Extending Your Comfort Zone

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extending your comfort zone
Performance Psychologist David Harrison joins us to explain why stepping outside your comfort zone is key to improving performance, and how to do it. David has worked as a performance psychologist for 12 years with elite athletes and teams, across a range of sports. He is a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University, and runs a performance consultancy called Pinnacle Performance.

What is meant by “comfort zone”?

A comfort zone is somewhere that is safe and comfortable. It’s a “place” (physical or emotional) where we feel at home and relaxed, not challenged or threatened.

It is good to be able to “go to” our comfort zones to refocus and regroup, and find balance and calm. This is important, and helps to recharge the batteries. We all need a comfort zone, and some people need it more than others – it is personality-dependent.

However, we don’t benefit from being in our comfort zones for too long. If we never challenge ourselves to do things which make us feel uncomfortable, we don’t gain real development or improvement. The longer we stay inside our comfort zones, the harder it can become to be out of them.

But we do need to learn to step outside of our own comfort zones regularly if we want to achieve learning and improvement.

What happens to our thinking and behaviour inside our comfort zones?

If we spend too long inside our comfort zones, we can become sluggish, negative, even defeatist. We find, with a lack of stimulus or any need to push ourselves, we can become easily fatigued.

Think of when you get home from work and sit on the sofa, feel comfy and don’t push yourself to go out training. Or even if you are out training, but you don’t want to go any further or any faster.

We all want the easiest life possible. It’s an in-built survival mechanism. But in the longer term, if we never experience difficulty, we can become lazy and lack energy. Imagine a domesticated cat – it has everything it needs, so it can enjoy lazing in the sun and doesn’t need to worry where its next meal is coming from. If we allow ourselves to be like this for too long, it dulls our ability for self-improvement.

extending your comfort zone

Staying for too long in our comfort zones makes it harder to improve and develop. Photo credit: Ralf Κλενγελ

Why is it hard to break out of our comfort zones?

It’s difficult for us because we are creatures of comfort, and we want to seek out the easiest options. We have a desire to be comfortable, and we want to take the path of least resistance. In nature, everything tends to take the easiest path, like the way streams find the easiest path down the mountain.

But once we are used to being very comfortable all the time, it becomes harder and harder to challenge ourselves. It becomes more difficult to deal with adversity.

So there’s a dichotomy: we want everything easy, but in order to grow and improve we have to make ourselves a little uncomfortable. We need to step outside of our comfort zones into our “learning zones”.

Even with one small step outside your comfort zone, you’re already learning and developing. Things may not always go well in the learning zone, but we have to be prepared to take the risk, to expose ourselves to failure, and to learn and grow from our mistakes.

How does this relate to running?

If you always run the same trail, or the same route, it can become too comfortable: you know where the hills are, where the effort is needed, how much exertion is needed to get home.

It’s important not to get too comfortable with the same patterns of training. Mix it up with variety, keep it exciting, and keep yourself on your toes with new experiences or new challenges. It keeps the brain sharp and keeps you open to tapping into your extra energy sources when you hadn’t expected to need them.

With running, there are various ways to add challenge, including: change the route, extend the distance, increase or vary the pace, alter the terrain, include different hills with different gradients, run with different people, change the time of day when you run, and more.

How does fear affect our behaviour?

We are instinctively programmed to run away from things which scare us. It’s an innate primitive trait which keeps us alive.

In modern life, our fear isn’t (usually!) of wild animals any more. It’s usually about other people’s perceptions of us, and our perceptions of ourselves. This may be subconscious, and we might not realise it is driving our behaviour.

Fear holds us back, makes us avoid taking a risk. There’s the fear of failure, but also fear of success.

Fear of failure is, perhaps, easier to understand: we might be disappointed, or feel we’ve disappointed others, or feel stupid, or hurt ourselves.

Fear of success is perhaps less obvious. Success represents a change of the status quo. Change itself is frightening, and humans don’t like the unknown. After a success, will expectations change? Will people expect more of you? Will you expect more of yourself? Will you have to do this again? Will you have to do more, or better, next time? For example, if you complete a difficult training period and finish your first marathon, which was a huge challenge for you, will you now have to do it again, and do better next time?

There’s physical fear too, for example if you’re in a race and running well, perhaps on for a PB. You’ve entered unknown territory, and that can be scary. You don’t know if it’s going to hurt, or what else might happen. Interestingly, sometimes runners categorise themselves as an “injured” runner, even if they are not much worse off physically than fellow runners. It makes it easier to stop and gives them an excuse.

