In 2011 I participated in the first “Beast” length Spartan Race. This is a roughly half-marathon length (12-14 miles) obstacle race designed to push participants to their physical limits. To finish, racers not only run the mileage but also climb walls, carry buckets of rocks or sandbags up and down hills, jump over fire, crawl through mud under barbed wire, and so forth. In the photo above, I’m doing a rope traverse, which followed a swim across a cold pond at mile twelve—where we were then required to tread water while waiting our turn to climb a rope ladder up to the girders of an iron bridge, where one end of the rope was fastened. It was uncomfortable.
Since then, Spartan Race has staged many events in this format all over the world, but that first race was held at Killington in Vermont, so in addition to the physical challenges and gratuitous cruelty characteristic of these races, there were many thousands of feet of elevation change to deal with as the course meandered up and down the steep ski mountains. As the first of its kind, it was unknown territory, and the certainty of extreme but unspecified difficulty was a significant part of its appeal. For a little perspective on what this challenge was like: I needed about 4.75 hours to complete the course. That’s about an hour longer than it takes me to run a 26.2 mile marathon.
Obstacle racing is popular now, but five years ago it was just starting out. Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and all the rest had to educate and inspire to create the fanatical audience they have today. Spartan had (and still has) a smart and enthusiastic social media presence, with nutrition tips, training techniques, intimidating stories, and all kinds of other stuff to whip their potential racers into a frenzy of enthusiasm. To me, this is the most useful snippet they ever posted in the days when I was following them regularly:
To conquer a Spartan Race, you need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
– Spartan Race
There are all kinds of lessons that we can learn from martial arts training, but this is one of the better distillations of what it means to master one’s physical self that I’ve seen. The implications are obvious to anyone who’s done endless kicking drills, stood in horse stance for what seemed like years, survived savage focus pad drills and bag work, performed forms until they dropped, and so forth. But even though it’s obvious what it means, it’s still worth thinking about what it means to really embrace the idea of being comfortable while uncomfortable.
Don’t Drink Water
It’s nice that so many people understand the importance of hydration and carry water bottles everywhere these days. In any gym, at any athletic event, or even just on a city sidewalk or around a conference table, people are constantly swigging the stuff. This helps keep the body healthy and mind sharp, among many other indisputable benefits. It seems counterintuitive, even potentially harmful, to make a point of not drinking water during a 90-minute Taekwondo class. So why do we suggest our Taekwondo students do exactly that?
It might be a stretch to call this a tradition, but the roots of the concept go back to my first days as a Taekwondo student in college. I’d played competitive tennis in high school and wasn’t a stranger to reasonably tough conditioning drills. In preparation for match play, often on hot days, our coach gave us the conventional wisdom of athletic hydration: “Drink 16 ounces of water before you play, then drink every 15-20 minutes after that. Don’t wait until your thirsty or it’s too late.”
Taekwondo training was at another level: more continuous, more muscle groups, the tempo under the instructor’s control, not ours. During my first few classes, I kept up my good hydration habits and bowed out a couple of times per class, slipping out the side door to gulp down water from the drinking fountain outside the gym where we trained. A few of the other new students joined me, and we’d talk about what badasses we were for making it through these classes, then go back inside for more training.
If you want it but don’t need it, wait until after class.
– Daniel Hays, Jidokwan instructor
After a few classes, our teacher had seen enough and delivered a speech he’d probably given many times before at the beginning of a new semester:
“It’s best not to get a drink of water during class,” he said, “unless you really have to. Leaving the dojang breaks up your workout, it’s a distraction for you and the other students, and honestly, you probably don’t need the water during one of our regular workouts. If you’re feeling faint or just can’t function without a drink, go get one, but try to understand the difference between wanting a drink and needing one. If you want it but don’t need it, wait until after class.”
Being a good little 8th Geup, I did what my teacher said, and I thought about why this might be better than doing the “right” thing for athletic endeavors, i.e. drinking frequently. Over the years, I stopped thinking about it, and it felt natural for me to drink water while running a 10K or longer race, playing tennis or hiking for a couple of hours, chopping wood, or doing anything else physically demanding. . . but not during Taekwondo training. Eventually I earned a black belt, later I opened River Valley Taekwondo in Northampton, and before long it was time for me to deliver a version of this speech to my own students. They were being conscientious athletes and drinking water regularly—either bringing water bottles into the dojang or leaving in the middle of class, as I once had, to hit the drinking fountain in the hallway.
Historically it’s not necessary for a martial arts instructor to explain policies to students, but I usually like to do it anyway. When I started advising students against drinking water during class, I thought about something I hadn’t considered in years: why do we do this, anyway?
Part of it is what my teacher, Daniel, said: it’s distracting and it’s unnecessary. When we bow into the dojang at the beginning of class, we put our mind and spirit in a different world. Until we bow out, we think about nothing but Taekwondo training, instant by instant, seeking a state of “no mind.” Leaving the dojang, or even just grabbing a water bottle, takes us out of the special and elusive state we work so hard to cultivate. On a physical level, water probably would be helpful by the end of a 90 minute class, but it’s not essential, and it’s unlikely to harm most of us during even a pretty intensive session. 1
Drinking water helps our physical performance, but not drinking water helps advance our mental and spiritual training.
