Pain. Suffering. Misery. If you’ve ever made the choice to take on an athletic endeavor, you know that there are times when you push your body to the point where it is uncomfortable. You might call it “going into the pain cave” or “embracing the suck”, but whatever the name— your ability to tolerate the pain and discomfort of exertion is a factor in your ability to push yourself both physically and mentally to your potential.
In fact, some people really look forward to experiencing this type of suffering. For them, this type of pain is experienced as part of the reward; the effort it takes is part of the victory. Their take on it is: Embrace it. Own it. Dive into it. Deal with it. If it were always easy, the effort wouldn’t be worth it, and you probably wouldn’t even bother trying. Overcoming the challenge is part of the draw, and part of the challenge is dealing with pain.
You’re out on a run, ride, or doing a workout outside and it’s hot out and you’re dripping buckets of sweat.
You’re in the middle of training or competing and your legs are burning from the effort and screaming for you to stop.
You’re doing intervals or high intensity training and you’re feeling the pain of the effort and just want to stop.
You are getting close to the finish line and you can feel your body starting to slow down.
Pain is both a sensory and emotional experience and some of us deal with it better than others. When things get tough – are you able to grind it out? Do you get to the end of a race, competition, or training interval and know you dove deep into the pain cave? Or do you get to the end of your race or workout and immediately feel like you could’ve pushed it more?
First things first— it’s not always mental. When you’re talking about pain, you want to rule out any physical reasons for it. That being said, the experience of pain is a complex combination of both physiological and psychological factors. Here are four mental training tips to help with the psychological factors of pushing through a tough effort:
Expect the pain
Your brain is like a magnet for your expectations. It will pick up on things in your environment that fit the story line you have already created. It will also cling to and fixate on anything that doesn’t fit into the story line as well. An example would be thinking, “it wasn’t supposed to be this hot/windy/hard/hilly, etc.”. When your expectations don’t match up with reality, and you mentally fight against what is happening, it will influence your perception of pain. Expect it to hurt and you won’t be surprised when it does.
Use your imagination
Assuming you are hydrated, fueled, and adequately conditioned and trained, here is one of my favorite techniques for when it’s hot out or when my legs are burning from the effort. In a moment of intense discomfort, take a breath and imagine you are pouring icy water down your legs. You can also imagine that you are submerging your hands into ice-cold water and/or pouring cold water down your spine. You’ll be amazed at the immediate effect this has. Keep doing it for as long as you need it.
Extend the finish line
Your brain and body will change the perception of effort you are putting out if you tell your brain you’re actually planning to be out there longer. Say you’ve got one mile left in your run or one set left in your workout— if you’re starting to fatigue you might start becoming hyper-focused on how your body feels and then your brain starts feeding into that even more. If you extend the “finish line” and pretend that you have two more miles or two more sets— your perception of the effort you are putting out will shift.
Talk yourself through it
Tools can both build things and destroy things depending on how you use them, and your brain is a very powerful tool. As an athlete, you have to help your brain distinguish between pain that’s dangerous and pain that just comes with pushing your body to the limit. Oftentimes, it’s the emotional experience of the pain that convinces you to give up. When you are hurting from the effort try talking yourself through it. “You’ve got this. Keep going. I know you can do it. One step at a time. Go go go go go go go.”
Your mental training is not going to make up for the fact that you were in pain because you haven’t trained enough, or you’re dehydrated or not properly fueled, but you can learn mental training tools to help you tolerate the physical exertion a bit more and ensure you actually gave it everything you had to give that day.