Week 8: The power of inertia
Lessons from Jeff Galloway
“A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.”
That’s the law of inertia we all learned about in grade school, developed by scientists through the ages from Aristotle to Galileo.
But it doesn’t apply only to objects in space. It applies to us too, in the habits we form around when and where we exercise our bodies, and how we keep them moving around regularly — or not.
I found this out (again!) this past week, when a combination of things — work, responsibilities at home, and just life in general — kept me from getting the miles in that I’d intended.
I went from running four days a week, almost never missing a mile I’d planned on running, to running only a single day last week. And I didn’t run at all over the weekend, including the long run I really needed to do.
Granted, none of this adds up to a world-shaking crisis, exactly… but it does throw a curveball into sticking with the training plans I’ve been sharing with you each week. (The whole idea with staying consistent with running is not to break the chain, and I… broke the chain.)
The counter-intuitive thing is, when I pause my regular running routine — an activity that saps you of energy, at least immediately after you’ve done it — I become less energetic in the rest of my life too. My overall energy and enthusiasm takes a dip, and I feel more sluggish in general.
For a while, I don’t notice it. Then, only slightly. But after laying off from running for a several days, I start to feel like R2-D2 here:
Can you relate?
When I keep up my running habit, it’s easy to keep going. My body feels a pull to go do it. I don’t have to convince myself. In other words, I’m able to use the power of inertia — positive inertia, when I’m a body in motion that wants to say in motion.
But when I give myself permission not to do it — even when I know I should — it’s easier to do the same thing the next time… and the next time… and so on. And then, negative inertia kicks in — my body simply wants to stay at rest. (Forever.)
Jeff Galloway, a former Olympian who’s practically a household name here in my Atlanta running community as the founder of the Phidippides running stores and the originator of the run-walk-run training method, knows a lot about this mental hurdle — and that it’s something we all experience.
He’s written about it multiple times in the dozen or so books on running he has published over the years, including one he wrote specifically on half marathon training.
Consistency, he points out, is the most important part of conditioning and fitness. And motivation is the most important factor in staying consistent. We can gain control over our motivation level, he adds — but it doesn’t happen by accident:
“The choice is yours. You can take control over your attitude, or you can let yourself be swayed by outside factors that will leave you on a motivational roller coaster: fired up one day, with no desire the next. Getting motivated on a given day can sometimes be as simple as saying a few key words and taking a walk. But staying motivated usually requires a strategy.”
Well that seems simple enough, right? 😉
Kidding aside, I know this sounds easy to say and difficult to actually put into practice. (It’s difficult for me too sometimes, as last week — again! — showed me.)
But “practice,” I think, is the key word. We need to do things over and over — such as adding a mile to our long runs, getting out on the mornings we say we will for our weekday runs, etc. — to prove to ourselves that we actually can do them.
We (or least, I) don’t believe it if we only say it to ourselves. We have to see our bodies actually doing the thing we think they can’t do, before we start to believe it.
And the only way to make that happen is through practice — getting out for our scheduled runs day after day, week after week, and experiencing the mental stresses that go with that, events that trigger the stress hormones that try to persuade us to give up.
I know this sounds weird, but we need to do it before we know we can do it.
A few weeks ago, I wrote to you about my son, who only recently has learned how to ride a bike. He struggled with it for such a long time because he was convinced it was too difficult. Nothing would change his mind:
We took our bikes to a small park with a loop road around it, shaded by a canopy of trees. It was flat with almost no car traffic, so it was safe.
My son got on his bike and put his feet on the pedals, but his mind rebelled.
“I can’t,” he told me.
“You can,” I replied, adding that he’d done it before.
“But I can’t, Daddy.”
He got his bike going a few times. But because he didn’t think he could actually ride, he let it slow down too much. The front wheel would then wobble and turn, and he’d end up in bushes on the side of the street.
I go through my own version of this when I fade away from running for a while. “Today’s mileage is too many,” I think to myself. “I’ll just run three instead of five,” or “four instead of six.” Or maybe I’ll skip today and hope for the best this weekend. And then something comes up to nix that plan too.
Like my son, I need to give myself chances to rehearse what it feels like to feel discouraged, to feel scared, to feel a lack of confidence — or to just feel lazy — and decide instead to do it anyway.
This happens with anything I try that I’m not confident I can do, by the way. I’ve been writing fiction lately — or, at least, trying to — and I find myself getting intensely self-critical about my work. I compare what I’ve written to stories and novels I love, putting them on a pedestal. “How can I ever measure up to a standard like that?” I ask myself.
But like my son and his bike, there’s only one way to find out if I can do it — and that’s to actually do it, to experience the self-doubt and the nagging feeling that I shouldn’t be trying this at all. (In fact, that feeling may be the sign that this is something I should be trying.)
That’s the only thing I’ve found that works — to practice encountering discouraging thoughts and move through them anyway. Not by trying to pretend they don’t exist, or deny the power they have over me.
Like my 8-year-old son:
He brought his bike up beside mine, and I leaned over to him.
“We’re going to ride down this street together,” I said as we looked down at my wife and stepdaughter at the other end. “You’ll get those legs moving, and before you know it, you’re going to be riding for real. And you’ll say to yourself, ‘this was a lot easier than I thought.”
I started riding in front of him, so he could be assured there were no cars between us. We moved forward, slowly at first. Then I picked up the pace a little. And then a little more.
I kept looking back at him, to see how he was doing. At first he had a worried look on his face, but then it changed. We kept moving forward and his legs kept pumping, and I could see the worry on his face fade away. He was doing it, he was really riding on his own. It was smooth, and I saw a tiny little smile creep across his face.
We took a ride around the entire park. He made his turns, he sped up and figured out how to brake, so he could slow down when he wanted. When we got around to the other side of the park, where we’d started, he turned to me, still with that sly smile:
“Daddy, that was easier than I thought it would be.”
What worked for my son will work for me too, if only I give myself the chance — or, as Galloway puts it, to give yourself opportunities to rehearse patterns of behavior so you don’t have to wrestle with yourself so often:
“Rehearsals become patterns of behavior more easily if you don’t think but just move from one action to the next. The power of the rehearsal is that you have formatted your brain for a series of actions so that you don’t have to think as you move from one action to the next. As you repeat the pattern, revising it for real life, you become what you want to be.”
Amen. That’s the mental space I want to be in — so now, I just have to go practice it some more, this week and this weekend. How about you?
As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going 👍 I always love hearing from you.
Our training plan for this week
This week, we stick with the same miles as last week — easy peasey, right? 😃
Thursday, Feb. 24 — 4 miles/40 minutes
Saturday, Feb. 26 — 7 miles/70 minutes
Sunday, Feb. 27 — 2-3 miles/20-30 minutes
Tuesday, March 1 — 6 miles/60 minutes
Let me know how it’s going for you!