Monday, November 25, 2013


I believe that I have been blessed with the gift of a strong willpower. It is this gift that has been the bedrock of my wellness journey. When my greatest struggle was portion control and avoiding the foods that were delicious but harmful to my body, my willpower helped me accomplish those tasks. Now I use that willpower to focus on my physical health and get through my workouts as planned. There has been some exciting social science research about willpower that suggests that it can be depleted and needs time to regenerate.

A 2007 study from Florida State University found that acts of self-control actually depleted blood glucose levels such that further acts of self-control became increasingly more difficult. This would suggest that if you use your willpower to get through a tough workout, you may be less able to avoid tempting food afterward. This idea has gained strength in the wellness community, and I see it referenced often in sources that I use for my personal learning on wellness. (Example, this post on Zen Habits).

As I was digging I found an article published in 2010 from the University of Zurich that tested the theory that willpower depletion only takes place if a person believes that it is a limited resource. They engaged in four different studies, using different methods, to test this theory. They found that “reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion. (Abstract)”  This line of inquiry is reminiscent of another popular trend in the wellness world on the power of mantras and positive self-talk during performance.

I wanted to explore this topic because this weekend I completed the longest run of my half marathon training plan: 12 miles. I am still a beginner in many ways, and the thought of running (even slowly) for more than 30 minutes without a walk break was impossible to me 2 months ago. Consistent practice and following a “real” running plan has broken me through many plateaus. I have come to learn that every run is unique and I’m not yet able to predict which runs will feel easy and which will challenge the depths of my willpower.

Post 12 miles, pre-stretch!

I woke up Saturday feeling good physically although I had a mentally draining week prior to that day. I started the run feeling a bit sluggish.  I shrugged it off – my goal on long runs is to go slow, and I know my first mile is never going to feel amazing. Now that I’m a better runner, it’s almost harder to run slow than to run at a more challenging pace. Unfortunately, the feeling of sluggishness never really faded. I had moments where I zoned out into the rhythm of the run but they were fleeting. I think I've turned the corner where running long distances is no longer a physical challenge, but a mental one.

Throughout the miles I was bargaining with myself. I told myself that if I still felt miserable at 7 miles I would quit. At 7 miles I convinced myself that I had to at least get through 10 (my longest run to date). My 9th mile felt great (and consequently was my fastest of the run), but 10 felt like agony. I became hyper-sensitive to the physical sensations I was getting, but decided that I had to get to at least 11 miles. At 10.5 miles I couldn't shake off the feeling I was running with bad form and walked for .05 miles to reset myself. When I picked it back up I realized I could finish the full 12, but it still didn't feel great. When I hit the 12 mile mark I felt a great sense of relief that outweighed any sense of accomplishment.

I was pleased that my time (roughly 2 hours, 7 minutes) would put me close to the 2:15 mark for finishing the half marathon, especially if I feel better that day. In retrospect I’m glad the run never felt easy because it taught me that:
1. I have the mental strength to finish even if it’s tough
2. I have a good enough sense of my body to know when to push and when to take breaks
3. The mental side of running can outweigh the physical, and I can use techniques like positive self-talk and meditation to work on this aspect
4. I can complete my half marathon in a time I’m pleased with, no matter how I feel during the run
My recovery was easier than I expected. I had a moment shortly after I got home and began to re-hydrate where I felt like throwing up but it subsided after a quick bite to eat. I stretched, ate a giant smoothie bowl, iced my legs, and took a nap. I followed that with an amazing vegan Thanksgiving potluck, shopping and dinner out (none of which are particularly conducive to recovery). Sunday morning I felt fine and proceeded with my 10 mile bike ride and 30 minute strength/core and foam rolling routine. I feel okay today, about where I usually am on my yoga day.

I can’t definitively say what camp I fall into in terms of willpower and it’s ability to be depleted. I never thought much about it before my wellness journey began, but when I did I was immediately convinced that I had a strong willpower. That belief is likely what gets me through tough situations, and it’s something I will continue to augment. Here’s a collection of 26.2 running mantras and a nice article on the subject from Runner’s World to get you motivated.

Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 16(6), 351-355. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00534.x

Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion - is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1686-1693.

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