fitness · injury · training

Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance)

What makes painful workouts so much fun? Or assuming there’s some self selection at work here, we could ask the question a little bit differently: Why do athletes find painful workouts so much fun?

Now not all of the workouts I do are painful. Most days of the week I workout out twice a day and I wouldn’t be able to take that kind of intensity all the time. Nor does it make sense from a training point of view. But still the best workouts, the ones that are the most fun, are the painful ones. And as philosopher, I find this appreciation for pain more than a little puzzling.

But let me begin by describing two of the painful workouts I’ve done this week.

Here’s Monday’s Crossfit workout: The snatch ladder (be mature, no sexual jokes please, we’re all grown ups here)

The snatch ladder from the Crossfit Games looks like this

30 Snatch (M 75 / F 45 lbs)
30 Snatch (M 135 / F 75 lbs)
30 Snatch (M 165 / F 100 lbs)
Max Rep Snatch (M 210 / F 120 lbs)

“This workout begins from the standing position. The athlete will complete all reps at the first weight before advancing to the next weight. Score is total reps completed in 10min.”

We tried this event as our workout of the day on Monday. I’ve got to say it was 10 min of torture. Yet, lots of us loved it and therein lies in the puzzle.

Tuesday’s rowing workout was more painful though and more fun. Rowing workouts are notoriously tough. A friend regularly does something she calls “the erg of death.” I get that.

Though I’m new to the rowing world, cycling workouts are much the same. The best series of cycling training videos, for indoor workouts on the trainer or the rollers, is called The Sufferfest.

Gallows humour about throwing up and passing out is routine. Like the Crossfit tshirt says, “Yes, you will pass out before you die.” And we all know the sayings: Pain is weakness leaving the body. What doesn’t kill you…etc etc etc.

The rowing torture took place on the erg at the London Rowing Club. Here’s the drill: 2000 m for time, rest 3 min, 1500 m for time, rest 3 min, 1000 m for time, rest 3 min, 500 m for time. Collapse on the floor gasping a mere shadow of your former self. Crawl to car, drive home.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details but I did manage the final 500 in 1 minutes and 56 seconds. I was very happy that I finished faster than I started even after all that effort. But I had nothing left in the tank at the end. My legs were screaming for those final 200 m and I was gasping for air. It helped that I had a coach and some other rowers who’d finished ahead of me cheering me on but still that last bit of our workout really hurt.

And I loved it.

So here are some questions about pain and athletic training and performance I’ll be talking about in the coming weeks. Here I just want to raise the questions. Later I hope to say more about them. In the future I’d like to write a philosophical paper on pain in the context of sports training.

1. Are athletes masochists? Now before we all snicker, let me say I don’t mean sexual masochists necessarily. Sexual masochists take sexual pleasure from pain delivered in a sexual context. But you needn’t find sexual pleasure in pain to find pain enjoyable.

Here’s Lance Armstrong:

“Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it’s absolutely cleansing. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain… Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. ’Pleasure?’ I said. ’I don’t understand the question.’ I didn’t do it for pleasure, I did it for pain.”

And my former track session leader at the Forest City Velodrome used to run from one corner of the track to the other yelling “suffer” as we did 500 m efforts.

2. Are we right to use the language of pain and suffering here at all? While some of us relish talking this way–guilty as charged–others are put off by talk of how much the efforts hurt. They find it demoralizing. As with childbirth (another kind of pain with which I’m intimately familiar) some athletes prefer to talk about intense sensations rather than about pain.

“Wow, that was an intense workout.”

And it’s true that athletic pain from effort is different from pain from injury. It’s not like someone is chopping your arm off without anesthesia. I’ve often compared childbirth which I’ve experienced three times, all without pain relief, to the pain of athletic effort. And I do tell friends that if you’re familiar with that sort of pain, childbirth will be, to that extent, familiar.

I’m not even sure I’d erase the pain, if I could magically do that without drugs, from the experience of childbirth. It felt like an accomplishment much the same way that finishing an endurance sporting event does.

3. Cyclists sometimes say that the person who can suffer the most will win the race. The ability to suffer, to take it, is highly valued. It’s a fascinating question I think, the psychological limits of our ability withstand great suffering.

Consider the article The Transcendent Pain from Bicycling Magazine: “In which we dig deep into the history and the latest research of the revered art of suffering and discover some good news: You can always go harder. Or is that the bad news?”

4. Athletes are known to have high pain tolerances and medical researchers have sometimes wondered what makes athletes different. Is it just self selection (people who don’t like pain quit sports) or is there something more? Can the ability to tolerate pain be learned?

From the journal Pain, “Higher pain tolerance in athletes may hold clues for pain management,”

5. What tricks or techniques do athletes use to push through the pain?

“Your mindset plays a huge part in your ability to tolerate pain. If you want to be a competitive cyclist, you have to know how to go deep into the pain cave.  A cyclist’s ability to suffer often determines who steps onto the podium and who is standing off to the side. Whether you’re climbing a 10% grade, bridging a gap, or sprinting for the finish, there will be times when you need to dig deep and go harder than you ever thought possible – so how do you it? “I’ll tell you what racing’s about. It’s about suffering. It’s about pain – racing hurts.” Andrew Juskaitis.”

In the article “Suffering: Preparing to Push Yourself through a Hard Effort,” in the journal Podium details a variety of methods cyclists use to cope with pain.

I’ve tried some of them–counting to 20 before I’m allowing to downshift when climbing, for example–but others are new to me. I thought I’d try some out and report back.

6. Finally, what does it mean to talk about the ‘good pain’ of a really tough workout? I gave a talk on gender and cycling at the Trent University and some audience members were genuinely puzzled, claiming never to have experienced anything they’d call a good pain. All the athletes in the audience though knew exactly what I meant. I think for another blog post I’ll try to answer that question. Wish me luck!