Running & the Challenge of Pushing at Your Edge

I’m not the world’s greatest runner, but lately I’ve been challenging myself to stay at my edge.

As I was running at my edge the other day, it occurred to me that this is a useful practice in many areas in life. Learning to play at your edge is a challenging practice, but pays off in so many ways.

If you learn to play at your edge, you learn to stop shying away from discomfort. You grow and learn in new ways. And you develop a confidence in yourself that is hard to do when you stay in your comfort zone.

Let’s explore this challenging practice.

How I Stay at My Edge with Running

Let’s use running as a concrete example of this, so you know what we’re talking about.

First, I should say that I don’t do all my running at my edge. I run about three times a week, and typically only one of those runs is at my edge. The other two are at an easy pace.

But that one run a week at my edge typically looks something like this:

  • Warmup: I start out running easy, warming up. Then I walk for a minute. This has me fully ready to run.
  • Easing in: I start running and ease myself into a faster pace.
  • The Pace: I run about as fast as I can run if I were running a 5K race (which is a fast pace for me).
  • The Edge: At some point, I feel like slowing down — this is the edge of my discomfort, and it makes me want to back away. At this point, I try to stay here at the edge and not back off. Note that this is not an all-out sprint, but a sustained strong pace.
  • Staying at the Edge: If I stay at the edge, it usually gets more uncomfortable. If I can stay here, I do. If I have to rest, I do so, but then try to come back to the edge.

I repeat this, staying at the edge as long as I can, then backing off, then going back. If I can stay without resting, I do it, but resting and then going back is often a part of the process.

As you can see, this isn’t about never backing off. It’s about staying at the edge for as long as I’m able. And using rest as a way to get back to the edge.

By the way, this has been a really effective way for me to get stronger at running, though that’s not the only point. The main point is to learn to stay with the discomfort.

Where Else Can We Practice at the Edge?

Running is a pretty concrete example, but there are lots of other examples:

  • Strength training: Similar to running, I practice at my edge with lifting weights or bodyweight strength exercises. I don’t have a fixed weight or number of reps to lift, but feel what I’m capable of that day. If I can lift heavier, I do. If I can lift more reps, I do. It’s about finding the edge of my discomfort and hanging out there, which always makes me stronger when I do it.
  • Learning: If you’re studying something, it’s pretty uncomfortable to be learning something that you don’t really understand yet. You’re in the unknown, and our instinct is to get out of there as soon as we can. But if you can hang out in the unknown for longer, you’ll learn more. Stay with the learning even if you feel lost.
  • Creating: If you’re writing, making music or art, creating content online, etc … it will bring resistance. That’s the topic of Season 1 of the Zen Habits Podcast — how to hang out with that resistance. If you can stay there in that resistance, you’ll be able to create, but if not, you’ll be stuck in your comfort zone.
  • Focusing: If you want to get better at focusing on work (or reading), the practice is to stay for longer even if you’re a bit uncomfortable. We feel some overwhelm, stress, anxiety … and so we want to run from it. But what if we could stay here for a bit longer?
  • Relationships: The most delicious part of intimacy is when we’re in the unknown together. We learn more about the other person, and ourselves, if we can hang out here. But most of us want to be in the known — where we’re right, or we control things. When you find yourself wanting to be right, or to control things, see if you can let go of that and step into the discomfort of the unknown for a bit.

There are lots of other areas you can practice at the edge – meditation, healthy eating, adventures, public speaking, finances, etc. — but I hope you can see that this is where the deepest learning, growth, intimacy, and creating takes place.

The Benefits I’ve Noticed with Practicing at the Edge

If you can practice regularly at your edge — not all the time, but sometimes — you’ll see lots of benefits. Here are some:

  • Greater growth — you’ll grow faster as a person, and in the particular area (like running or learning) you’re practicing, than ever before.
  • Greater confidence — you’ll learn to trust yourself, that you can stay for longer than you previously believed, and this will have you feeling more confident in all areas of your life.
  • Expansive life — your life will be less held back by discomfort, and you’ll be able to expand to new areas of life that previously felt impossible.
  • Less stress — very often our stress is about our worry about not being able to handle something. But with this greater trust an confidence, and greater sense of expansiveness, we actually feel more fully alive and less worried about not handling things.

Important Notes for Practicing

A few final notes about practicing at the edge:

  1. You don’t always need to be at the edge. In fact, I would say you should only do it about 20-25% of your practice time for an area. Most of the time you should be in a more comfortable place — let yourself do easy stuff as part of your training. As I said with running, only one of my three runs each week is at my edge.
  2. Rest and self-care are incredibly important. If you’re already running ragged, then being at your edge is more harmful than helpful. Just getting up in the morning might be already your edge. That means you should prioritize rest and recovery. Fill up your battery so you can practice at your edge. That said, if you’re always choosing rest over your edge, that might mean you should push slightly more (but not overdo it).
  3. Your edge is relative each practice session. When I lift weights, sometimes my edge is a lighter weight than my last workout. That might be because I haven’t fully recovered from the last session, or I didn’t sleep well, or I was really active yesterday, or I have a lot of stress in my life. Don’t use objective numbers to tell you where your edge is at today. Use your sense of discomfort. Sometimes you’ll overdo it because you think you should be pushing to a certain point, but that’s because you’re ignoring your body’s signals. That’s not going to be helpful.
  4. Be curious when you’re at your edge. You’re not just trying to push yourself. You’re trying to hang out in the unknown. Most of us fear that kind of darkness. But what if the darkness and unknown could be a place of beauty, curiosity, love, creation and celebration?
  5. Celebrate any little victory. Encouraging yourself is incredibly important. That means if you pushed a bit today but just didn’t have it in you to push more, then have some grace for yourself and celebrate whatever you were able to do. Even if it was 1% — celebrate that. This will develop a habit of encouragement that will help you so much more than discouraging habits (which always deteriorate you).
  6. Choose only 1-2 areas to practice at your edge. If you’re trying to create something, and get better at fitness, and get better at focusing at work, and also meditate and learn something … you’ll be practicing at your edge too much. It will drain you. So each week (or each month), decide what you want to focus on. You can change it up next week, but don’t try to be at your edge with 4-5 things in one week.

OK, that should be what you need to do this practice at your edge. What would you like to explore at your edge?

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