The ‘Uncomfortably Hard’ Zone – How Much Can We Push?

It’s as sure as night follows day. After the dust has settled from a race, social media is alive with comments and friends that dissect their runs and performances.

“Could I have gone quicker?”

“What if I had tried a little harder at this point in my race?”

One of the debates that invariably surfaces is the ability to go harder than you may have thought possible, perhaps running more so to feel than to splits. Many people I know like to set splits for their race and make sure they hit them, which ultimately gives them a time they are proud of and rightly so. Nothing wrong with that at all.

But could those splits be impacting your run? Could it be that you’re potentially allowing yourself to run harder than your body actually permits and risk blowing up, or on the flip side perhaps you’re not actually running to your potential either by allowing yourself to run at a pace that might be too slow? No-one wants to get to the end of a race and feel like they could have given more. So it begs the question, just how hard could we really push ourselves in races if we really wanted to? Where’s that fine line?


Now we know that beating times and running hard isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and not the primary focus for racing and taking part in trail and ultra running. Each to their own for sure, but if you’re interested in finding out how hard you could go, read on.

Treading the fine line

Indeed, if you push too hard too early in a race you definitely risk a potential blow-up further in the run. The recently held Six Foot track trail run here in Australia is well-known for its blow-up casualties. With 15kms of sweeping downhill to begin the race, the adrenalin flows and runners will reach the first checkpoint at the river in super quick time. They do so because they know there is 10km of grinding uphill to slow them down shortly after. So the theory goes that by putting in the quick kms early, we’re building a bank of time. But if you were running a marathon, would you start out at a deliberately quicker pace to do exactly the same thing? Probably not, you’d want to be as even as possible so it pays to keep things in check early on. So when can you push hard?

While joining in the debate about people’s runs at Six Foot Track, a runner relayed to me something he’d learnt as part of his prep for the race and then subsequently executed. He questioned whether or not he was running hard enough for the final third or so of his race. If you look back, when does the kick for home really start? Do we simply maintain a ‘good’ pace until say the final stretch or last few kilometres and then give it a kick?

Are we worried that if we push a little too hard we’d come undone?

Our regularly coaching guru Andy DuBois has this to say:

“In a race we tend to stick to a pace that our body feels confident it can maintain to the finish. But are we really at our limit? Can we push a bit harder and still hold it together? If you are strong enough mentally there is usually a slightly faster pace that is sustainable but it’s just outside our comfort zone.  To maintain that pace will require a strong mind and a willingness to accept the pain that comes with it.

Pushing into the ‘uncomfortably hard’ zone

Andy continues: “We like to think that when we race we are at the edge of our limits but in reality few of us truly explore those limits. We stick to the edge of our comfort zone which admittedly is not a particularly comfortable place to be.”

As I thought about this further, he was right. We do, for the most part stick to the edge of our comfort zones – what if we went into an ‘uncomfortably hard’ zone? One that although hurt, we knew was tolerable for a certain amount of time, but that the longer we were able to hold it, the better our overall time would be?

Finding the 'uncomfortably hard' zone is a fine line. One that you can practice in training.
Finding the ‘uncomfortably hard’ zone is a fine line. One that you can practice in training.

For our runner, he was advised to get into that zone around 15kms from the finish at Six Foot (i.e. the final third). This would mean a good 1hr 20mins of really uncomfortable hard running. Our notions of pain tolerance all differ and in the heat of the moment, it can be very hard to tell if you’re in that zone. It’s probably not until the end of the race that you know if you’ve really pushed yourself into the truly uncomfortable zone. Andy continues:

“Could you have run 3-5 seconds per km faster in a race? You’d like to think not; you’d like to think you gave it your all and couldn’t have gone a second faster, but is that really true? What if there was a million dollar prize if you could run the race 3 seconds per km faster? What if you had your own personal coach running with you the whole time setting the pace for you? Could you run faster then?  Possibly? It would hurt like hell but it may be possible if you were prepared to get outside your comfort zone and sit there for a long period of time.

“Of course go too far outside the comfort zone and you’ll blow up quite spectacularly. It’s a fine line, but there is only one way to find out what you are really capable of and that’s to get uncomfortable – in both training and racing.”

