17 August 2019

When the going gets tough – breaking through the pain barrier

March 18, 2010

The human body is designed not to get hurt. Our fight or flight mentality protects us from immediate danger and pain receptors all over our bodies provide an inbuilt system to stop ourselves pushing too far. In fact, nature says when you are in a position where everything just hurts too much; be it a time trial, road race, rowing regatta or Ironman; you should just stop.

Team-HTC-Columbia-1And many people do. But not elite athletes. They know that pushing yourself past the pain barrier is exactly what you need to do to be successful, and win.

Former Duathlete Annie Emmerson says, “There’s no two ways about it, training can be tough, and painful at times. The phrase ‘no pain no gain’ couldn’t be truer; an athlete who wants to win simply has to go to beyond her comfort zones, if she’s to get the most out of her body.”

But how do these athletes override their natural resistance to pain? What mechanisms do they have to switch off these pain receptors and push themselves through that barrier to win a race? And what strategies can we learn from them to improve our own ability in our chosen sport?


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Coach and Sports Scientist Terry Collins says you can push yourself further than you would think. “While your body is consciously telling you to stop, unconsciously athletes know their bodies are designed to survive in extreme situations. Athletes who have trained through pain know they can override potential fatigue or injury and go that extra mile.”

Interviews with a group of elite cyclists and triathletes highlight that the ability to bypass the barrier seems to come from a mix of personality traits and some specific coping techniques. But all these athletes found it difficult to put it into words why they didn’t give up. Many simply couldn’t contemplate that someone else would.

The Swedish National Time Trial Champion Emilia Fahlin says “it is in your personality. You need to have a personality which is stubborn, competitive, consistent and means you won’t give up.”

Kim Anderson, the 42 year old pro cyclist with Team Columbia agrees the key personality trait is competitiveness. “You just keep going. I have a competitive nature. I always want to win. I never think I should stop.”

On top of this competitiveness, all elite athletes need to employ coping strategies for when the going gets really tough. And all of these can be used by amateur athletes to improve our own racing.


Breakdown the elements of the sport

One way to bypass and push through pain can be to internalize and focus on one element of your sport for a few minutes at a time. Doing this can help you ignore the pain and keep your goals on track. Collins uses a cyclist as an example. “The athlete will start with heart rate to maintain pace, then change to wattage, then bike position, breathing patterns and finally cadence. This focus means they can keep going for longer, and do better.”

Breakdown the distance

Endurance athletes often have to complete daunting distances. If you are going through a bad period and know you still have many hours to go you may get despondent.

Rachel Joyce, 6th at Hawaii Ironman last year, says she breaks the race into chunks. “When things get tough I break the race down into bite size pieces so if I’m at mile 10 of the marathon I don’t even think about how I’m going to get to mile 26. Instead I just think about the next 10 minutes, or what I’m going to eat/drink at the next aid station.”

Breakdown the environment

Along the same theme some athletes suggest making the most of your environment and use that to keep you entertained. American cyclist Evelyn Stevens says “I am staying in Northern California so I count the number of Toyota Prius on the road. Recently I managed to count 85 and that was just a four hour ride!”

Reassure yourself

Another strategy can be to look back over the training you have completed to give yourself reassurance. Joyce says “I think back to key sessions I’ve done in my training where things have felt similarly tough and remember how I got through those times.”

Use visualisation

The athletes also suggest visualising the finish line, or how you will feel if you win. Stevens follows this tactic closely.

“Your body knows you’ve trained and you want to win. You have to remember the hours of training don’t mean anything if you don’t use it in a race. Remember how good it is to finish and know that when you finish there will be less pain.”

Fahlin agrees; “You have to remember the goals you have set yourself. If you know the feeling of winning then you know what you are working for.”

Harness the pain

Some athletes suggest accepting the pain, but feeding off it. Emmerson says, “My way of dealing with this pain was ‘reverse psychology’. If I was hurting I would challenge myself to go harder and ignore the pain to discover a new level of pain or discomfort.

“There will come a time when you physically can’t push yourself any harder, but you’ll be amazed just how much further you can push yourself when you thought you didn’t have anymore to give!”

And the German national road racing champion Ina Teutenburg admits that cyclists like pain. “We have an addiction to pain. It gives you a high. You just keep pushing. Cyclists have addictive personalities.”

Work for others

These athletes all suggest that, despite the competitive nature and self-focus needed, if you work for a team rather than yourself then you find extra reserves. Teutenburg sums this up. “In a break I will really hurt myself. It is easier to do this if you are working for someone else. Then your pain becomes part of their victory.”

Finally, all the athletes interviewed also suggest that when you hurt, your rivals hurt too. Something to remember – if you’re not too distracted counting the Prius’!

Josephine Perry, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine

Photo credits of Team HTC-Columbia: TDWSport.com

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