Routines and ruts.

Hello! How’s the weather where you are? It was gray and drizzly when I hit the pool this morning.

Gray and drizzly in Seattle? SHOCKING!

I started my day with my typical swim workout. While I counted the floor tiles and lollygagged through my laps I started to think about routines and repetition.

It’s easy to think about repetition when you are watching the same segment of pool floor back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth, and….

It might be a case of meteorological malaise, but lately my morning training has become a trifle monotonous. I’ve found a swim workout that I like, so I keep doing it over, and over again. I love to wake up and run for around an hour, so I pick one of three routes, head out for eight miles, eat oatmeal, shower, rinse, repeat (with the exception of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon this past Saturday). I keep returning to my typical routine.

I'm boring, but consistent
I’m boring, but consistent

There’s a huge degree of comfort in having a routine. Routines allow for action in the absence of higher order decision-making. Every single choice that you make throughout the day, no matter how minor, sets a squadron of neurons in motion to weigh the costs and the benefits. Your brain cells burn glucose like it’s going out of style. The symphony of synchronous stimulation sweeping over your prefrontal cortex each time you choose between option A, or option B expends mental energy; that mental energy comes from the same energy currency that your muscles use to do physical work.

Which is why I ate a Gu before my PhD qualifying exam...
Which is why I ate a Gu before my PhD qualifying exam…I’m joking, I opted for a banana

Making choices works out your brain just like pumping iron works out your biceps. This is why you fell physically exhausted after grappling with a tough problem all day, and why sleep-deprived people make demonstrably worse decisions than when they are well rested. Decision making capacity is a finite resource: eventually exhaustion will set in.

We can't frack our way into better cognitive abilities.
We can’t frack our way into better cognitive abilities.

Some of these decisions are more mentally taxing than others. Important decisions cause a physiological stress response, just like exhaustive physical exercise. When I’m in the process of developing a brand new protocol at work, every step requires critical evaluation and assessment.

This is my thinking hat
This is my thinking hat

I want to resolve a large DNA fragment, should I use a 4% gel or a 6% gel?


I need DNA from cells that are growing exponentially. Should I harvest this culture now, or wait 10 more minutes?

Trick question! These guys are obviously in WAY into stationary phase.

Each of these decisions taps into my mental reserves, which is why there are many areas in my life where I try to minimize the mental energy I spend making decisions. Think about what you had for breakfast this morning.


I made precisely zero decisions about breakfast today. I had oatmeal. I always have oatmeal (with greek yogurt, peanut butter, and some fruit so I have a well rounded meal of protein, carbs and healthy fat). This is a routine that works for me. I happen to love oatmeal and therefore I don’t need to use up any time, or brainpower reaching a verdict on my morning meal. Similarly, I am not following a formal training plan right now and lately I have been returning to the same workout and running routes over and over to avoid making a decision when I head out the door. Should I do a tempo run? A progression run? Some Yasso 800s? Should I go 6 miles today and 5 miles tomorrow? I don’t know…stop asking questions…you did 8 comfortable miles yesterday and they were pretty good, just do that again!

photo 2

Routines are comfortable and they minimize stress, but they can cause stagnation. Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” Some habits are healthy and enrich our lives. I’m not kicking oatmeal to the curb any time soon. However, if we’re truly pursuing excellence, developing NEW habits encourages personal growth.

Porter is learning how to get along better with other dogs

Developing new habits and breaking routines requires mental energy and can be stressful, but that stress almost always is worth the short-term discomfort that it might cause. It’s satisfying to do things that you are good at. Trying something new is risky, what if you fail? Failure is frightening, but the reward is often worth the risk. Stress is a killer, to be sure, but sometimes a little stress can shape positive change.

A lump of coal need tremendous pressure to turn into a diamond

In my professional life, developing a new protocol is STRESSFUL. It’s much easier to keep repeating an experiment that I’ve done a million times before. However, doing the same experiment only yields more of the same data…to move my science forward I have to suck up the stress and try new things.

Like big, giant, pain-in-the-ass to work with,  REALLY worth it for the data, gels

In the context of my training, doing the same workouts over and over again will keep me physically healthy. Yet I will never become a speedier swimmer, or a faster runner if I don’t incorporate some new challenges into my regimen. If I am what I repeatedly do, I am on the road to becoming a runner who runs eight miles at a time at an eight-minute mile pace. I could be a happy eight-by-eighter. But I want to be a marathoner!


One of the basic tenets of fitness physiology is that high-intensity exercise causes more pronounced performance gains than moderate-intensity activity. A recent paper in EMBO just uncovered the molecular basis for the benefits of the burn. High intensity exercise causes a physical stress response. Your glands go into overdrive, pumping out the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and catecholamines to trigger the “fight or flight response.” All of these hormones affect your brain and your perception. Until recently it was thought that only adrenaline and cortisol have an impact on your body by priming your muscles for rapid action and getting you ready to stand your ground, or skedaddle.

Louis is ready to FIGHT the cow piñata
Louis is ready to FIGHT the cow piñata

This group just demonstrated that catecholamines have a physical function on top of their mental effects. These hormones stimulate muscle development! So the Stress response not only gets your blood flowing and your brain boiling during the stress itself, it triggers adaptation and improvement after the stress occurs. Every time you are challenged to the point of stress, your body lays the groundwork to become more capable of coping with the next task. This is the underlying reason why short bursts of high-intensity exercise trigger improved fitness gains than calorically equivalent long stretches of moderate-intensity exercise. A little bit of stress can be a booster.

You run WAY faster when a T-Rex is chasing you….this might be too much stress

Too much stress is, obviously, unsustainable. Trying new things is great, but if you never put in the time and effort to master any one thing you are doomed to be a dilettante. After all, we are what we repeatedly do: if we never do anything repeatedly we aren’t anything at all. My take away message is everything in moderation: especially moderation. My training feels stagnant right now, so I am going to pick a goal race, and write myself a plan for the goal race that includes intense and varied workouts. If variation is part of the routine, I can eliminate the stress of making a decision each morning about how far I want to run, saving my mental resources for more important interests.

Like how can I cram a banaphone into every single post I write.

And, yes, I STILL will eat oatmeal every morning.

elvis oatmeal
Elvis told me to….it must be the right thing to do

What are your comfortable routines?

Do you have any routines that are beginning to feel like ruts?

5 thoughts on “Routines and ruts.

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  1. Have I shared with you Michael Lewis’s article shadowing President Obama? Obama refuses to make choices on anything pedestrian, from his suits to his breakfast. Instead, he lets other people make these mundane choices for him. He marshals his fixed decision/glucose budget for more important things like who we should bomb and which industries need to pick up the slack on Carbon. Way to go Obama!


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