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Practicing Pain and Suffering

What?  Why would we practice pain and suffering?  

triathlon pain and suffering on the run

There’s no way to sugarcoat it – suffering is a necessary part of endurance sports.  Whether we’re swimming, cycling, or running long distances, there will come a time when the going gets tough, and we have to push through some intense exertional pain.  And if we want to be successful in endurance racing, we need to learn how to experience the exertional discomfort, especially in the late miles of a race.  

Yes, it’s difficult to accept that we must learn to endure suffering.  However, if we want to be prepared for the suffering that comes with racing triathlon or road racing, it’s a necessary evil.  So, let’s talk about how to deal with pain and misery.

“The only way to get better at suffering is to practice it in training.  We need to put ourselves in tough situations – whether that means training at or higher intensities than our target race pace or training in tough conditions.”

According to Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson, in their book Brave Athlete, there is a difference between pain and suffering.  Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience linked with tissue damage that affects multiple areas of the brain.   

Now – there is “good pain”, and there is “bad pain”, and you know your body best to determine if the pain is that of an injury.  So, always use your best judgment.  On the other hand, suffering refers to how we interpret or make sense of the pain – whether it means anything at all in that moment, why it exists in the first place, and so on. 

The only way to get better at suffering is to practice it in training.  We need to put ourselves in tough situations – whether that means training at or higher intensities than our target race pace or training in tough conditions.  Unless these conditions are unsafe (lightning, ice, extreme cold or heat, etc.), training in the rain, heat, or cold will only further help us cope with discomfort and suffering on race day. 

Just like the physical aspects of our training, adaptation, and progression, practicing pain and suffering in training does help us cope with similar circumstances that may happen during your big event.  And once we’ve developed a strategy for dealing with the pain, we need to practice it repeatedly.

Developing a Strategy and Plan to Suffer Better

We can do many things to help us cope with the suffering that comes with both training and racing.  Below are just a few:

Get More Experience with Suffering in Training

Push yourself, train in tough weather conditions, etc.  If the race you are training for typically has warm temps, then training in the heat should be a regular part of your week. The same for races with unpredictable weather.  Your body can’t just experience sunny days with low humidity to perform well on race day.  Training in all weather conditions, unless unsafe, will only level up your game!

Accept that suffering will occur at some point during your race using something called “feedforward.” Feedforward is a process in which we look forward in time to the suffering that will come before it happens, e.g., at mile 18 of a marathon.  We anticipate it, so we are better able to deal with it when it occurs.  Marshall and Paterson refer to this as “mental time travel”.

Segmentation

This is when we break up time in a training session or during a race.  It is extremely difficult to think about running an entire marathon after finishing 112 miles on the bike in an Ironman.  But breaking the marathon up mentally into manageable “chunks” may help.  Instead of saying, “oh no, I don’t think I can endure 25 more miles of this!”, it may help to break it up into 4 x 10k, or even 8 x 5k, etc.  

And then, when you are deep in the hurt locker, you can just say to yourself, I will run for 15 minutes, or even to that light pole or mailbox you see off in the distance.  After all, you can do anything for 15 minutes, right?  Research has also shown that when you meet that segmentation goal, our brains release a small amount of dopamine, an added benefit. 

Counting

This was part of my plan during Ironman Tulsa last year.  During the final 10 miles of the marathon, I began to count each time my right foot hit the ground.  I counted one to ten, then repeated.  Each time my right foot struck the pavement – 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. – then I started over.  I counted quietly in my head.  Counting is easy for the brain to do, and it gives us a sense of moving forward.  Plus, counting seems to shift the focus on the counting itself, thus taking some of the attention from the pain and suffering you might be experiencing.  

We must practice our coping plan or action plan over and over until it becomes second nature so that when we’re in the middle of a race, and the going gets tough, we’ll be able to rely on our training and instincts to get us through.

So, the next time you’re out on a long training run or ride and start to suffer, remember that this is good for you!  Not just physically, but it is the equivalent of mental push-ups! Embrace the suck and push through the pain, knowing that it’s making you stronger and more prepared for race day.

Source:  Simon Marshall, Ph.D. and Lesley Paterson.  The Brave Athlete, Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion.  Velopress, 2017.

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Jeff Lukich Triathlon Endurance Coach
Jeff Lukich
Endurance Coach at Drive Multisport | Website

Jeff Lukich is the owner and head coach of Drive Multisport and leads Better Triathlete's coach match program. He is a USA Triathlon (USAT) Level 1, USA Cycling (USAC) Level 2, and USA Track & Field (USATF) certified coach. A 10x Ironman finisher and Boston Marathon Qualifier, Jeff specializes in coaching long-course triathletes, ultra-runners, marathoners, cyclists, and athletes with unique events, such as double Ironman, staged races, and SwimRun events. Learn more about Jeff.