Why Do We Do Hard Things?

By Emilie Whitson

Do your non-triathlon friends and family ever ask why you voluntarily put yourself through upwards of an hour of physical pain on a regular basis (aka racing triathlons)?

Do you ever wonder to yourself the same thing?

I’m here to give you some great answers, for when your boss asks you why you rode your bike for 5 hours on a weekend.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and change as a result of experiences we have. If you weren’t looking for a science lesson, stay with me here. Just as our muscles regenerate and recover after a hard effort, ready to come back stronger in anticipation of the next interval, so does our brain.

During workouts, we are creating new neural pathways, allowing us to learn and acquire memories. As it turns out, even though our adult brains are fully developed, they are still mold-able (aka plastic).

How does the brain’s incredible ability to adapt help us in athletic training? The first time you try a skill, your brain’s neural pathways are not optimized. But, as you practice this skill by training or racing, you get a little bit better at it, as neurons and muscle fibers are coordinated more efficiently.

Although we don’t need studies to tell us this as triathletes, the more we practice a skill, the less we have to consciously think about it. (Remember how much thinking you did during your first swimming lesson?)

All this information probably seems straightforward for the motor control aspects of sport, such as timing your swimming kick, or dismounting your bike gracefully. But what about the mental aspects of sport?

You can recruit your brain’s neuroplasticity to help you to be not only a mentally tough athlete, but all around mentally resilient person. Sticking to it during a hard session and teaching yourself not to quit, is a skill that can be learned. Making decisions quickly under pressure is another skill that triathletes need to excel at, that can be transferred into real life application. Anecdotally, athletes who have completed Ironman distance triathlons report greater confidence in every day mentally tough situations.

So the next time someone asks you why you’d choose to suffer during a workout, just tell them- it makes the hard things in life seem not so hard!