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Is Quitting Genetic Or Can You Control Your Destiny?

  • 6 min read

“Don’t quit, don’t quit, don’t quit” the phrase is repeated in the heads of some athletes only to result in them giving up physically, mentally or both.  Yet there are large groups of athletes who survive some of the toughest races without quitting.  There are also large groups of soldiers who manage to survive some of the toughest training the military has to offer.  Conditions at these physical events, whether they be military based or athletic endeavors, are so extreme they probably would be classified as torture if the government treated their prisoners in the same manner.   Minimal food, extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, these events have them all.  So how is it that soldiers and endurance athletes can go through extreme training and testing regimes but not quit?

Well you are in luck, because I happen to have a background where those two worlds collide plus a degree in psychology. The psychology degree helps a little but my real value is a lot of empirical data based off of real world experience paying attention to who quits, who perseveres, and their attributes. The conclusions I draw below is pulled from a sample of 16 years of observing soldiers and athletes who I have stood next to, raced against and helped prepare as part of a preparatory course for military training courses. Add in my personal hobbies of masochistic physical events including marathons, ultra-marathons up to 100 miles, iron distance triathlons, 24 hour Obstacle Course Races (OCRs) and a 7 day ultra-OCR. I have never DNFed (Did Not Finish) an event despite showing up to some woefully unprepared; something I don’t recommend.  Combine this with some of the most unpleasant training the military provides plus over three and a half years of time spent in combat zones (mostly Iraq) and I feel like I can speak from a decent position of authority regarding giving up.

Enough about me though, let’s talk about quitting. With the conclusion of the TV show “The Selection” on the History Channel last year (sending civilians through SOF like Selection, available online here) and the airing of the 24 hour long OCR, World’s Toughest Mudder, on CBS, it raises a lot of questions about quitting in these events. Are people born with this ability? How do you develop this ability? What else can I do if I want to try to make it through some of these extreme challenges? Why do some people quit and not others?       

Are people born with the ability not to quit? While some may think these athletes just woke up without the ability to quit, that is not the case. Just like any trait, some people probably have a natural higher predisposition to quitting or persevering. However, accepting whatever innate ability you were given as your limit is a path that will only lead to more quitting. Realistically, the ability to persevere is a product of nurture rather than nature.  

So how do you develop this ability? It is developed by setting goals and then sticking to them. The saying “commitment means doing what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left you” applies here. It starts with a small decision like I am going to follow a training plan from a book, like ones provided by SOFLETE or Strength & Speed’s Guide to Elite Obstacle Course Racing. This decision is then reinforced by micro-decisions like the decision not to hit snooze and the decision to get up and start training.  This repetition of not sleeping in and getting up for exercise is a form of not quitting. It helps build that muscle memory of following through with your plan, long after that desire has passed.  

What else can I do if I want to try to make it through some of these extreme challenges? First, extreme is a relative term, what is extreme for one athlete may be middle of the road for another, so you do not have to be running across the Sahara to build mental fortitude. Your extreme might be a 5k Warrior Dash, a half marathon or a 12 hour Green Beret Challenge event. Once you decide what your extreme challenge is, you need to mentally prepare yourself. Before entering something very difficult that you think may result in quitting decide what it is going to take for you to quit. If the answer is anything less than blacking out, breaking a bone or dying, it is going to make things difficult when things get really bad. I say this with a huge caveat that you are planning to take the time to follow through with a solid training plan and not just show up on race day. When people get tired, they will look for a reason to quit instead of looking for a reason to continue.  I have heard all the excuses during my time in the military and through various endurance events, “I just need to focus on X right now”, “This is impossible” and “I don’t want to risk permanent damage”. Those are all people looking for a reason to stop instead of a reason to continue.

Why do some people quit and not others? Mental strength and physical strength often have a strong correlation, but it is not exact. If it was exact, the military could just give everyone a fitness test and then select their operators based off score instead of testing them for several weeks to figure out who has the mental fortitude to succeed. Sometimes the genetic gift of physical fitness means that person did not have to work hard to attain their current level of physicality. This means they may have never been tested in a manner that is not self imposed and is not actually at their limits. Conversely, the correlation is often high because of what I talked about earlier, those micro-decisions. The person in better shape might be in better shape because they have been persevering for the last five years training everyday instead of sleeping in.  If you watched The Selection, you saw this as people who were physically superior quit in the first 24-48 hours, while those who wanted it more persevered despite being weaker or slower. The mind is the ultimate decider of your strength and will ultimately determine when and if you quit.  

There is a mindset people talk about before they go to Ranger School (the 61 day sleep/food deprived hell hole in Georgia) that is described as a “Tab or Cast” mentality. This simply means that if you go there you are either coming back with a Tab (the small patch received for graduating) or leaving with a cast (you broke something large enough that it is a medical drop requiring a cast). It is not tab or finger splint, it is not tab or Ace bandage, not even tab or knee brace. It is Tab or Cast. This mentality made months before attendance to Ranger School (or whatever your event is Warrior Dash, marathon, ultra-marathon, World’s Toughest Mudder, GoRuck, Death Race, etc.) is made while your mind is still clear. If you try to make the decision while exhausted you will choose poorly and quit. Then you will end up regretting your decision once you are well rested.  

The big difference between people that quit and people who do not, in my opinion, is the ones who do not quit do not view it as an option. There is typically a mindset of, “I signed up for this and now it is time to do it regardless of how long it will take”. By completely removing it as one of your possibilities it avoids the decision from ever having to be made. This of course is easier said than done, but that is where practice comes into play. By challenging yourself little by little, it builds up that mental reserve of not quitting. Overreaching is a term used by trainers where an athlete temporarily pushes himself past his current training limits for a brief period before recovering. You should be doing the same thing with your goals by signing up for something on the edge or just past your current physical ability. For example, by doing a half marathon, then a marathon, than a 50k over months/years before your 50 miler, it is going to help build that confidence and mental strength (in addition to physical strength).  By going through proper training before each of these events you will extend those limits.  If you go from a half marathon to a 50 miler, it is going to be both mentally and physically tougher than working your way up to that 50 mile goal.  

Not quitting is a trait that can be developed but it is not one decision. Instead, it is a habit built upon 30 micro-decisions made each day that make you who you are. The same way your diet is not a single decision to eat healthy but 30 decisions each day on where you eat and what goes in your mouth. Figure out what you want and go for your goals instead of letting someone else or an exhausted version of yourself define your limits.  


Evan Perperis is a National Strength and Conditioning Association- Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT), a SOF military veteran with 44 cumulative months of combat deployments and an Obstacle Course Racer for the Conquer The Gauntlet Pro Team. He specializes in endurance racing and is also the author of two books, Strength & Speed’s Guide to Elite OCR and Mud Run Guide’s Ultra-OCR Bible.