This brings us to a crucial distinction that my teacher didn’t articulate, but which he was surely aware of. It’s best to drink every 15-20 minutes for ideal athletic performance. . . but Taekwondo isn’t a sport, and so it’s not solely an athletic activity. If pure physical performance was the only thing that mattered, as in a footrace or tennis match, we should drink water just like any other athlete. But martial arts training is more than that: it’s physical and mental and spiritual in nature. Drinking water helps our physical performance, but not drinking water helps advance our mental and spiritual training. 2
As martial arts instructors, we often tell our students that “The things we learn here have applications outside the dojang. We’re not just learning punching, blocking, kicking: we’re learning life lessons that help us everywhere.” Being comfortable while uncomfortable is a perfect example of a skill that we can learn during class and apply in many situations. At first, we miss the water. Our body has a physical need for it, so our mind attaches to that desire. We can either fixate on the longing, or we can release it, as Zen practitioners release every unnecessary thought during meditation. When we get thirsty during a workout, our body may function at 90% capacity, and by controlling and setting aside this desire, we give our minds the opportunity to undergo the same stress as our bodies. Just as muscles recover with rest and proper food, our mental endurance recovers and improves as our minds gain more experience. Eventually they don’t mind these stressors as much. In this way, our training serves as a powerful metaphor for other similar challenges in life.
It’s probably worth mentioning one side benefit to all this that you’ll notice quickly: unless you find yourself lost in the Sahara one day, you’ll never taste water that feels sweeter, colder, and more refreshing than that first gulp at the end of a tough Taekwondo class.
No Big Deal
Think of what the phrase means: comfortable being uncomfortable. You’re under stress—physical, mental, whatever—but it’s not a problem. You’ve been here before. When your body is exhausted from drills, and you’re asked to spar with someone who’s stronger and faster and better than you, and you have to figure out what to do, it will be daunting the first time. But the hundredth time you do it, it’s routine, and you don’t even think about it. The same is true for running the excruciating last half mile of a 5K race, or working at 11:00 pm to try to finish a presentation for work, or supporting a loved one in a health crisis: the more you feel yourself thinking “I can’t possibly survive another minute of this”—and then you do, and you’re fine—the easier it is when you find yourself there again.
Training in Taekwondo puts us in these situations regularly, so it gives us practice keeping ourselves together under pressure. When someone grabs your arm or takes a swing at you in a dark parking lot, it’s a lot different from the controlled sparring of a martial arts class. . . but if the setting and situation are unfamiliar, the trajectory of the punch, the footwork, the distance between bodies are all routine. This gives us an enormous advantage over an untrained person, and although that alone certainly doesn’t guarantee our safety, it makes aspects of an otherwise terrifying situation familiar and our responses automatic and effortless.
While on the subject of Spartans: one of history’s greatest fighting forces took this principle to an extreme, which is why the Spartan Race takes them as inspiration. You can read an awe-inspiring account of the harshest martial training imaginable in Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. This historical novel concerns the famed battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartan warriors and a few thousand allied soldiers held a pass against the Persian army—with a strength of 150,000-1,000,000 soldiers, depending on the source you believe—for three days before succumbing. Like Stanley Kubrick’s great Full Metal Jacket, half of the work depicts the famous battle, and the other half describes the culture and training that prepared the warriors for conflict. Because the Spartan hoplites endured punishing, unimaginably difficult training, heavy infantry combat was easier and more familiar for them than for their foes. This, among other factors, allowed them to become the most feared military force of their era and to fight heroically against staggering odds.
Making Impossible Feats Routine
I love obstacle races and other endurance tests, but that first Spartan Beast had special meaning for my life at that time. I did it, in part, to prove to myself that I had fully recovered after undergoing reconstructive ACL surgery in fall 2009. That injury, and the long excruciating recovery from the surgery, was the longest, most difficult, and most demoralizing physical ordeal of my life. Major knee surgery is hard enough without a few additional complications I had from surgery, so it took many months before I could work out at all, more than a year before I could train normally, and more than eighteen months before I could perform well in an extraordinary and unknowable challenge. I’m not saying this would’ve been impossible without years of Taekwondo as preparation, but it was undoubtedly a lot easier, and even fun, because I had long ago embraced being uncomfortable and had even learned to thrive there.
Having trained in Taekwondo for more than half my life, it’s impossible to know if I enjoy these challenges because my martial arts training has prepared me for it, or if I’m predisposed to such things and that’s why I like Taekwondo. I know two things for sure. First, even if the idea of intensive physical training was part of my life before following martial Ways, I never sought it out or developed it in a meaningful way. The seeds may have been there, but sustained martial arts training over a period of years made those seeds grow and blossom. Second, there are innumerable things that I do on a daily basis that I never could have imagined myself doing when I was a teenager and Jidokwan training was still in my future.
1 Since the first thirty minutes or so of each class is stretching, and the last five minutes are winding down and bowing out, there’s probably only about 50 minutes of hard training during a typical class. Part of that 50 minutes is unstructured, and most people don’t go all-out at 100% intensity for the entire period of individual training. This means that, realistically, we’re training for longer than the ideal 20 minutes without water, but not that much longer. In an unusually intense workout, we might need a few ounces of water, but most of the time, we’ll survive.
2 Be reasonable, of course. If you’re attending a double class and working out for two hours (after stretching), or if you’re training outdoors on a hot day, or if you’re getting over a cold and not feeling quite right—well, then you might really need some water and would risk serious problems by denying your body. 3 It all comes back to knowing the difference between want and need, a line that usually isn’t where most untrained people think it is, and which only becomes clear with experience. We don’t want anyone to pass out during class from dehydration, but we also don’t want people to have no idea where that line is. Understanding our minds and bodies clearly is both a goal unto itself and a way to reach higher goals.
3 Yup: it’s a footnote within a footnote. Oh well. Anyway, read Duel in the Sun to see what happened to American distance running legend Alberto Salazar after he ran the Boston Marathon on a brutally hot day without drinking water. Hint: he was never the same.