In 1991, the saying, “pain is temporary, pride is forever,” was inked on to the back of my St. Paul’s School practice shirt. It was our code that year as we ripped strokes into Turkey Pond’s brackish water preparing for our season. That spring, I learned something that has stuck with me to this day: the best rowers are not always the most skilled or the fittest (although coaches Chip Morgan and Rich Davis insisted that we were, on both counts). Rather, they are the ones who have cultivated a relationship with pain.
Most people are programmed to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs. However, as athletes, we’re different. We cannot expect to climb the podium without first paying the pain price. For athletes, it’s not a question of if, but when the pain will creep in, invading every muscle fiber in the process.
Let me be clear about one thing: I’m not talking about “injury pain” here. If an intercostal pull is stabbing you between the ribs with every stroke, turn the boat around and head back to the dock. Certain kinds of pain can be extremely valuable in reminding us to pull back, heal, and live to fight another day. This is true in endurance sports, as well as in the gym setting.
The pain I am talking about is self-inflicted. Often, when I describe my experience at Kona Ironman, I get confused looks and questions like, “Are you nuts?” and “What’s wrong with you?” Truth is, many of us feel more alive when we push past our perceived limitations. It’s what keeps us sane and happy. Pain can run the gamut from the mild-but- unrelenting “hour of power” on the rowing machine to the sharp, prolonged agony of a all-out 5k road race. As athletes and fitness fanatics, we need to remind ourselves that keeping pain at arm’s length impedes growth and success. In other words, if you aren’t hurting by the ¾ mark in a race, you aren’t going hard enough. You aren’t invested.
Try these tricks for managing pain—once you’ve welcomed it.
Focus On the Pain: Where does it come from and where does it go? Visualize it coming into your body on the drive, feel it and thrive off of it. Then see it flushing out of your system on the recovery. Feed off of the energy you get from giving everything you have, knowing it’s making you stronger. When I’m racing and everything in me sears, I feel most alive. I take pride knowing that I’m testing my mind and body to go beyond what I thought was possible. To really thrive in this element, you must experience this pain before race day. You cannot expect yourself to thrive on a feeling, if you have never felt that feeling. True, every workout should not be overly intense, but you do need some workouts that fully prepare you for the race.
Focus On Anything Else: Yes, I just contradicted myself, but there’s a place for this strategy as well. Dedicate 20 strokes, steps, reps to someone who has supported your training efforts and goals. Distract yourself from the pain with technique. When technique falls apart, you become inefficient, and this is precisely when pain becomes amplified and comes on faster. This technique should be practiced in the gym setting as well as you cross-train and prepare yourself for the race to come.
Break it Up: Just thinking about racing for 10 hours in an Ironman can be overwhelming. But if the challenge—and the pain—is broken up into smaller benchmarks or goals, it can make the impending discomfort tolerable. By saying to yourself, “Just let me get to the next marker,” and then getting there, you will build confidence and gain power along the way. Pain is minimized by the satisfaction that comes with small accomplishments. Remember this in your training regiment as well; focus on the set you are performing, not the set to come.
Fuel Properly: This is more preventative, but extremely valuable in pain management. You can’t ignore the science here. If you don’t fuel and hydrate properly, it is very easy for the pain to hit you quicker and more intensely. Be disciplined about your nutritional needs before, during, and after intense bouts of exercise. Also, consume the foods and liquids you will use during the race, before the race. Practice with the food you plan on eating while exercising the weeks prior to the race.
Take Pride in the Pain: Remind yourself that every time you work through the pain in training, you are making yourself stronger for race day. Suffering builds tolerance. You are always stronger for your next session or race when you see who you are in the face of pain.