOUT IT!!!
But it’s not something I’m just doing on a whim. In fact, it’s been years of progressive overload physically — and especially from an endurance standpoint — to get to this place.
I have been a runner my whole life. In fact, some of my greatest memories as a kid are just running around with friends, playing all kinds of games that involved…running. Whether it was tag, or capture the flag, or creating neighborhood triathlons…I have always loved the act of running. The freedom it brought.
Field day was always an exciting time in my life, whether it was running the 100 yard sprints, or the marathon (which in grade school was usually one lap around the field).
In fact, there is this beautiful scene in the movie Chariots of Fire that really conveys part of what I’m trying to get at. The Scottish sprinter, rugby player and missionary Eric Liddell is trying to explain to his sister some of the sacrifices he is making for running, and he says to her a line that I have never forgotten.
I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.
Progressive Anxiety Overload
I don’t think I’m particularly fast, but I love to run. And I do feel God’s pleasure as running is an act of joy for me. And over the years it has become something that I do to also help manage my anxiety. It has become a form of therapy for me. A moving meditation. A spiritual experience.
And the longer the run, the greater the anxiety — the more I have to dig deep — the deeper the spiritual experience.
It’s hard to explain, but ultra endurance running has this beautiful combination of anxiety, spirituality, suffering, transformative growth — writing those words right now I realize even more that I could probably never put it into something that makes complete sense, except maybe for those who have done it.
But to get to this 100 mile race in two weeks I have had to over the years develop a progressive overload not just physically, but from an anxiety standpoint. I have had to push my endurance, as well as test the outer limits of my anxiety. The anxiety that accompanies the months and months of training. The doubts. The fears. The unknowns. So much anxiety.
Physicality aside, I realize this is also a concept that I try and teach and encourage all my clients in therapy and executive coaching (as well as trying to embody it myself). It’s hard to take others to places you have not gone yourself — so I’m always trying to push myself so that I can be a better teacher. And something that I try and teach is progressively overloading one’s anxiety.
Simply put — each day, each week — just try and do something beyond your level of comfort to see what it’s like. Step beyond the comfort level of the anxiety, and experience the anxiety itself. Sit with it. Sit in it. Just simply notice what it’s like. My therapist used to encourage me all the time to just sit with my anxiety and notice that it was going to be okay — that I was not going to die. Learn to be okay with it. And when you do this, your tolerance level of anxiety in life tends to rise.
Sometimes you can test this theory yourself and build it up in incremental ways, and other times something radical is thrown upon you. Over the years I tried to find ways to deal with my stuttering which caused severe anxiety, but ultimately I started experiencing breakthroughs by just putting myself in situations where I had to speak, and I would either fail, or there would be some breakthrough. It was hard to find ways to progressively overload when I was afraid to speak in public — one day I’m avoiding all talking in public to a group, and the next day I’m preaching a sermon. That was a huge breakthrough for me, but hopefully for most people we can find ways to slowly progress. To face our anxiety one step at a time.
So even though I was a runner my entire life and ran track in high school, I think the farthest I had run was maybe 2-3 miles at one time — pretty consistently in my 20’s and early 30’s. Then one day my brother called me and asked if I wanted to run the Chicago Marathon in October of 2005. Without hesitating I said absolutely. And when I crossed that finish line I felt something I had never felt before — the realization that by overloading myself physically would not only help me finish a race, but would transfer into other areas of my life. Growth is growth, and it’s not easily contained in compartmentalized areas of our life. Growing in one area of your life should spurn growth in other area’s. And I know that my anxiety had been transformed in a significant way that day I crossed the finish line in Chicago.
For example, learning to engage in difficult conversations with a spouse, can spur growth to do this with colleagues, etc. And vice-versa.
Giving a talk to some small group you are in, may lead to larger audiences.
Taking risks in some areas of your life and facing the fears, may lead to the ability one day take on a huge job transition.
Everything is connected. And when you progressively overload your anxiety and work on it, your ability to handle more, and work through more and grow more will increase.
For example, when it comes to the progression overload and working through my anxiety of the unknown in increasing distances, here is a short timeline of the major races that shifted my thinking and my ability to transform my anxiety into greater and greater opportunities for growth:
Age | 0-14: running as a kid
Age | 15-18: high school track
Age | 19-30: 1.5 to 3 miles a few days a week
Age | 35: Chicago Marathon (26.2 miles)
Age | 39: Ft. Worth Cowtown Ultra Endurance Race (31.0686 miles)
Age | 40: Palo Duro Trail Run (50 miles)
Age | 45: Rocky Raccoon Trail Run (100K/62.1371 miles)
Age | 45: Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim (52 miles/10,000ft elevation gain)
Age | 46: Javelina 100 Ultra Trail Run (100 miles) — this October 30.
That’s a long timeline. It’s taken a lot of work.
Working through anxiety takes a long time.
Sometimes there are immediate breakthroughs, and other times it’s just a long steady progression.
In a culture that often wants immediacy I have always found the steady path to growth takes time if you want true and transformative change.
So my encouragement to you is this.
Look around at your life, and think about one area that you would like to grow in, but you feel some anxiety is holding you back. It could be a little bit of anxiety, or it could be a lot.
And rather than simply going from where you are today, to where you ultimately would like to be — unless of course you are ready to go ahead and just make that leap — think about some little step today that you could take to help you engage your anxiety and work through it.
And then tomorrow, or next week, look for that next step to slowly increase (progressively overload) the anxiety and to work through it so you can experience another breakthrough.
Do this bit by bit, and the next thing you know, you will have arrived to that place. Of course, what I am describing is easier said than done of course. I get that. But trust me, it is worth it.
And if this feels too slow — take the leap — try something really scary and anxiety provoking. Go into that unknown and see what happens. Because the greatest things in life — those things that are really worth pursuing — have the possibility of failure weaved throughout them. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it.
And whether you fail or succeed at your goal, you will have emerged learning something new about yourself, and something new about your ability to handle your anxiety. You will have grown.
That that is totally worth it, and will continue to guide you forward.