athletes · Crossfit · cycling · Rowing · training

Are athletes masochists?


The image above comes from a rowing tumblr, Don’t Feed the Lightweight. It’s tagged “Me trying to describe a 2 km erg test.” It made me laugh but it illustrates nicely, I think, the relationship between athletes and pain, and raises the question, “Are athletes masochists?”

What’s a masochist? Most dictionaries define “masochist” as one who requires or associates the experience of pain with sexual pleasure. But a secondary definition drops sex out the picture and it’s the non-sexual aspect of “pain-as-pleasure” that interests us here.

Elite athletes have even been dubbed “benign masochists” because they appear to enjoy the pain of exertion, says Dominic Micklewright, a researcher and curriculum director at the Centre for Sports & Exercise Science at the University of Essex in the U.K. Mocklewright is interviewed in a Wall Street Journal article on what separates those who love exercise from those who don’t. (I think the use of the word “benign” here is just a little bit “judgey,” as the kids say, okay as my kids say, since it suggests that sexual masochism is not so harmless but that’s a topic for another time, another blog.)

In my masters rowing group, we meet over the winter at the boathouse for regular erg sessions, But we also do something called Strength and Mobility training, and of course, it’s known as meeting up for  “S & M.” Nervous giggles ensue.

How close to the truth is it? What’s going on with the sports masochist?

Here are some possibilities:

1. We could think they experience less pain than the person who hates hard exercise because it’s painful. And it’s true that athletes generally have a higher threshold for pain. Have a look at Why athletes can handle more pain, Time Magazine. “Researchers didn’t crack the code, but they suggest resistance to pain can be learned over time, and an increase in exercise intensity can lead to endorphin release.”

See the article “Higher pain tolerance in athletes may hold clues for pain management,”

2. We might also think that the experience itself is different, that it feels different, that the elite hard driving athlete experiences what we’d call pain as pleasure. But I don’t think that’s quite right. Read the descriptions below. They’re talking about pain and suffering in the normal, usual senses of the word.

3. What seems different though is how the experience is valenced. You might recognize it as pain but find value in the painful experience. Suffering is good in this context, it makes you stronger, and over time you come to have positive associations with the feeling. I’ve written before about my three experiences of undrugged childbirth. Those are experiences that I thought were meaningful and I wouldn’t want to not have experienced that pain as odd as it is to say that. Tracy puzzled about suffering in her recent post on the good that comes from a tough ride.

Me, I like tough painful workouts. See one of my earliest posts on this blog, Why are painful workouts so much fun? I knew from cycling that I’d like rowing, for example. Both have a reputation for pain. I wasn’t worried about that aspect of CrossFit. Given a choice between a long slow indoor row or a twenty minute session with lots of sprints, I’ll take the latter anyday. Long slow steady state workouts bore me to tears and boredom looms larger for me than pain. Outdoor rowing and cycling, even on long slow days I do okay. That’s because I like the outside and I like talking to friends but I couldn’t do a slow recovery ride inside on a trainer without distraction. Without music, I’d be doomed and even then I might find an excuse to cut it short.

Clearly liking pain isn’t sufficient to excel sports.

Obviously fitness and strength matter more. It’s only true that she who suffers the most wins among equally well trained athletes. Suffering by itself won’t get you across the finish line first.

But is liking pain necessary to succeeding in sports? I’m not so sure.

(For an explanation of necessary and sufficient conditions see here.)

I think tolerance for pain is one asset in sports performance but there are other psychological traits athletes need. Different people bring different strengths to training and competition and I think some characteristics matter more for some sports than others.

It’s a matter of knowing yourself and knowing what strengths you bring to a sport. An appreciation of pain is something I’ve got but there are other traits I lack, such as concentration and focus during longer efforts. Time trials over 20 km and I start to write philosophy papers in my head. During rowing I often heard, “Sam, eyes in the boat.”

I’ll close with more quotes about rowing and cycling and pain. There are lots of them out there and they’re so very good.


“The hardest thing to teach an athlete is the ability to suffer. Those who know how to suffer know how to win.” US Olympic Rower Erin Cavarro

At the end of this year’s eventful Boat Race. “It’s very common for people to collapse in rowing,” explains Moore, “because they are racing to destruction.” It’s a sport, in short, for masochists. As Emery tells me: “You’ve got to enjoy the pain.” Read Rowing: the sport of masochists, Rowing is a punishing physical and mental workout. But you’ve got to enjoy the pain

“The aim is to bury yourself completely,” said Cracknell, with the kind of honesty about the event which suggests that whatever career opens up for him after he has stopped rowing, it is unlikely to be in advertising. “I like these machine because everyone else hates them. It hurts, really it hurts, but you mustn’t let it beat you. If you get psyched out by it, you’re in massive trouble. And believe me, even at the top level, people get psyched out. It’s a tough thing. It’s about commitment, not talent.” The mass masochism of indoor rowing


“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.” Lance Armstrong

“Suffering is what professional cycling is all about, and champions suffer the longest. The ability to suffer can be heightened through training, which is why racers go out on the road for up to seven hours most days during winter and early spring.” — Samuel Abt (cycling journalist)

“Cycling is suffering.” — Fausto Coppi (5-time Giro winner, 2-time TdF winner)

More quotes on pain and cycling here.