At Home in the Discomfort Zone

Stymied by the dark side of sport? Don't panic. Mastering fear, fatigue, and pain is easier than you think.

Apr 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

HEAD STRONG: Mental excercises are the key to rushing negativity and unlocking your athletic potential.

BIOLOGIST AND LEGENDARY ultramarathoner Bernd Heinrich is comfortable with extreme athletic adversity. "You can't experience the light until you know what the darkness is about," says the author of Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life. "You can't experience the joy and freedom of running without knowing the other side."

What lurks on the other side? Anxiety, fear, pain, and fatigue: the dark counterparts to an athlete's assets and guardian angels. Like the rest of us, Heinrich doesn't exactly enjoy these bedevilments, but he knows them intimately, given his studies of animal and human endurance at the University of California at Berkeley and his own successful pursuit of a masters ultramarathon world record. And yet Heinrich still confronts the reality that some runs are fast and strong, others strained and painful, even under seemingly identical conditions. Lucky for us, research is beginning to shed some light on that mystery. The physiology and psychology of crippling sensations like anxiety, fear, pain, and fatigue have gotten clearer over the last ten years as advances in scanning the brain's electrical activity have allowed neuropsychologists to start mapping the connection between body and mind. Sports shrinks, coaches, trainers, and professional athletes have seized upon those findings—and they've discovered what the rest of us have suspected all along: that our emotions and sensations have heft, especially when it comes to performance.

While less tangible than, say, frostbite, emotional distress sets off a chain reaction of physical consequences in the body, triggering (or restricting) hormonal secretions that drive heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. They can mobilize the body to tap its energy reserves faster, or crimp the fuel lines and cause a midrace crash. These processes interact with each other intricately, especially in the evolutionary proving ground of intense exertion. Fear can temporarily trump pain; elation can counter fatigue; exhaustion can magnify hurt. Whether you're conquering your first lead climb or training for an adventure race, understanding these interactions is as important as logging miles on the road or hours in the gym. It's a head trip you can't afford to go without.

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