You Can Dig Deeper. Bring On the Pain

The brain’s tolerance for pain may be the deciding factor in how far we can push ourselves

Learn to deal with pain while training, and you'll do better in competition. (Geber86/iStock)

If you’ve ever experienced that sensation of powering up the last hill of a long run— when your legs feel like cement and your lungs are heaving, you’ve probably wondered how much your body can actually take. Could you dig deeper, even when your legs are telling you to stop?

Your own stopping point may have as much to do with your tolerance for suffering as physiological strength. We are accustomed to thinking that our limits are physical and that the way to get stronger is by pushing harder and going longer. But the brain’s tolerance for pain may play a significant role in how far one can push into that dark place.

Lex Mauger is a professor of exercise science at the University of Kent. He believes that pain tolerance may be the key to performance. “My latest research suggests that a participant’s tolerance of exercise-induced pain can be used to predict their endurance performance,” Mauger says.

But pain tolerance isn’t necessarily just something you’re born with. Mauger believes that, like aerobic capacity or lactate threshold, tolerance is malleable. “For training, I think feeling pain is part-and-parcel of this, and learning to tolerate pain in training means you will likely deal with it better when it counts during competition.” Mauger is even looking into whether additional performance gains can be made by adding additional levels of pain training, a sort of HIIT for suffering.

Exercise related discomfort is part of endurance sports. But it’s the management of that discomfort that separates individuals. A 2007 survey of Olympic cyclists, presented in the Journal of Sport Behavior, concluded that, “there is one element that all athletes who wish to excel must confront...exertion pain.” In the study, those surveyed didn’t speak of not suffering but rather of managing it, using mental strategies to cope with the suffering. 

How? They talked themselves out of it. 

To lessen the agony of exertion, the techniques the cyclists used included goal setting, imagery, and positive self-talk.  Feeling prepared for a race or completion also seemed to minimize the feeling of pain. 

While pain may not be a one-way ticket to athletic greatness, tolerance for physical discomfort may allow endurance athletes to fully tap their potential. 

Everybody hurts, so increasing your threshold may not move you from back of the pack to podium – that may have to do more with training and genetics – but it might move you up a few places.  

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