The Agony of Success


Apr 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

"PAIN SIGNALS DON'T have a straight shot to the brain," says Wendy Sternberg, a biological psychologist at Haverford College who studies how competition affects the perception of pain. "That allows for modifications. The brain determines how much influence pain-transmission neurons have."

Here's how it works: Tiny monitors called nociceptors that share space with sensory neurons detect damage—like where your wrinkled sock is flaying the ball of your foot—and sound the alarm, sending signals to the dorsal horn of the spinal column. That structure, sort of an Internet router of hurt, sends more messages to a variety of sites in the brain, which interpret the source and extent of the pain, and transmit the appropriate sensations. The essential point here is that the spinal center's communication with the brain is two-way. And in special circumstances—the heat of competition or moments of intense danger—the brain can dull the signals it sends.
Pain experts call this stress-induced analgesia—an evolutionary perk. "If you need to escape a lion, it lets you sprint on a broken leg," says Sternberg. This scenario has little bearing for athletes, but recent probes into the phenomenon do. The lactic acid of a halfhearted practice sprint, Sternberg believes, burns hotter than the pain of more meaningful competition. Sternberg tested this by zapping athletes' fingertips with a heat-emitting light and by dunking their arms in ice water; subjects withstood pain longer right after competition, compared with two days before and two days after.

The trick is to acknowledge and accept the pain (or "associate" with it, in the sports-psych jargon) rather than trying to distract yourself from it by silently reciting poetry or multiplication tables; befriending the torment helps the brain cool the pain circuitry. Rather than anxiously focusing on the blast furnace melting your quadriceps, imagine the pain as something positive, an inevitable but transient part of pursuing athletic passion (see "Reframing the Hurt," below). "I think of feeling bad as money in the bank," says Bernd Heinrich. "It stokes up my fire to run. When I finally feel good, I revel in it."

  • REFRAME THE HURT. View pain as a necessary part of athletic success and pleasure as an essential part of managing pain. John Eliot, director of performance enhancement at Rice University, suggests developing almost talismanic images of what you love about your sport—topping out on your climb, crossing the finish line, a big, wet congratulations kiss from your crush—and summon them when you're hurting.

  • BELLY BREATHE. Fast, shallow breaths can increase tension and pain. Deep belly breathing can help kill side-stitch cramps, and its ability to release tension and flood the tissues with oxygen can soothe other hurts as well. Try this: Breathe as deeply as practical, pushing your diaphragm out as you inhale, sucking in your gut when you exhale.

  • GRIT YOUR TEETH AND GRIN. Smiles, and especially laughter, even when not entirely sincere, have been shown to trigger the brain's "happiness centers" and reduce cortisol levels. This can boost your mood and dull pain. Or at least it'll psych out rivals.

  • EXTEND YOUR LACTATE THRESHOLD . The leg burn is as much a part of running a marathon as the logo-bedecked finisher's T-shirt. But it can be delayed (the burn, not, alas, the shirt) with interval training; in your workout, add three to seven bursts of effort that push you to your lactate threshold (80 to 90 percent of maximum heart rate).

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