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Reflections on Conditioning from Our Newest Black Belt

Candidates for the rank of 일단 in our school (Il Dan, first degree black belt) undertake a demanding physical conditioning regimen in addition to their regular Taekwondo training in the dojang.

In addition to pursuing several general physical fitness benchmarks, they work with a black belt instructor of their choice to pursue a personal fitness challenge. At the end of 6-12 months of outside training they reflect on the experience in a brief essay. This essay recounts Dylan Mawdsley’s journey in the training period leading up to his Il Dan test on June 30, 2018. He was promoted on July 7.

– William Tuman, Head Instructor

I knew what an injury felt like, and I wasn’t injured, I was just uncomfortable. I was pushing myself physically harder than I ever had before, both over the last five months, and also in that moment. . .

Anyone who has spent any period of time training in our school has undoubtedly heard some version of these two thoughts, likely more than once, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” and “pain and injury aren’t necessarily the same thing.” In many ways these two closely related concepts became central to my training over the last five months, and their truth has been thoroughly etched into my being.

When I started this training period, I assumed it would be a continuation of my Il Geup training; I would establish a set of goals, create a plan, and set a deadline.  Though my initial reaction was technically correct, it in many ways couldn’t have been further from the truth.  While working on my Il Geup training, I was able to realize some quick gains by modifying my routine, squeezing in workouts here and there, and hitting the track once a week. I was able to get close to my goals, and did improve my conditioning, but ultimately I was not completely successful.  Additionally, once I completed that period of training I fell right back into my old routines. While I didn’t really regress, I definitely did not progress.  This training period, however, made me not only completely rethink the way I train, but the way I think about training.

I’ve always been the kind of person who either masters something quickly or walks away. There have been, and continue to be, things I struggle with. My response used to be to just not do them, and instead focus on the things I do well. While this approach may have been more satisfying in the short term, (I mean who doesn’t like succeeding quickly), it also prevented me from truly expanding my abilities. One example of this is the pull-up. I had never been able to do one, ever. I’ve tried in the past, doing a few lat pulldowns, and hopping on the pullup assist machine. However, it never got easier, and thus I walked away, more content to spend my time working on something where I was seeing measurable gains quickly. However, during this training period I kept at it. The progress was slow, but in early May I was able to do my first unassisted pullup, and the feeling of accomplishment was amazing. I’m up to three now and I can feel myself getting stronger the more I do.  While I’m not where I want to be yet, I’m progressing, and I’ve learned that putting in the work, no matter how frustratingly long and hard, will lead to gains.

However, the hardest component of this training had to do with the two ideas I mentioned way back at the beginning of this essay, “getting comfortable being uncomfortable” and “pain and injury aren’t the same thing.”  I sustained an overuse injury during this training period that almost drove me to a complete standstill. I could barely do some day to day activities, Taekwondo was extremely challenging, and running was excruciatingly painful. In addition to the injury I was feeling the pain and soreness of training in the dojang three days per week, cross-training on the other days, and running when not aggravating the injury. On top of that I was really watching my nutrition, oh and let’s not forget parenting a couple kids too.  There was more than one occasion where I wanted to just grab a beer, a cheeseburger (or five), and quit. I heard that voice in the back of my head saying, “just take a break, walk away and you can deal with this later, when you’re not sore, when you’re not busy, when you feel 100%.”  This voice was never louder than during my fitness challenge. As I was nearing the 14th mile that voice was back, and rather than just an annoying little nag, it was screaming “THIS HURTS, STOP, QUIT.” But I knew what an injury felt like, and I wasn’t injured, I was just uncomfortable. I was pushing myself physically harder than I ever had before, both over the last five months, and also in that moment, and my mind was responding to being in pain.  I was exhausted, my legs hurt, my mind was tired and confused, but I was able to suppress that voice, and push through.

This training period has taught me to differentiate those two types of pain, injury and discomfort. An injury is a real thing, a thing that requires attention, but it is not a reason to quit either. While injured I rested, iced, and modified my training to work pain free. I also was able to listen to my body to find ways to run without putting strain on the muscles I had injured, and was able to continue to train for the fitness challenge.  However, most of the pain was just discomfort, physically and mentally.  With the day to day challenges I found ways to make time for my family and also to train. I pushed through the soreness and tiredness and I made sure I showed up and focused on my training the best I could. At times it hurt, not only physically, but mentally, my mind wanted to be elsewhere, it was giving me excuses to stop, but I forced myself to be present, and I was able to continue to make gains. This has really taught me to persevere even when quitting would have been easier in the short term. I’ve never felt in better shape than I do now, and I can attribute that to pushing forward when all I wanted to do was stop.  I had learned that short term version of this when working on my Il Geup training, doing one more lap, or pushing out one more set, but this training period has been so much harder, and so much more rewarding. Before I was focused on doing one more rep, one more set, and then stopping, only holding the discomfort at bay temporarily, and looking for the respite of the finish line. Now I work to get to that point, the point where my muscles begin to tire and hurt, where my mind wants to quit, and then lean into that feeling and work to stay right at that edge, it’s in that pain and discomfort that improvement lies.

Finally, this has changed my perspective on how I view fitness training.  I closed out my last essay by saying, “I plan to continue to set goals, and I plan to meet those goals.” I now realize that was only half the picture.  Setting goals and striving to meet them is important, but more important is establishing the habits, routines, and desire to put in the work day in and day out.  If this training period has done one thing it has changed my way of thinking about physical fitness from a desire to achieve a defined goal, to a resolve to always improve.  From here on out I resolve to put in the work, to be present and train hard, to set goals, and achieve them, but more importantly to recognize that the process, as uncomfortable and painful as it is at times, is what leads to progress, and progress is what really matters.

– Dylan Mawdsley
June 29, 2018

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