Last Saturday I tackled a challenging workout that took nearly three hours of sustained effort. The task was daunting: I nearly backed out before I started and wanted to chicken out twice more during the task when faced with the scope of the difficulty. My heart rate soared near max more than once, I drained two large bottles of water and ended with sweat-soaked clothes, sore muscles — and arms raised in triumph.
I wasn’t on a mountain run or in a race: I was cutting down tree limbs that had been damaged in a summer storm but were still hanging high in a tree on our property. But here’s the thing: the task required similar courage, toughness and endurance as a hard running challenge, and produced similar satisfaction.
The courage came in getting myself 20–30 feet above the ground into different parts of the tree; the physical toughness in climbing into the tree and, while holding on tight, sawing off limbs with the other; the persistence in repeating this process again and again in ever-more-inaccessible parts of the tree as I released more damaged limbs and worked to get them to the ground. When at last, I swung a tall ladder at the final limb, hooked it and pulled it free to tumble to the ground, I let out a whoop, raised my dripping arms to the sky — and felt a familiar surge of elation from a difficult goal accomplished.
The next day I took on a different challenge, this one an hour-long progression workout, gradually increasing the effort from steady, to hard, to an all-out, max-intensity finish. Again, I had to discipline myself to focus, to embrace the challenge and accept the increasing discomfort — and again I gained the satisfaction of transcending the desire to back down and the elation of hard-won success. The heart-pounding, breath gasping, sweat dripping into my shoes while grinning uncontrollably feeling was familiar and welcome; I’ve run and enjoyed similar workouts for years — only this time it was on a bike.
I’m usually not much of a cross-trainer. I’m a runner. I run. It’s been who I am and what I do since 1977. I don’t foresee that I’m going to overthrow that identity and become primarily a hiker, biker or tree-climber anytime soon. And, I confess that my new-found enthusiasm for cross-training is due to my doctor suggesting I give my knee a chance to repair some damage that running is inflaming. But I am enjoying what I’m learning, even if it is forced: namely, that running gives me the mental skills and physical endurance to cross-train effectively — be that traditional modes or decidedly unconventional ones — and that cross-training can provide not only physical benefits but much-needed mental ones.
The physical ones are rather obvious and well documented. But I’m discovering a few keys to making cross training more mentally satisfying.
We often tread gingerly when stepping out of our comfortable pathways; unsure of our footing and fearful of what will get us in over our heads, we play it safe and keep our efforts moderate. As such, we tend to limit the joy they can provide, because the challenges that provide the most satisfaction are inevitably ones in which we’re not entirely confident of success. There’s a good chance that we’ll fail, and even tackling these challenges scares us a bit.
Some challenges have an element of physical fear due to the inherent danger of the task, like climbing and working high in that tree, hiking a narrow trail, or swimming out into open water. With other challenges the fear comes from the internal effort required to succeed, as when pushing myself on a bike or facing the stacked weights on a lifting bar. For some it’s the scale: climbing a high peak, riding a trail around a mountain or to a town in another state, or something as mundane, but no less daunting, as digging out all the tree roots of a new garden patch (if you think that’s less daunting you’ve never dug out roots).
What is key for me is that either at the outset, or sometime during the activity, I seriously consider backing out — and decide not to. This is what characterizes our most satisfying running challenges too, as Deena Kastor tells in this story about what she considers her best marathon, one she almost didn’t start. For experienced runners venturing into new activities, cross-training actually has an advantage in that the whole endeavor is unknown, and we can conquer “impossible” challenges regularly.
There is a time to be in the moment, paying attention to sensations and neither noting nor caring about metrics. There is also a time for knowing exactly where you’re at and striving to exceed your best — and that requires measuring and tracking.
Whatever alternative activity we do, we can gain satisfaction by finding a way to measure it, figuring out what level is “good” for us, and working to become better. On my Sunday ride, I kept the pedal to the metal by increasing and maintaining my speed and my heart rate (if I had the right device I could have added power). And, as the numbers kept getting higher, the success multiplied with each minute and mile.
The same can be true with tracking progress over time, be that weight lifted, total walking miles, or vertical gain. We know this all from running, we just have to add new metrics, benchmarks and goals. Some metrics can compare directly to running, such as time in a heart rate zone (which makes it easy to compare efforts and training load across activities on a tracking program like TodaysPlan, available as part of our Active Pass.) Other measurements might be completely specific to you and certain parameters, like how fast you can kayak across the lake and back, or your PR walking a mile on crutches wearing a boot — but all provide the same opportunities for success and growth.
Embrace and Accept Variety
To get to the level of effort and focus that produces flow, we need to embrace the new activity and accept its parameters. At some point in our lives, we decided that rapidly putting one foot in front of the other was meaningful and it was worth striving and suffering to do it more excellently. I find we runners tend to be rather elitist about this, finding the experience of our activity more pure, natural and complete than others. Whenever we’re doing something else, we wish we were running — and that gets in the way.
For example, we runners like to gripe about bikes, how they’re always distracting us with gears and chains and tire pressure, how it feels so much harder to sustain effort. I still prefer the simple experience of just shoes and shorts, but I find —if I accept that this is how it feels to push myself on the bike, stop trying to fight it or compare it, and focus on my breathing and rhythm — I can lose myself in the effort here as well, and find satisfaction in my performance. If I let myself, I can even find elements that are better than running: the thrill of faster speeds, the larger range, the lower impact.
The same is true for a wide variety of activities, even ones most consider chores. My son says I can make a workout out of anything, from carrying dog food to chopping wood, taking the stairs to shoveling snow… And why not? “If you do anything well, it becomes enjoyable,” wrote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow.
The joy is in the effort, both the sweating and the striving. We’re not being disloyal to running by enjoying variety. And the more varied activities we embrace, we not only expand our opportunity for enjoyment, the better, more robust runners we become.