The Inescapable Exhaustion from Pushing Continuous Improvement

Sled and pack, post-drag.

By Rob Shaul

I’ve just completed my morning training session: a 1-mile heavy sled drag. 

I didn’t want to train this morning. I aim for 6 hours sleep per night, but fucked around late last night and didn’t get down until 23:15 for my 0500 alarm. Then my 3-year old daughter had a series of bad dreams and managed 3-4 hours of broken sleep. 

Caffeine to the rescue. I doubled up the scoops of the nasty instant metallic-tasting Starbucks Via I drink in every morning, answered emails, read a little, but mostly worked hard to give myself excuses not to train. 

The 1-mile sled drag is a pretty terrible experience. My sled is metal, loaded with 95 pounds of plates, so it’s loud and clankly sliding over the gravel as I plod along Spoiled Horse Road.

The 16-foot rope connected to the sled is doubled up and threaded through the shoulder straps of an old backpack that diggs into my shoulders and compresses my chest – restricting breathing just enough for a sweetly uncomfortable,  hypoxic effect. 

I can’t run, and strive to finish the event under an hour – a turtle-ish 1-mile/hour pace.

Looking ahead is a mind killer – so I wear a ball cap pulled down low, put on a music or a financial podcast, and keep my head down gazed at the gravel 6 feet ahead of me. The view sucks, but it’s much better than looking up an seeing how far I have to go. 

Often I’ll pull, hit a sticky spot in the dirt, and stop cold. Momentum lost, I have to shift my weight back and jerk the sled free. 

For a guy who’s designed dozens of grindy training sessions, this perhaps is the most grindy of all. 

Why am I doing this? Bad knees. 

Hunting season looms and I need to leg up. Until this year my go-to uphill training mode has been hiking uphill under load. I’d carry 4-5 gallons of water, dump it at the top, and run downhill unloaded. This is perfect, event-specific training for the uphill hiking of hunting season. 

I tried this approach again this year, but learned in early May that while my knees did fine on the uphill, even unloaded, downhill was painful enough to be stupid. I needed another way to train uphill movement. 

Step ups work of course, and I’ve been doing those. But also adding in focused climbing on a mountain bike, and testing these long, heavy, sled drags. 

Like I said, I strive to finish in an hour, and my best time is just over 50 minutes with this load. Once I can consistently hit the 50 minute mark, I increase the load by 25 pounds. Over the course of the summer I’ve been able to increase load twice, but have been stuck at my current load for 3-weeks now. 

I’ve been pushing for continuous improvement, but I’ve seemed to have plateued, and it’s fuckin’ exhausting. I came nowhere close this morning. 

Coincidentally this morning, while choking down my coffee, I finished re-reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. And even though Atomic Habits is about the only non-Stoic, self-help book I can recommend, even Mr. Clear never addresses the inescapable exhaustion of always pushing constant improvement.  

Here’s the ugly truth. When you’re constantly pushing yourself to improve, it means you’re always judging your behavior and performance and constantly nagging yourself to do better, or criticizing yourself for falling short. After a while, this constant pushing is simply exhausting to do, and listen to. 

Years ago, in the early days of Military Athlete, a good friend of mine, Fire Captain and new Phd. Dave Hageman, had a gym in Colorado Springs and he and a few of his coaches were testing programming alongside myself and my lab rats in Jackson. 

I had recently discovered “assess and progress” programming, and I’d design 3-7 weeks training plans where nearly every element – strength, work capacity, endurance, chassis integrity – began with an assessment, and the follow on work was progressed based on the assessment results. The programming is constantly pushing. If you’ve ever done one of our event-specific training plans you’ve experienced this.

This programming awesome for two or maybe three cycles in a row, but come the fourth cycle, my lab rats needed a break. “Can’t we just train?,” Dave asked, “and not have to get out a calculator for every damn part?” 

He was right, and the next cycle avoided the assessment and progression format. I’ve never forgotten that, and in MTI’s base fitness programming, I work not to have every element of every cycle assessed and progressed, and in our Daily Operator Sessions, will purposely design cycles devoid of any assessments. 

The inescapable exhaustion from pushing constant improvement was rolling around in my mind during this morning’s sled drag.

The idea of constant improvement, for a disciplined life, applies in all areas. I’m always working to eat cleaner, read more, be more efficient at work, continue to learn, be a better hunter, better fisherman, more fit, better partner, father, boss, and on and on.

In all these areas I’m constantly pushing, always judging, often letting myself down, and thus, harshly criticizing. So how to address the inescapable exhaustion that comes with this cycle? 

Humor, humility, patience, self-forgiveness and a craftsman’s mindset of always showing up and consciously doing the work. 

More simply: Just. Keep. Grinding …. and Have. Some. Faith.

The 1-mile sled drag is a grind. But it’s my grind and while I didn’t improve this morning, I did do the work – so there’s that, at least.

I’m not much of an athlete, my neighbors and partner think I’m crazy when they drive by, but I’m patient, and need to have faith that the work will pay off come September. 

5 thoughts on “The Inescapable Exhaustion from Pushing Continuous Improvement

  1. Rob I’ve read your articles and Q&A for several years, completed lab rat, numerous day to day programing, selection programs, and constantly striving to be better. I work on a hostage rescue team in Camada and no doubt your programming helps me be stronger for my teammates. I say that first, to add that this article shows Humility, which, is the number one thing we need more of, remembering we are all human; leaders gain composition when they remind us that they are human too, grinding like the rest of us. Excellent article coach. The grind makes us better; we sweat, struggle and bleed for the consistency and we continue to choose the grind because we are nothing without our mental strength. Keep grinding.
    -Kip

  2. I think it’s also instructive to acknowledge the cyclical nature of life. Not only is continuous improvement, and often exhausting and unattainable goal, but there are times in my personal training that I have actually declined in performance. My experience has been that giving myself the compassion to not always be improving Helps me endure those troughs and keep pushing. Sometimes it’s a fine line between having self compassion and being a lazy pussy, but it can be a more sustainable, long-term strategy. At 53 years old, I seldom miss a day of working out, and I attribute that largely to an acknowledgment that I will not always be getting stronger, but I will always be on that path.

    Great article as usual Rob.

  3. Good article Coach. Great perspective and reflection.
    The reward in the grind is the ease during the work.
    Keep it up.

  4. I’ve found that sometimes this can be a sign that I need to keep grinding but in a different direction. Came to this by accident when injury/vacation/life forced a modification of my training schedule/regimen. By working just as hard in a complimentary direction, I was able to return to the original activity and move past the “plateau.” There goes that pesky “Accommodation ” principle again…

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