For a very long time I thought I understood athletic discipline. I thought it had a lot to do with sticking to the plan; getting up early to complete workouts before work, going out to train regardless of weather, and doing the workout no matter how I felt. I often felt that even if the workout was hard, or if I was really tired, it had to be done. For eight years this is how I trained. I held very strongly to the ideal of no pain, no gain.

Honestly, this commitment to training yielded pretty good results for a long time. I worked very hard and saw progress. I would write out a rough outline of workouts a couple weeks at a time and I would do the workouts. Simple, right?

Recently I had a series of events that led me to understand that I did not know what it meant to be an athlete with discipline. I also learned that I had no problem with athletic commitment. These two concepts, discipline and commitment, are related but at times can be at odds with each other. Let me explain what I see as the difference between the two.

Athletic Commitment vs. Athletic Discipline

I confused commitment with discipline. Commitment is dedication to the training plan. Commitment takes you out the door everyday. Commitment has you doing every workout, exactly how it is planned. Make no mistake, commitment is key to achieving goals and it can be a tremendously powerful tool. It can also be a huge stumbling block. There are times, say if you’ve been sick, or have a nagging ache, that you should not do a workout. Yet you’re committed so you do the workout. For the committed athlete, it’s never a question of whether you should do the workout or not, it is only a question of when during the day you do that workout.

It is much harder to be a disciplined athlete. I started to understand discipline about a month after I started working with Scott Johnston as my coach. We were analyzing previous training that I had been doing and found that I had been drifting toward the middle. I was doing easy workouts too hard. That had the effect of leaving me too tired to do hard workouts hard. I was doing the majority of the training at a moderate level, and sacrificing results because of it. I was committed, but I did not have the discipline to have a really good plan and to modify it when necessary.

Discipline for Athletes

Discipline requires the athlete to be aware of the effect of training on the body. This is particularly important for athletes who train alone with their coach in an off-site location. If a coach is present during the workout and sees the athlete falling off splits, or not performing correctly, a good coach stops the athlete or modifies the workout. Coaches use whistles to stop athletes the moment their training begins to go astray.

The disciplined athlete needs to understand the purpose of the workout, and then stay focused on completing it, and modifying the workout if the goals of said workout are not being met. If the plan calls for an easy workout, both the committed and disciplined athlete do the workout, but the difference is the athlete with discipline truly keeps the workout easy, whereas the committed athlete does the workout but may go too hard because they were simply feeling good. As a result, the disciplined athlete maximizes the workout and the committed athlete ends up tired. The disciplined athlete also understands that there are times that skipping a workout will yield a better long-term outcome.

The process of becoming disciplined in training is not easy and I do not think it happens automatically. It requires good communication between a coach and an athlete and complete honesty on the part of the athlete in regards to how their body is responding and recovering from training. It is easy to be a committed athlete. It is harder to be a disciplined athlete who is also committed to the training. In the end, I believe discipline is the path to mastery.

-by Uphill Athlete Luke Nelson

Commitment is not Discipline, Uphill Athlete: Luke Nelson, Credits: Fred Marmsater
Luke Nelson out for an evening run on the Hardrock course, San Juans, Colorado. Photo by Fred Marmsater

About Luke Nelson

Idaho native, father, and Physicians Assistant Luke Nelson is an extraordinarily accomplished mountain runner who always has one foot firmly planted in the mountains. Luke is no stranger to podium finishes in 100-mile races or to FKTs on rugged peaks in Idaho and Wyoming. He was also the 2012 US Ski Mountaineering National Champion. Luke has been coached by Scott Johnston since 2015. He is sponsored by Patagonia, La Sportiva, UltrAspire, and Uphill Athlete.

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