Digging into the pain cave: The psychology of suffering, part 1

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Last month, 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. While there, I attended Carrie Cheadle’s The Psychology of Suffering lecture. The following are my observations from her talk, broken into two parts. (Part 1 is below.)

Coach Jennifer Sharp


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.

What is 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’s ability to make decisions. When we have expectations of pain, it can change our behaviour. 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. And therefore we always hold something back, which can mean not racing to our full potential.

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.

Increase your pain threshold using mental skills training.

Ready for the good news? You can increase your pain threshold using mental skills training.

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. Each person is unique in how they experience pain. Below are five tools you can use to grow your pain threshold.

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. Be objective.

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.

| Related: Plan to succeed

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.

Choose your focus. You can use association or disassociation. Association is when you are at your peak suffering and you can focus on technique (such as pedaling) and tune into your breathing. Disassociation happens at lower thresholds and usually longer distances. Using music or audiobooks help disassociate from what you are doing.

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.

In the next installment of digging into the pain cave, 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.

Got questions for Jennifer or the rest of the ALP Cycles team? Post your question in the comments below or send it to us on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #askalp.

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ALP Cycles Coaching alpcycleslogo - edited is a Boulder-based coaching company with three female coaches at the helm: Alison Powers, Jennifer Sharp and Patricia Schwager.

Each coach brings her own coaching strengths and personal experiences. Road racing, track, endurance mountain biking, time trialling, making the leap to living and racing in Europe – they’ve got you covered. Find out more about Alison Powers and her Alp Cycles coaching company at here.

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