‘Endurance amnesia’: Why do we return to rides we swore we wouldn’t?

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Have you ever done a ride or race that pushed you to your absolute limit then promptly sworn you’d never do it again? Have you ever looked back on that ride a little while later, convincing yourself it wasn’t as bad as you remember, then signed up to do it all over again? We’ve all been there.

There is something about us humans. We find ways to suffer while challenging our endurance, but forget the pain experienced, allowing us to focus on the next conquest. Psychologically, the potential glory of completing the event outweighs the memory of the pain we experienced last time around.

The term “endurance amnesia” isn’t widely used yet, but it has been tossed around by some marathon runners and enduro cyclists. So what does the research say about this phenomenon? Is it something researchers have done much work on?

The most significant study in this space happened in 2016, when psychologist Przemyslaw Babel investigated 62 marathon runners who were asked to rate the pain intensity and unpleasantness immediately after completing a marathon, and then again three or six months later. Relevantly, positive and negative “affect” were measured by two, 10-item mood scales: the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS).

That study demonstrated that how pain was recalled was primarily affected by mood. If the runner experienced “negative affect” (e.g. distress, irritation, nervousness) during the event, they were likely to recall the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain accurately. (Babel suggested that a longer delay –i.e. more than six months — might alter these results.) If the runners experienced “positive affect” (e.g. excitement, determination, inspiration) then this would change their recall of pain experienced during the event.

Overall, if runners emotionally felt “good” or “strong” during the run, the pain experienced was less relevant in recall of the event. If runners struggled during the competition of the event, they could accurately detail the pain experienced.

Babel conducted a follow-up study in 2017 to further investigate affect on pain, this time looking at non-athletes. That study supported the evidence that “positive affect” influences the memory of pain (i.e. reduces it) and also found that “negative affect” caused participants to overestimate the pain (i.e. it was worse on recall one month later). Overestimation of recalled positive and negative affect supports the so-called memory-experience gap.

The memory-experience gap is a cognitive bias, where there is a discrepancy between the average of experienced emotions and the overall evaluation of the experience (which is usually more intense than the averaged emotions.) In some 2009 research on painful emotions, British researcher Talya Miron Shatz and colleagues suggested that participants recalled more pleasant and unpleasant emotions than they reported feeling during the individual episodes.

This idea supports the theory from Noble Prize winner, Daniel Kahnemann, about an ‘experiencing self’ versus a ‘remembering self’. Kahnemann suggested the memory of pain has nothing to do with total pain experienced. Instead, he suggested, it is determined by the average level of pain at two points: the worst moment and at the end.

Given mood is a significant predictor of how we recall the pain of an event, it would be interesting to investigate the association between pain and how well we believe we performed or the pride we feel in completion of an event. Psychology Professor Gaul Zuberman studies memory, and says when it comes to these sorts of endeavours, “the accomplishment and sense of meaning simply overwhelm the negative memory of the pain”. Pain is temporary but satisfaction and purpose last in our memories for longer.

So is endurance amnesia real? Quite possibly, particularly when you see how athletes and weekend warriors push themselves to high levels of pain, then come back for more. It appears that two aspects drive this return: “positive affect” during the event, and a sense of accomplishment in completing the event. Unfortunately, neither are guaranteed, but we can default back to what we know: staying focused on the process, training consistently, and resting as hard as you train.

About the author

Michael Inglis is an endorsed and accredited sport, performance and exercise psychologist and has been working in the mental health field since 1999. Michael leads the sport and performance team at The Mind Room, a mental health and wellbeing centre he co-founded in Collingwood, Melbourne.

Michael works with athletes, coaches and teams to build and enhance performance, wellbeing and leadership skills. Some of the teams Michael has worked with include the Holden Cycling Womens’ team, the North Melbourne Football Club and the Melbourne Rebels rugby union team. He is a keen cyclist and father to three active boys.

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