By ALP Coach Jennifer Sharp
In 2015, Alison and I attended the TrainingPeaks Endurance Coaching Summit held at Colorado University in Boulder. The Summit brought together over 150 coaches, physiologists, psychologists, business and thought leaders based in the field of endurance sports. During the break out sessions, attendees could choose between different lectures, depending on their interest. While there, we attended Carrie Cheadle's The Psychology of Suffering lecture. Carrie is a certified consultant through the Association for Applied Sports Psychology and is passionate about educating others on sports psychology. The following are my observations from her talk.
First of all, pain is complex because it's a subjective experience: your pain differs from your teammate, from your spouse, from your kids, from the person sitting next to you. Everyone experiences their own unique reaction when it comes to pain.
How do we define pain? Pain is a signal from your brain that you're suffering (either a real physical danger or that you're pushing close to that edge) and our brains try to shut down the source of pain. It's a warning signal our brains excrete that, as athletes, can prevent us from preforming to our potential. But there's a difference between pain and suffering.
If you examine pain in the form of fatigue, it's experienced as a limiter, which affects your brain to make decisions.
When we have expectations of pain, it can change our behavior. How hard or how easy something is will affect what we experience. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you think it's going to be hard, then guess what? It's hard.
When we're afraid and have fear it's often that we're weary of burning all of our matches, a self-preservation if you will. And therefore we always hold something back, which can mean not racing to our full potential.
Here's a new approach: think of your pain threshold as a combination of body and mind experience. Your body sends a message to your brain and your brain sends a message back to your body. How you deal with pain is up to you. Some athletes can push their pain thresholds to the extreme, while others struggle with it. And if you struggle with it, you're not alone.
Sport, and more specifically cycling, is riddled with different degrees of pain. Hill climbing, time trials, and getting pushed to your limit can create physically painful experiences. And there's good news: you can increase your pain threshold using mental skills training. Each person is unique in how they experience pain. Below are five tools you can use to grow your pain threshold.
1. Accept the pain. Pushing your body to its limit is uncomfortable. You must embrace it. Enjoy what you're doing and you'll mitigate the pain. Ask yourself what it is that you love about the pain and what it is you don't and be objective about it.
2. Have a race goal. Get specific. You're more likely to push yourself when you are at your limit if you set a goal that you can accomplish. Be sure to have both an outcome goal and a process goal.
3. Relax, relax, relax! If you're tense, you won't preform to your full potential. Use music, practice breathing and use mental cues to relax your mind and body.
4. Choose your focus. You can use association or disassociation techniques. Association is when you are at your peak suffering and pushing at super high intensity. Honing into your pedaling or breathing are ways to focus your pain. Disassociation happens at lower thresholds and usually longer distances. Using music, singing, counting to yourself or listening to audiobooks help disassociate from what you are doing.
5. Establish an end. Tell your brain there will be a finish to what you're doing. To do this, pick a marker along the route as an end and once you reach it, pick another end. Distract your brain one goal at a time.
Next, we'll talk about how changing your perception of pain can affect your tolerance of pain. I'll provide you with a few more tips on how to grow your pain threshold by practicing it in training. Having a toolset of how to deal with pain can be part of your reward.
You can train your mind to tolerate more pain by pushing just past the point of when you're supposed to stop and keep going, which sends a message to your brain to move beyond that perceived limiter. The next time your coach prescribes intervals, do one more and send the message to your brain that no, you're not going to die from discomfort and pain but that you'll survive and be stronger for it.
If you practice this in training, you'll be able to use it in racing. Planning how you'll behave in certain situations can set you up for success when it comes down to a race scenario.
Do be aware though - sometimes pain is not always mental. Hydration, nutrition, and your preparation for an event can also play a role. Working with an ALP Cycles Coach can lessen the learning curve but the mental training portion is ultimately up to you.
Imagine you have a challenging race coming up. It's hilly, it's fast, and it has technical sections with tight corners and speed. You know that the course will push you to your limit and demand 100% of your ability. Your expectation of suffering will lay the road for your experience. However, if you accept the pain and use practiced tools to mitigate it, you can set yourself up for success.
Suddenly, suffering becomes part of the reward.
Interested in learning more about the mental component of sport psychology? Pick up a copy of "On Top of Your Game" by Carrie Cheadle.