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(Talking) of Comfort zone(s)

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Three of us ran a comfortable Half Marathon distance on Saturday. ‘Comfortable’ is a funny word. It is so relative, …but then what isn’t?

It is said that “Nothing grows in the comfort zone“.

There are two things that pop out of the above sentence. All of us have something which we call our comfort zone. We don’t progress if we stay put like that. Common sense/alternative way of saying : If you are comfortable at something, that’s a signal that you are doomed. Humanity is progressive. Nobody wants to go backwards. We love & thrive on growth.

Stimulation causes growth. And it is often non-linear in nature. Expecting to get fitter everyday by working out everyday is just as stupid as it sounds. There’s also something called as “The law of diminishing returns“. To quote the famous running coach and exercise physiologist Dr. Jack Daniels: “If you can get better by doing just X, why do more than X?“. I agree. However, how do you draw the line which tells you what is your X? How far can you or should you push the stimulus? You won’t find things unless and until you explore.

Let me give you some background before I talk about the title of the post. When I lost 6 weeks to an annoying non-running related heel pain; I did 3 things:

1. Aerobic fitness is like a bucket with a hole. If you don’t keep pouring water in it, it will eventually drain out! So keep doing aerobic activities, however insignificant they might be while you are sitting out. I did indoor rowing and quite a bit of it. Hey, I also added a workout mask just to experiment. The research about that may be inconclusive, but it certainly makes a psychological improvement when dealing with discomfort. Dealing with discomfort is the first weapon in distance running.

2. Muscles have memory. If you keep working out, the muscle will cooperate. Engine of a Ferrari with some cheap tires, ain’t going to take you places with the speed you want. So that’s what I did, kept doing unilateral, weight bearing exercises. I also added prescriptive, an hour long stretching session – two times a week. That has certainly helped.

3. Sleep. That’s the official PED nobody is paying attention to. If you can sleep well, you can absorb the training well. I worked on this aspect.

Then it was time to get back to training. Now don’t take this as a prescription, but I have historically run higher mileage which may be considered out of “normal” range for all of us amateur runners (3 digits in Kms per week). So I have a fair idea of what it will take to break me. This time, however, with HRV4Training by my side – I wanted to explore the “out of comfort zone” area, as much safely as I could. I was going to run until either my mind said “Blah. Don’t feel like going out for a run” – or my body showed any aches, felt fatigued etc; or if HRV4T gave me a RED flag. Any one of these would occur – and I was ready to apply the brakes. I am already sold on the idea of polarized training, so was going to do only one or two hard workouts a week.

Coming back from a 6 weeks lay-off.
Being stupid or being mindfully pushing?

Two+ weeks of almost everyday running didn’t cost me any red flags, neither a feeling of overtraining or overreaching. This defies the slow/steady mileage increase rule (yes, I am aware of 10% thumb rule and also voices that advice against 10% rule 😉 so let’s not conclude anything here). What else might be happening here?

HRV trend is steady with a slightly upward bias.
Detected Trend “Coping well”. Matches with the subjective feeling.
Resting HR pretty much constant.
Coefficient of variation (CV) dropping with a negative bias (which is Good).
TSS graph : Before – During – and After the 6 weeks off
Getting back your lost fitness the scientific way (without going bonkers, or by ignoring signals, or by overreaching)
Do you believe in 80-20 principle?

And then it suddenly dawned on me. Comfort zones.

Following is my sketch, revelation (or interpretation, if you will) of our comfort zones. I propose the following: Everyone of us has 3 comfort zones (as opposed to a common belief that you have just one).

Training Stress versus Perceived Discomfort
Comfort Zones 1 , 2 and 3
(Y axis numbers are only representative)

When you are a beginner, your body can only absorb so little training stress. You are a happy camper as shown in Comfort Zone 1 (CZ1). As you keep increasing the stress, you hit inflection point 1, where things are “somewhat difficult” for you. This is a 5k distance for a couch potato, a half marathon for a 5k runner etc. But once you are persistent and keep increasing the training stress slowly but intelligently: something magical happens.

You enter CZ2 (Comfort Zone 2). A Half marathoner then “just runs” a 10k for fun. A full marathoner “just runs” a half marathon for fun. This is where your level of perceived discomfort drops immediately after crossing the Inflection Point1. Things start becoming serious again only when you push through this phase. Later part of the curve is where you think your genetic limit is. You don’t seem to improve. You either don’t increase (or are unable to increase) the training stress; and call it good. But I would argue that there is one last gear in your car, which you never get to engage. Enter CZ3.

In CZ3, the earlier “cap” of the stress no longer feels like an upper cap. Your perceived effort levels drop again. You are now a step closer to the real “break point”. This is the point which you should never reach. This is the “X” limit, I would argue. Around this level lies your genetic limit, a high chance of serious injuries and even if you manage to remain healthy – the law of diminishing return kicks in. You will not improve beyond this. In fact, you may just experience the opposite.

From what I can deduce: I’ve experienced some early phases of CZ3, where the perceived effort is less – both on the mind and body. The “second wind” if you like that term. I may remain here or return back to CZ2 as dictated by my genetic tolerance. But I like what I saw. I am sure you will too.

Stress + Recovery = Growth. If you are able to absorb more stress safely, the growth is almost guaranteed.

The question to ask ourselves is: Where am I on the above curve?