3 Mental Training Tips for Getting Better at Dealing with Pain
Pain. Suffering. Misery.
As an endurance athlete, you’re going to encounter pain. You’re also expected to be able to tolerate and manage that pain. Even love it. The experience of pain is a complex combination of physiological and psychological factors. It is both a sensory and an emotional experience and some of us deal with it better than others.
If you haven’t put in the hours (not trained) and you don’t feel prepared for your race (not confident), you are going to suffer. It is going to hurt no matter how mentally tough you are. That being said, your ability to tolerate the pain of exertion is as much mental as it is physical.
If you find yourself dreading the pain of race day or find that at the end of a race you had more to give, it’s time to dive into the psychology of suffering. Here are three of the most important things you can do to go deeper into the pain cave.
1. Trust it Will Pass
There was a fantastic research study done with ten former Olympic cyclists that explored the cognitive strategies they used in order to deal with the pain of exertion during training and competition1. One of the strategies used to manage the pain was to establish an end to the pain; the point at which the pain they were experiencing would stop.
Oftentimes, it’s the emotional experience of the pain that convinces you to give up. As humans, we have an innate desire to always try to gain some ground beneath us and feel like we are in control. Trying to gain control is your way of managing your feelings of discomfort, fear, and anxiety. On race day, the quickest way to eliminate those uncomfortable emotions and gain control is to stop moving.
In your mind, you need to establish an end that lets you know that you are still in control and this pain won’t last forever. Come up with a mantra that gets you through that moment of suffering and reminds you that the suffering is finite.
2. Talk to Yourself
Speaking of mantras, your thoughts direct your focus. When you focus on the pain you’re in, it makes you want to stop. When you are at the peak of suffering and it’s taking everything you have to keep moving, sometimes the most effective strategy is to engage in rhythmic cognitive behavior. This pain coping strategy has you repeating something over and over. Doing this occupies your mind constantly with information other than focusing on the pain you are feeling in your body.
An example of this coping strategy is to choose a cue word that you repeat to yourself as a mantra. It’s should be a word that you can repeat consistently with each stride, stroke, or step. Try out different ones and see which works best for you. Repeating words like, “smooth”, “calm”, or “power” can help get you through those moments when your body wants to stop.
Another rhythmic cognitive strategy is to count with your strokes/strides up to a certain number and then start again (i.e. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 , 8” and repeat). By doing this, you are giving your brain something else to do. Your brain must process information instead of tuning into and processing the feeling of pain.
3. Accept What the Day Brings
Your expectations about your race- what the day will look like, how hard you think it will be, play a part in your lived experience on that day. When you expect to be able to handle the pain that will come on race day, your experience of the pain and your perceived effort will be different than if you don’t expect to be able to handle the pain2.
Your brain is like a magnet for your expectations. It will pick up on things in your environment that fit the storyline you have already created. It will also cling to and fixate on anything that doesn’t fit into the storyline as well. An example would be thinking, “It wasn’t supposed to be this hot/windy/hard/hilly, etc." These expectations will influence your perception of pain.
The most important thing you can do is be open for whatever race day brings, know that you can handle it, and don’t fight against what is happening. The sooner you accept that the clouds have already rained, i.e. this is happening no matter how badly you want it not to be, the sooner you will recover and make the best of it.
If you can hold on and get through that moment in time when you are really feeling it, oftentimes you find that the moment passes. You settle back in. You breathe. You talk to yourself. You fuel or hydrate, something shifts and you aren’t in the same intensity of pain anymore.
The pain of race day is part of the reward. The effort it takes to get through your race is part of the victory. If it were always easy, the effort wouldn’t be worth it and you probably would even bother to race. Overcoming the challenge is part of the draw and part of the challenge is dealing with pain.
Handley, I. M, Fowler, S.L., Rasinski, H.M., Helfer, S. G., & Geers, A.L., (2013). Beliefs About Expectations Moderate the Influence of Expectations on Pain Perception. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 20, 52-58.
Kress, J.L, & Statler, T. (2007). A naturalistic investigation of former Olympic cyclists’ cognitive strategies for coping with exertion pain during performance. Journal of Sport Behavior, 30(4), 428-452.