cycling · racing

Three great articles on the psychology of pain and of pushing yourself

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pushing yourself, knowing your limits, and that moment when your body tells you that you absolutely cannot go on. You don’t choose to stop. You stop because you have to. You physically can’t do it. Or at least that’s what it feels like and it’s the way I naturally describe it.

I walked one of the hills in the Gran Fondo. I just couldn’t make it up that hill on my bike. Now maybe the Gran Fondo isn’t a great starting point for this since I was deliberately riding, not racing, it. But certainly there have been races and hard training sessions where I hit my limit.

There’s gallows humour associated with athletic suffering that cuts across so many of the sports I like. Rowing, cycling, and CrossFit workouts are all associated with jokes about throwing up and passing out. And they’re not just jokes. I’ve seen several bouts of barfing at training sessions during my time as a cyclist. Mostly during interval training at the track and interval training at the crit course, of course.

For all the talk I hear and read about people injuring themselves from overdoing it at CrossFit (see this article on CrossFit’s dirty little secret for example) I’ve never actually seen it happen. I’ve been doing CrossFit for a year and a half now and I’ve only encountered sane and sensible coaches who push people, yes, but not beyond their limits. Since I’ve only done CrossFit in Canada and New Zealand I’ve wondered if it’s a cultural American thing, this pushing yourself to the point of injury. Maybe not. All the boxes are independently operated and so I don’t don’t there’s some bad coaches or communities out there. I just haven’t met them.

What’s fascinating reading about this idea of limits and the role they play in athletic performance is the role the brain plays in it all. Tracy and I have both written about listening to our bodies but what’s tricky here is that it turns out our bodies and brains aren’t always the best judges of what we can do. It turns out that our brains send the “Stop now!” signal not our bodies.

Now that would be fine, the brain working as our internal governor, if we were all tuned the same way. But we’re not. In some people the “can’t go on” moment happens much sooner than it does for others, even with the same physical cues.

That’s why some athletes win even though the data (VO2 max, for example) suggests they shouldn’t.

Different people react different ways in different situations too. Some years ago I had my VO2 max tested (I forget the number but it was “superior” though not “elite”) and my max heart rate tested too. I wasn’t relying on calculated data. I had actual numbers.

But the funny thing was looking at data from my heart rate monitor during criterium races that I exceeded the max. There were these bright red spikes on the chart generated when I uploaded the data. On hills? I couldn’t make myself come anywhere near the max. Still can’t. And I know that’s psychological.

Knowing it’s the brain, and not your body, throwing the off switch doesn’t make it any easier to control though.

I said a similar thing about aging in my post Is aging a lifestyle choice? If the reason we slow down is psychological rather than physical, that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to keep going.

Lots to think about here. I’ve written a bit about before in Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance) And if you’re at all interested in the performance aspects of physical activity, rather than just the health benefits, it’s well worth reading the articles excerpted below in their entirety.

  1. “Winning cyclists must believe in themselves—but be wary of trusting their own brains. Research shows that the brain lies to the body and prevents it from fulfilling its potential. The brain sends us alerts to slow down or stop in the form of fatigue and pain because it thinks the body might be damaged if you exercise past certain limits. Top cyclists, however, know through practice that they can ignore the warnings and ride through the “pain barrier” to finish faster (although utterly depleted).” Read  Cycling Science: 7 Fascinating Facts About Bikes – Popular Mechanics
  2. “In the last decade or so, the field of endurance-­sports science has been turned upside down and set on fire over the question of what, exactly, causes suffering, which scientists call “fatigue.” Some scientists are even questioning such bedrock concepts as VO2 max and lactate threshold, as well as the very notion that an individual’s physical performance has absolute, physiological limits. The lactate-threshold test? Meaningless, some experts say.We’re not even sure anymore what suffering really represents, what causes it, and why some people seem to be so much better at enduring it than others. The old, purely physical view of suffering and fatigue—that your legs hurt because your legs hurt—is giving way to a much more complex model, where our performance, and our feelings of pain, and even what we think are our absolute physical limits, are all controlled by one fickle master: the brain.”  Read Transcendent pain
  3. “There’s been a revolution in running science in the last few years. For a century, researchers have focused on the role of the heart, legs, and lungs to explain the limits of human endurance, but they’ve ignored the brain. Turns out, that was a mistake. It’s not lactate levels in your blood or oxygen shortages in your muscles that force you to slow down, it’s how your brain interprets those signals. In other words, the effort of running is only as hard as your brain perceives it to be. Scientists have since demonstrated that seemingly absolute physical limits are imposed by the brain—not the body. But knowing it’s your brain that hits the brakes doesn’t help if you can’t overrule it. So a few researchers scattered around the globe have begun testing methods of harnessing the brain’s power: zapping it with electric current, modifying the activity of certain brain regions, or simply training the brain—much like runners train their bodies—to become more fatigue-resistant, so you feel less effort while running at the same pace.” Read How to build mental muscle

6 thoughts on “Three great articles on the psychology of pain and of pushing yourself

  1. Great post! There’s a super chapter on suffering and limits on the book Iron War (about the Ironman rivalry between Mark Allen and Dave Scott). Really interesting research about just what you said–that the mind tells us to bail before the body really needs to. Good food for thought. I know I can push myself more than my mind wants to. Even today I wouldn’t have gone to the gym or worked as hard as I did when i got there if I hadn’t had a commitment to meet Tara. I was tired and slept badly last night (too much chocolate cake and True Blood, which is why those are both ‘occasional a’ not every day things!). Anyway, body over rode the mind and I had a great workout.

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  2. Interesting post. Does the brain play the same role in strength training as it does in endurance sports? I never go to my absolute limit in strength training, always leaving it possible to do one more rep maybe. I’ve heard this reduces the chance of injury and also quite strangely, is better from a performance standpoint than going to your limit every time. I have no idea if this is true – so much controversey on everything, you find out in time! I’ve also heard or read – can’t remember, just for instance, that the brain lies to beginners in weight training but that it stops doing so as much the more you weight train, thus I suppose, allowing you to trust your brain more so. I know it’s true that we can often push through our pain in endurance sports, but something tells me that it might be dangerous to try to do so in the exact same way with strength training.

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