By Christopher Cudworth
Pain is an integral part of any endurance sport. It follows that overcoming pain and discomfort is an element of success.
But what is the actual secret to the ability of overcoming pain? Is that even possible?
You have two choices. You can either try to beat the pain outright, or you can excel within the confines pain and still try to achieve your best effort.
So which is better?
The secret of pain tolerance is not derivative of race or even culture. In fact the ability to endure pain is not even connected to raw physical talent.
Pain runs parallel to the human condition. It is the great equalizer, a humbling reminder that for all our brain power, we are still animals at a base level. Our ability to feel pain and express its impact on our lives is what makes us human. We can all identify with the unintentional grimace of pain on the face of athletes as they compete. We either empathize with the pain of others, or we are psychopaths. There isn’t really much of an in between.
Dealing with pain
Running and riding psychology is composed of two distinct methods of thought: association and dissociation. The first means you choose to accept the pain and work with it. The second means trying to forget the pain using some method of distraction.
If you associate with pain, you do not ignore it. You may try to rationalize it in some way however, in order to get through the periods in which pain is most acute. Our college cross country coach used to joke with us about how difficult a sport running could be. Seeking to replace negative thinking with positive attitude, his favorite phrase during our most difficult workouts was legendary.
“Wow! Fun! Wow!’ he’d cheer us on. You can’t beat fun!”
To which one of us would inevitably reply: “You can’t beat fun. It’s like a sore dick.”
But the fact is we generally embraced his fun approach to dealing with pain while running.
It’s only temporary
One of our teammates even came up with his own brand of mental device that caught on within the team. We all used to get us through. His phrase was, “It’s only temporary.”
That’s a very associative approach to pain management while running or riding. “It’s only temporary” helps you get through the worst points of pain until you can recover. It certainly applies to running or riding tough intervals. But it also works in a race when you are up against your own will and feeling pain from the pace. “It’s only temporary” can work wonders if you use it wisely. The reward of having made it through the pain to a better result sticks with you too. Next time around you are encouraged by your previous success.
Yin and yang: Dissociative thinking
If you prefer not to think about the pain and want to run a marathon using some dissociative method like listening to music during the race, who’s to say you are wrong?
But here’s some good advice. You should still have a backup plan to assess and manage your discomfort level if you find yourself at a tipping point. Because sooner or later if the pain gets too bad, your brain is going to revert to associative thinking whether you want it to or not.
Pain is indeed the great equalizer, but some of us wind up being “more equal” than others. If all of us could simply “run through” the pain somehow we’d all be 2:03 marathoners.
We train ourselves through intervals to accept faster tempos and callous our minds and bodies to a new pain tolerance. These combined practice methods make it mentally and physically possible to run and ride through the pain.
The secret but still painful truth to overcoming pain
Teammates, coaches and competitors are also important tools in developing greater pain tolerance. Our teammates urge us on when we’re tired. Our coaches train us to accept and work outside our perceived limits. But most importantly, our competitors drive us to run harder, forcing us through pain. That may be the truth you don’t want to hear, but it is true in almost every aspect of life. Despite all our faith and morals and attempts to deny the truth, in the end we are competitive beings. Competition is the one true method for overcoming pain, as well as fear. It hearkens back to instinct for survival, for besting rivals for mates, and yes, to get the best gossip possible.
Probably it is some combination of coaches, teammates and competitors that makes us do our best and overcome the pain necessary to succeed. It also takes some good old self motivation to make us run or ride into pain and beyond.
Yet another painful truth
That last bit of reality is the incredible secret behind pain tolerance. Whether our competitor is the clock or another athlete, the best-known way to deal with pain is to recognize that losing—or failing our goals––sometimes hurts far more than the temporary pain we feel during the race. Some people will almost turn themselves inside out to achieve their goals. It’s almost as if there is an entirely separate section in our brains that motivates us to suffer positively in order to reach some abstract version of success. We athletes live in a strange world where our worst fears are both self-imposed and yet also externalized.
Life imitates the art of pain
And of course some say athletics prepares you for the pain and triumphs of life, both of which are also–only temporary. There’s certainly a lesson to be learned there.