4- John Wehrer
I had a phenomenal two-hour conversation with John several months ago. I was pumped to share what I learned, but I have tried and failed several times to make a meaningful blog post. Here’s why-
Talking about suffering as an endurance athlete and mountaineer, John dropped some great one liners including:
Searching for comfort is a negative experience, and there is comfort in discomfort.
Suffering and training makes you better at life, and speaks to a life well-lived.
Suffering makes you present.
It will feel like hard work, but it should feel like work worth doing.
But the majority of our conversation had a completely different vibe. We talked about being strong, robust, and highly adaptable in a way I hadn’t expected. And that is the part I have struggled to put into words. But I think I finally figured it out.
I recently read the book “Do Hard Things” by Steve Magness. Traditionally, toughness has been “developed” during miserable two-a-day football practices in the heat of summer, walking in the snow to school (uphill both ways of course), and running intervals until you puke. Put someone in a crazy uncomfortable situation, and if they happen to make it out the other side, they will have become stronger in the process.
Magness disagrees with this, and he argues that we should change how we define toughness, and how we try to develop it.
Magness- “Real toughness is about providing the tool set to handle adversity. It’s teaching. Fake toughness creates fragility, responding out of fear, suppressing what we feel, and attempting to press onward no matter the situation or demands. Real toughness pushes us to work with our body and mind instead of against them. To face the reality of the situation and what we can do about it, to use feedback as information to guide us, to accept the emotions and thoughts that come into play, and to develop a flexible array of ways to respond to a challenge. Toughness is having the space to make the right choice under discomfort.” (definitely worth reading twice)
In short, toughness IS NOT developed by doing something incredibly hard, gritting your teeth, and plowing through it. Toughness IS developed by deliberate exposure to difficult things while working to align your mind and body.
Through John’s experience as an Ironman triathlete, mountain bike racer, mountaineer, physical therapist, strength and conditioning specialist, and coach he has developed a masterful understanding of this non-traditional view of how people become tough, strong, and robust.
When John coaches endurance athletes, one of his hardest jobs is to hold his athletes back. When it comes to endurance training, going slow is king. Running/cycling/swimming/cross country skiing done at a comfortable, relaxed, and conversational pace is a vital part of training (if you want a physiology lesson, John or I can give you an earful). The thing is, most athletes don’t sign up for a marathon, Ironman, or 24-hour mountain bike race because they want to be comfortable and relaxed. But no matter how much an athlete wants to ride fast, do sprints, run intervals, and work so hard they puke- that’s usually not what they need. Sometimes the “hard” thing about training is choosing to not do the “hard” things. Choosing to occasionally take a day off makes you tough. Choosing to run slow makes you tough. Choosing self-care makes you tough. Choosing to be nice to yourself makes you tough.
Side note: During our entire conversation, John was on a multi-hour mountain bike training ride. I never heard him gasp for air, his sentences weren’t choppy and short, and he never said “hold up, let me catch my breath.” If John had told me he was sitting on the couch with his dog, I would have believed him.
When John was relatively new to the PT workforce, he worked at a clinic with a large emphasis on productivity, billing, and revenue. He was proud of how hard he was working, how much he was producing for the company, and the continuing education he was pursuing. But those efforts were not well recognized or rewarded. The traditional toughness paradigm would tell John to suck it up and keep going, especially when traditional wisdom says a 6 month stint at a job is resume-suicide. John evaluated his needs, wants, and willingness to compromise before making the tough call to leave the company, relocate, and start fresh somewhere new.
One of the tasks of a physical therapist is to know how hard to push patients. A PT needs to push their patient hard enough to stimulate improvement, but not so hard as to aggravate their injury. John says that there are two common errors made by PTs here-
1: Underdosing “average joe” patients, by not exposing those patients to stressors sufficient to stimulate improvement. This can happen as a result of a patient’s fears and expectations, or it can be due to a PT not understanding (or not feeling comfortable with) how to balance what is safe, what is possible, and what is necessary to promote change. While we leave behind the traditional toughness paradigm of “forget about your thoughts and emotions and just keep going,” we can’t let the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction if our thoughts, emotions, and understandings prevent us from attempting difficult things at all.
2: Overdosing “athletes” with stupid stuff. When a football player comes back from ACL surgery and needs their thigh strength back to safely return to practice, they don’t need fancy equipment and machines, sports massages, flashy workout hacks, and gimmicky exercises worthy of instagram likes. They need to do the boring stuff like squats and knee extensions over, and over, and over again. This is applicable to any sport, activity, injury, or level of athleticism. And most importantly, this is applicable to any aspect of our development. Are we spending time and energy doing hard things just for the sake of doing hard things? Or are we spending that time in ways that will help us achieve the things that matter most?
Instead of a summary paragraph to wrap this all up, I’m just going to suggest you go back and re-read the quote by Steve Magness (definitely worth reading a third time). He says it much better than I can.