Failing can sometimes allow us to stay inside our comfort zones, and gives us permission to avoid something scary. So sometimes it might actually seem easier to fail than to succeed (even if this is all happening subconsciously!).

When you watch elite sports people, across a range of sports, there’s a noticeable difference between those who play to win, and those who play not to lose. Try observing this next time you are a spectator in any sport. This often represents the presence of fear, played out at the elite level.

What do you mean by “control the controllables” and how does this help us when we’re outside of our comfort zone?

“Control the controllables” is a phrase we use a lot in sport psychology. It means that it is best to focus only on the things we can actually control. Worrying about factors which are outside our control just causes stress and wasted energy, and gives us no advantage.

Focus on the things that are relevant and that we can actually change. For example, we can’t change the weather, or the actions of other people. But we can change our own response to those things.

This is helpful when we’re outside of our comfort zone because it gives us greater mental focus and is a mechanism to help us avoid unnecessary anxiety.

Does this relate into your current research into mental toughness?

(Find out more about this research here.)

Yes. It would seem that people with more mental toughness can stay in learning zone longer. They want to push themselves to the limit and are less affected by fear.

Mentally tougher people have changed their perception of success and failure, and of pain. They view these differently from people with less mental toughness. They are more likely to consider failing in a run or race as a learning point rather than something that should put you off doing it again.

In our society we get used to things being easy, and typically we’re not all that used to handling pain and discomfort. Developing mental toughness can help us to deal with challenges better.

What strategies can we use to extend our comfort zones?

There are plenty of strategies – here are a few suggestions:

1. Commit:

  • Make the decision to push yourself, to take some risks, and to be a little uncomfortable. To do this successfully, you have to be committed to it. It is helpful to have a goal, and make the explicit commitment that you will do your best to achieve it.
  • There is likely to be a gradual progression, with small, incremental steps. But if you have underlying commitment, it will help you to continue to take each of these steps.
extending your comfort zone

Training with people who are slightly quicker than you is a good way to challenge yourself.

2. Mix it up:

  • Variety is a good way to avoid getting too comfortable.
  • There are plenty of ways to achieve this. For example, train with different people. It can be particularly good to train with people who are one step ahead of you in terms of pace and distance. This will challenge you, and you might be surprised how long you can keep up with the quicker pace – you may not keep up for the whole time, but you are likely to train harder than if you don’t push yourself like this, and therefore get better results.

3. Learn to accept fear:

  • The presence of fear when we challenge ourselves is natural. You can learn to accept it and then manage it by developing strategies for dealing with it, such as only focusing on the controllables.
  • We’re often fearful of pain. But pain is useful: it is your body’s way of communicating with you. There is good pain and bad pain, and we need to learn to recognise the difference. New runners often respond by stopping when they experience the “good pain” of pushing themselves hard. As they get better and more experienced, they learn to recognise the “good pain” and deal with it. They also learn to distinguish this from “bad pain” which indicates a problem, such as a sharp knee pain.
  • It’s important to trust your body. As humans we are designed to run, and we can adapt to the “good pain” that goes with this.

4. Build confidence:

  • As we constantly push at the limits of our comfort zones, we develop more confidence in our ability to challenge ourselves.
  • It’s helpful to test yourself. Increase the difficulty of your objectives: for example, to start with just aim to complete a new running distance, then the next time see if you can you go quicker over that distance.
  • This increased confidence can be transferred from training to racing, to give us more confidence to push at our limits and fulfil our race objectives.
  • We all have good days and bad days with training, but actually the bad days can be really valuable if we learn from them – we tend to learn more from our mistakes than from the times when everything goes well. Taking training disappointments on the chin and remaining positive is an important part of building confidence.

Any tips we can all put into action straight away?

Yes – you can try any of these straight away:

1. Try training with a running partner who is slightly better than you.

2. Increase your awareness of your own running ability, and refer to your own successes. Take a pen and paper and write down your strengths as a runner. Identify some reference points such as a successful race, your PB for a distance, or how you have improved since you started. Use these to draw on for confidence whenever you need motivation to step out of your comfort zone.

3. Work out the things that you have control over in a race or in training. Make sure you focus on these “controllables” rather than expending energy worrying about things you can’t control.


David Harrison has worked as a performance psychologist for 12 years for elite athletes and teams, including professional football, cricket, volleyball, basketball, tennis, athletics and triathlon. He runs a performance consultancy called Pinnacle Performance. His book on performance psychology, The Journey: The Elements for Success, Winning and Increased Performance, is available from The Flying Runner bookshop.

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