Change your perception of pain to increase your tolerance using these mental tools.
At the first annual Training Peaks Endurance Coaching Summit in Boulder, Colo., Carrie Cheadle, a sports psychologist and author of On Top of Your Game, shared some insight on the psychology of suffering.
“Pain is always a signal that your body is trying to get your brain to pay attention to something,” Cheadle says. “For endurance athletes, we have to distinguish between pain that’s dangerous and pain that just comes with pushing your body to the limit.
Using mental tools like the ones Cheadle suggests below, you’ll get better at changing your perception of pain, which will in turn affect your tolerance for suffering.
Accept the pain. Stop fighting it or fearing it—accept that it is a part of race day. “Fear anxiety is a real thing and holds athletes back from realizing their real potential,” Cheadle says. Write a list of things you love about the sport (the camaraderie, the finish line rush) and what you hate (heat, hills, mass starts). Look at the two sides and ask yourself if can you accept the things you hate for the things you love. It will help you fight when the going gets tough.
Have a specific race goal. It’s worthy to say you want to finish, but you’re more likely to push yourself when you want to walk if you have a super-specific race goal, Cheadle says. Think about the process goals that will get you to the ultimate outcome goal. What do you need to do at various moments—such as fueling properly on the bike or pacing yourself early on the run—to ensure you get there?
Relax! Any psychological tension leads to muscular tension, which leads to a lower threshold for pain, Cheadle says. On her website (Carriecheadle.com), she has worksheets and audio files that can help with this relaxation. Here’s a simple trigger to relax immediately: Shake your arms out and take in a deep breath. As you exhale, say, “Relax my hands, relax my face and breathe.” It will automatically make other parts of your body relax and your breathing will slow down.
Choose a focus. You can either create a distraction from the pain (disassociation) or dig in further (association). According to Cheadle, research shows that for lower thresholds, disassociation may be more effective—that’s where things like music and creating mental lists come in to help change your perceived exertion. When you’re at the height of suffering, though, the more effective technique is focusing on technique, form and breathing. “At that point, all you can do is be in it,” Cheadle says. This is also the opportunity to use “rhythmic cognitive behavior,” which can be saying a mantra over and over or counting your strokes or steps.
Plan your response to critical moments. Think of important parts of the race or moments where something might not go perfectly, such as getting passed on the bike or wanting to walk on the run, and plan your behavior ahead of time (write it down!) so that your focus will go there in case of that moment.
Establish an end. Tell yourself that the pain is not forever, and it will help change your brain’s perception. To practice this, do workouts based on markers—run to the next tree, climb to that light post, etc.—and use that technique during a race to keep moving forward and give your brain something to focus on.