For those of you who don’t already know this, I took a 10 year hiatus from running after red shirting cross country my freshmen year of college. While there is a part of me that wonders how fast I would have gotten if I had done another 4-5 years of dedicated distance running, I was in desperate need of a change of pace. I found it at the Shaolin Lohan Pai Kung Fu School. I learned a lot there, especially stuff that is useful for the mental aspect of endurance athletics. One of the things we had going for us there was a running sorta-joke. Anytime we did something or experienced discomfort, we’d say “It’s conditioning.”
Now while there is a specific kind of conditioning we were referring to, the joke would be applied to anything under the sun that could be deemed unpleasant. Beating your shins on a concrete post? It’s conditioning. Your car breaks down and you have to run to class? It’s conditioning. You’re stuck restocking the bottom shelves at work, forcing you into a low squat position for extended durations? It’s conditioning. You have to endure long hours of mind-numbingly dumb conversation? It’s conditioning. Obviously most of us were college age, with typical college jobs and concerns, but the mental approach to physically or mentally un-fun situations is applicable to endurance athletics.
I will say that I've had the pleasure to work with a few Marines/retired Marines over the years. And I've definitely heard more than one of them use the phrase "Embrace the suck." And while the wording is a little different, it definitely has a similar effect on the person using it. I can't say that it's a term I personally use, but then again, I've never been in the Marines either.
Taking the mental approach of “It’s conditioning” to something that is uncomfortable, irritating, or physically hard to do allows us to reframe the situation. It puts us in the driver’s seat, allowing us to mentally be in command of our responses to it. Obviously hard workouts are conditioning in the sense that we’re getting a physiological stimulus that (should) translate into enabling us to reach the finish line of a race faster. But sometimes we have things crop up that irritate the piss out of us. For instance, endurance athletes are known for being slaves to the training plan, right? What happens when a major holiday (i.e. Christmas) that “requires us to attend to social and familial obligations” and prevents us from going through our normal daily routine? I’m being a bit facetious on purpose here, but you get the point. Besides, we all know that athlete that IS really irritated when this happens (hopefully it’s not you).
Sometimes things happen that get under our skin. Sometimes we simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Sometimes it’s really nasty weather outside. But if we approach these kinds of problems with the “It’s conditioning” mindset, then all of a sudden it’s not a crummy situation. It’s now a way to improve our mental fitness. We’re practicing for the part of the race where we’ve bonked. Or terrible weather on race day (i.e. Boston 2018). Or our training partner overslept, but they aren’t doing the same race anyway and we can’t use them to pull us along through the tough miles at the end.
“It’s conditioning” may have started out as a joke by a bunch of goofy guys at the kung fu school to help us deal with being really uncomfortable during hard training, but it has become an extremely useful tool. Being able to reframe our circumstances to put ourselves in the driver’s seat may not change the physics, but it does allow us to stay mentally engaged and not slide down the hole of negative though patterns. The last 5 miles of the marathon are the hardest not because our legs and feet are tired, but because our brains aren’t working correctly. Taking back control puts you in charge of your own race. And that makes for not just faster finish times, but gives us more satisfying finishes as well because you are choosing to run at a certain pace. So the next time you’re stuck on a treadmill inside, just remember: It’s conditioning.