When You Want to Quit

By Michael Krueger

This morning, my scheduled workout was to do 15 30-second-on/30-second-off maximum intensity intervals on the Concept 2 rower. Give or take an interval or two, this is one of my normal workouts depending on my current cycle.

It took me longer than usual to warm up and, in my mind, I knew from experience that this was not a good sign. Negative thinking was taking hold, and it was evolving into an unarguably bad situation.

Two intervals into the workout, I desperately wanted to quit. Four in, and I couldn’t see anything good coming from all this hard work. Now my mind was racing: Everything was bad, I was unfocused, and I was being a whiny little jerk. I could see myself failing on all fronts, and I felt like I deserved it; it was like an out-of-body experience … what’s happening here!?


Mental Gyrations

Let me just say right off the top that I did not quit on my training this morning. I got in all 15, logging a very solid workout. I haven’t bailed on a workout in longer than I can remember, and I wasn’t about to break that streak today. I just made it a lot more difficult than it needed to be.

So, after the workout, I engaged in a bit of debriefing to figure out exactly what was going on. I don’t enjoy this sort of analysis; it’s hard, and it can affect my whole day. Unfortunately, sometimes it must be done, and this was one of those times.

So, what’s up? First, physically I’m still having nerve issues affecting my left shoulder and neck. No one can figure it out, and at this time I’m not willing to go to the next level of diagnostic tests, since the likelihood of anything useful coming out of that is low. Interestingly, though, the time when it doesn’t bother me at all is when I’m working out. I’m totally pain free when I’m rowing or lifting, so I doubt that this issue had any serious effect on my attitude this morning.

On another front, my wife travels for her work, and the past two months have been a very busy time for her. That means I have spent a lot of time on my own, which I don’t usually mind. But … when it exceeds a certain level, the solitude gives my looping thoughts a chance to really get into a tight spiral, and that seldom ends well. This situation probably had some effect on me this morning. Nothing like self-pity to affect my focus and confidence.

I also had a client cancel, so this opened a hole in my schedule. One would think that would be OK, but if I’m in one of my self-destructive moods and I’m given additional time to contemplate my workout, I’m very likely to procrastinate. Sometimes I’m quite productive around the house, cleaning, fixing things and straightening up, but I’m not doing what I need to be doing. Rather than just getting to my workout, I’ll start to obsess about the difficulty of the training to come.

Finally, my cardio workouts are very tough. From the first pull until the final gasp, it’s a maximum, high-intensity effort. The PM5 monitor on the rower records every stroke and every meter and counts every second. My pace–fast, slow, or on target–is right in my face; it’s impossible to ignore it. It’s a relentless coach and timekeeper. Mentally, I know exactly what’s coming, and it can make starting the workout hard. Once I get going, I get focused and into a rhythm, and I don’t have the time or the opportunity to think deeply about how difficult the next few minutes are going to be.

Despite the above description of my workout, I actually like the difficulty of the training, I really do, so why did I want so badly to bail on myself this morning?


Knowing Why

It’s times like these that it helps me to review my goals, both short and long term. I know, here I go with goals again. It does seem to get repetitious after a while, but it’s so important to understand why you do what you do for you to be able to get past those moments when your resolve begins to waiver.

Knowing what your short-term goals are gives you a solid, tangible reason for working out. You don’t need to come up with a new reason to get moving every time you’re scheduled to train. You can look at what you’ve written and trust that you knew what you were doing at the time. You can even go back and read all the previous short-term goals that you planned and later accomplished. That can help you to carry on even though you are having doubts right now. By having a hard copy with your goals spelled out, you don’t give yourself the luxury of being able to second guess in the moment what you decided after much planning and deliberation.

As long as you’re looking at your goals, you may as well reaffirm your commitment to your long-term goals as well. Odds are this will be a much shorter list, but there will be more than a couple of the early ones that you’ve already checked off, and that’s always a good feeling.

Long-term goals have a way of settling things a bit. They are a little softer around the edges, since we can’t foresee what the future holds when we make them. Depending on your personality, you may have intermediate goals mixed in with the longer-term ones. These tend to have a little better focus and perhaps a more definitive timeline attached to them. Either way, it’s a good time to take a look at those too.

When you read what you wrote, you’ll remember the emotion that went into them. It’s been said that goals are dreams with a plan attached, and that’s a fairly good definition. When we choose a goal, we are looking ahead to what we want our life to be like in a week, a month, a year, or even a decade. We can’t know for sure what will happen, but we sure know what we want.

Of course, along with those dreams you’ll have to have a plan of action, and the more specific it is the better it will work. Simply saying “I want to be in great shape, work out every day, and be the best firefighter ever” isn’t going to cut it. I’ve actually seen people write stuff like that, and while that would be OK for a fourth grader fantasizing about what she’s going to be when she grows up, it isn’t an effective way to set goals.

Short-term goals are easiest to formulate. You look at where you are right now and decide where you want to be in the next week or even what you want to accomplish in your next workout. Then you write down what you’re going to do to get there. When you do this week after week, workout after workout, you soon you get a very good handle on how trustworthy you are when it comes to keeping promises to yourself. If you find that you aren’t living up to what you wrote down, figure out why. It may be because you are over-reaching, so you throttle back your enthusiasm and set something more in keeping with what your previous performance indicates is achievable. If you find you are far outstripping your performance goals, you know it’s time to ramp up your expectations and set some tougher goals.

The long-term stuff is a little more problematic. There’s no need to lock yourself into what you wanted last year if you now have better information and you no longer want that particular outcome. Time passes and things change. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments along the way; it might keep you from getting crazy.


In the Moment

Despite my mini mental crisis this morning, I didn’t quit. I knew I wouldn’t, but that didn’t prevent the negative thoughts from creeping in and making the workout very difficult. To mitigate the effect of the occasional bout of the “bad-crazies,” I did write down my latest short-term goals on a sticky note and stuck it on the PM5 monitor. At the next training session, I’ll know precisely why I’m there and exactly what I need to do right at that moment to make it happen.

I’m sure you also know what you want and, in all likelihood, you have a plan to get it. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve fallen short or how often you’ve had to adjust your sails. When your dreams are big and your plans are sound, nothing will knock you off course. When you do hit the occasional bump along the way, it won’t even surprise you–it will just keep you focused.

So now that I’ve reviewed my goals and reminded myself why I train like I do, I know that I’m never going to give in and I’m never going to quit, and neither are you …

…we’re too tough for that.


Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.

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