Our runner decided that he would change his mindset from what he thought was pushing hard to a level that was beyond that into what he describes as a truly ‘uncomfortably’ hard zone. With 19kms to go he pushed into that zone and it really hurt him. His quads and hips screamed, but while he was breathing hard, he knew that his internal clock was being regulated – He knew he would finish. He trusted his training and fitness.

Every time he could feel himself slipping back into a comfortable place, he would mentally refocus and place himself back into the ‘uncomfortably hard’ zone so that his legs hurt and he was breathing hard. Not too hard that he would blow-up, but running to feel and knowing that he was right on the edge. He knew he was in an uncomfortable place that required total focus and concentration on the ‘hurt’.

It sounds so simple, but it’s probably not something I’d really considered before. In the past I thought that I was running hard, but it was ‘comfortably hard’. I didn’t allow myself to finish in a zone that was really uncomfortable.

It’s a fine line however. I’m certainly not advocating you push your body to extremes at all – we don’t want to see people dropping like flies at the finish line. Additionally, we know that this is not why all people race too. But there’s nothing that beats that feeling of being pretty much ‘spent’ after a hard run.

Did that approach work for our runner? It sure as hell did and he surpassed his own expectations that day. He puts that down to the focus and willingness to just ‘hurt himself’ a little bit more than he might have ordinarily done. If you’re keen to find out what you’re really made of, try to put yourself in the ‘uncomfortably hard’ zone when you’re training and racing and you may surprise yourself.


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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

14 thoughts on “The ‘Uncomfortably Hard’ Zone – How Much Can We Push?

  1. you can see my response to this on coolrunning under 6ft race reports. but my real response is, how do you over rule the central governor. I am aware that at times it is not my will or conscious mind that determines my speed. however hard I try I can not get past the limit imposed by some sun conscious process. very seldom can I subvert this process and demand that my body obey my command

  2. Martin I think the central governor theory is really only related to shorter distances. My last marathon I decided to race rather than conserve the 1st half. I knew if I stayed below threshold I should be safe from blowing up. 10minute PB 🙂

  3. Great article. I think you are spot on that at least for most of the time we stay in the comfortably hard zone. As for the central governor theory, I don’t think we override it but we can recalibrate it.

    Fitness and probably more importantly race specific fitness plays are role into our ability to reach into the uncomfortably hard zone. That is the mental ability to suffer more has to be supported by our physical side too. That said the difference between my first and second 100km races was due my ability on the day to push harder and handle the suffering better and definitely not to better physical training. The second had me PB by a massive margin. That was a race I knew I got the most out of myself on the day. Definitely not something you come away thinking from every race.

    So I agree that there is that extra level we can reach in our racing. The question is how do we tap into it more consistently and when we want and need to?

    1. Spot on Jason. The mental does need to be supported by the physical too. You can’t just go out expecting to run hard with no foundation training behind it.

  4. I do not think that the central governor theory is only applicable to short races. your body is aware of the intention that your mind has has programmed. any deviation from that intent will be met with reluctance

    1. Agree that Central Govenor theory is also very applicable to longer races . A good example is athletes who get cramp early in a 100k when they have done training runs longer with no cramp. The brain knows its about to run further than it ever has before and isnt confident it is capable of it – therefore it tries to protect itself and cramp results.

      How do you overide the central governer? It aint easy thats for sure.

      The best way I know is to be capable of having a very single pointed focus on the present. If you dont think about how far there is to go then the brain may let you go a bit faster. Other simple things like smiling – the brain gets confused – if it can smile and laugh then you cant be at your limit.

      The trick is training the mind so it can dictate to the central governor rather than the other way around .

      Of course as others have said – need to have the physical training to back it up .

  5. Kipling must have been a runner:
    “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, to serve your turn long after they are gone;
    and so hold on, when there is nothing left in you, except the will which says to them ‘hold on!’
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    yours is the earth and all things in it..”

    1. What fiery and passionate poetry that is… very vivid, very alive.. surely only first hand experience could deliver such heartfelt & honest articulation. I agree!

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