Ugly Training in the Jungle

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trevor Ugly Training in the Jungle

Trevor Ragan is on an adventure. An adventure of discovery, understanding, overcoming fear, sharing the science of learning and performance. And there are tigers. Some live in a zoo, comfortable but caged. Others roam the jungle, hunting their food, facing challenges and fear, and inevitably growing! 

Trevor refers to a sketch of both the zoo tiger and the jungle tiger. He speaks with the authority and compassion of one who has been both caged, and free to face the dangers of the jungle as he points to the drawing. Trevor has just proposed to his audience that we too can be dwellers of the jungle. But first, we will have to overcome fear.   

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Fear is the Biggest Threat

In life and in running, we must get out of our comfort zone to improve. Not only is the concept familiar to most of us, but we agree with it. So, why do we still “zoo tiger”? According to Trevor, fear is to blame! It is the biggest threat to our personal learning and growth… and it is hard-wired into our brain. Fear’s source is the amygdala, a region of our brain that is responsible for the reaction of emotions. It exists to ensure our survival, creating fear when we are standing too close to a cliff’s edge or when we come face to face with, say, a tiger! The problem is, our amygdala can’t differentiate between beneficial risks and dangerous risks. This part of our brain treats all uncertainty, attention, struggle, and change as a risk, for better or worse.

Our brains are wired to gravitate toward whatever is comfortable, immediate, and safe and away from any sign of a struggle in the jungle. Like a protective mother tiger, it wants to shield us from the jungle, but in doing so, cheats us of opportunities to grow. It is the brain’s nature to choose comfort over struggle! 

Have you ever woken up with big plans for a hard workout? “I’m definitely going to do hill repeats tonight!” you declare. But you have a hard day at work, and you let your amygdala call the shots, choosing to run through your neighborhood and avoid even the smallest speed bump rather than run out of your comfort zone and up a single hill. If you skip enough of these “jungle” workouts, it will be apparent on race day when you run the same 5k pace that you have run the last 5 times.

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When you are confronted with challenges, change, obstacles, and problems in your training and racing, you’re facing jungle tiger moments. You can either choose to lean into the struggle or avoid your fears. Maybe you fear to fail at a longer distance, so you play it safe by sticking to the 5k distance. Maybe you fear literally falling, so you conveniently have plans every time that obstacle race is in town! Every time you choose to hang out with the zoo tiger, you enable your fears to rob you of opportunities for improvement and growth.

Fear means you have an amygdala, which means fear will always be present when risk arises. You can’t eliminate fear, but you can change how you perceive it. You can’t avoid those nerves when you are standing on the start line of a race. Why? Because your amygdala is responding to the fear factors it is aware you will face while running. Struggle? Yup! Uncertainty? You bet! 

You might feel uncertain about even toeing that start line, wondering “Does everyone think I don’t belong here?” when you line up alongside some of those serious, spandex-clad runners. Fear exclaims “Hey, who cares if you trained for this pace? You shouldn’t be lining up with the 8:00 wave! You should just go to the back of the pack!”

Fear Can be Overcome

So how do you silence fear? Trevor suggests that you don’t. You acknowledge that it is normal and invite it along for the ride, but you refuse to let fear be the driver. When fear whispers from the back seat “You want to qualify for the Boston Marathon? Ha! That will never work!” then it’s a good indication that qualifying is exactly what you should be working at! 

“The freak out is a sign that we are out of our comfort zone. That we are right where we need to be,” Trevor says, explaining how studies show that to perform better, we just need to reframe our fear and run with it! 

“Marathon runners don’t get rid of tired. They just learn to run farther and faster while they are tired,” Trevor points out. Successful marathon runners treat fatigue and fear the same, learning to run faster and further in the presence of both uncomfortable elements. To shift from a fixed, fear-controlled mindset to a growth mindset as a runner, acknowledge the fear without letting it come between you and opportunities to improve. Maybe that means signing up for your first marathon, or showing up to that group run, even if the other runners seem a little intimidating. It may mean that you hire a coach, or make track workouts part of your weekly training. Maybe it means finally lining up with the 8:00 pace group at your next race, or doing those hill repeats even if it’s uncomfortable! These are the choices that lead to a breakthrough, both physically and mentally. When you choose to stretch your body to run the hard miles, adaptations occur, and over time it will transform your running. 

On the other hand, if you choose to skip enough of these “jungle” workouts, it will be apparent on race day when you run the same 5k pace again, rather than getting that personal record you know you have in you! 

Or do you know that?! 

The Power of Belief in Yourself

Trevor explains that the winning combination for anyone serious about growing is a belief in yourself, along with the courage to face your fears. Before you can do the workouts that will help you grow into a faster runner, or stronger runner, or endurance runner, you have to believe in the potential of your own body and mind. 

When you learn a new skill, you typically aren’t good at it. When you build upon a skill you already possess by attempting a harder workout, it’s not always pretty. According to Trevor, real growth is ugly, and it is scary! A runner with a fixed mindset will be tempted to give up during those first ugly attempts at a personal best or longer distance simply because they don’t believe that they will ever change. A runner with a growth mindset will embrace challenges and persist despite the initial difficulties they face because he or she believes they can improve. 

“Win as many battles between your ears that you can,” asserts Trevor. Be conscious of the tone of your thoughts. Are you thinking or speaking negatively? 

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If you catch yourself thinking “I’m just not a fast runner,” or “I’ll never be able to run that far,” replace those limiting beliefs with affirmations like “If I make the effort, I will get faster,” and “I believe I can train my body and mind to run a marathon!”


Our abilities as runners are not set in stone, so there’s always the potential for improvement for those who practice positive thinking while keeping their fears in check. Being patient is also invaluable, as growth in the jungle may take several races or even a few years to occur. And along the way, you will likely encounter setbacks, but that’s hardly bad news! 

The Lessons in Setbacks

What you may perceive as a failure is really another opportunity to grow if you are intentional about learning from your mistakes. The next time you apply positive thinking and fear wrangling in a race, but still miss beating your personal course record by 23 seconds at that local 10k, set aside some time to reflect on the experience by asking yourself a few questions:

  • Ok, I am not where I want to be. But I am not where I used to be either! How have I grown while training for this race?
  • What did I learn from my setbacks that I can apply to my next race?
  • Did I race in the jungle, or was I hanging out with the zoo tigers?
  • What would I change?
  • What did I master in this race? Fueling? Staying focused? 

As you reflect, be sure to celebrate those moments during training and racing when you nailed it! Reflection allows us to identify how we failed so we can adapt and adjust for a better performance in the future.

Train Ugly in the Jungle

Ready to experience breakthrough by breaking free from the zoo and running into the jungle of new challenges? By applying a growth mindset to your running, you can silence your fears, harness the power of positive thinking, and learn that you are capable of so much more than you imagined! 

“Always remember that getting better is not pretty. That you are going to be bad first. That growth comes from struggle. That skills are built, not born — and they are yours if you earn them, period,” Trevor emphasizes. “Seek out challenges. Appreciate obstacles. Love the journey. Train ugly!”

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You can find out more about the growth mindset, training ugly, and overcoming fear on Trevor’s website,