Book Reviews · fitness

Sam thinks about pain, endurance, and performance (Book review in progress)

I’ve been thinking a lot about pain lately as I emerge from the knee pain fog that took over lots of my life this fall/winter. At its worst I just couldn’t think about philosophy, work, relationships, or my kids while walking. That’s the usual stuff that fills my brain but my knee hurt too much to think. I used to think of my walks as productive time.

I enjoyed the freedom to think as I walked and often claimed I thought more clearly when walking. Like my standing desk, but better. Instead with my knee pain, I had to focus on breathing through the pain, paying attention to my gait to not make it worse. I’d count steps not with a tracker but in my head to help me make it to my office. The walk was 1.3 km and often I’d stop along the way and check messages, take photos of horses, and catch my breath and regroup.

See Pondering pain and its absence.

Thank you knee brace!

There is nothing the world could do to accommodate this pain. I’ve wondered about how to think about injuries and disability and my knee. See this post on getting past the usual talk of injuries and healing. It’s not that simple. It’s not just a matter of inclusion/exclusion either. See Andrea Zanin’s post on pain and the what the social model of disability leaves out.

Now I think of myself as someone who is good with pain. And I’ve been thinking about what I mean by that.

I think that of myself I suppose because other people tell me that. That’s part of the story. I gave birth to three kids without pain medication. I’m not claiming I could handle difficult births without drugs but run of the mill uncomplicated easy births didn’t seem to need drugs for me. I hear it too from physiotherapists who make your body move in painful ways as part of the injury recovery process. I do exercises even though they hurt. And once, when a dentist couldn’t get the freezing to work for a root canal, I asked him how long the painful part would take. Not long, he said. Just do it, I replied. And yes it really hurt but I lived to tell and we’re still friends.

I’m also reading a really wonderful book about endurance and I especially enjoyed the chapter on pain. I’ve liked Alex Hutchinson’s work for years. His column Sweat Science is one of my fave things to read and share on the Fit is a Feminist Issue Facebook page. I also follow his work in The Globe and Mail. It’s not particularly feminist but it is evidence based reporting on fitness. That’s rare. His book Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance is well worth reading. Chapter Five is about pain and endurance athletes.

Of course, I’m also drawn to the chapter because it’s about cycling, the sport of pain. Cyclists have lots to say about pain. Lance Armstrong, “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” Hutchinson goes for Jens Voigt, of “shut up, legs” fame. Among reasonably equally fit and talented cyclists a bike race is about the willingness to suffer. She who suffers the most wins the race. And the ability to suffer was Voigt’s claim to fame.

Hutchinson details some of Voigt’s successes including his career capping attempt at the record for The Hour. Voigt succeeded but he only held it briefly.

What’s the hour? Says Voigt, “The beauty of it lies in its simplicity. It’s one bike, one rider, one gear. There are no tactics, no teammates, no bonus seconds at the finals. The hour record is just about how much pain you can handle! It’s the hour of truth.” p. 85

What’s so tough about it? Hutchinson explains that for a trained athlete sixty minutes of all out exercise sits in the excruciating gap between lactate threshold and critical power. In other words riders need to find the highest metabolic rate that is also steady state. Done right, writes Hutchinson, the hour is the longest bout of painful high intensity exercise you can endure. p. 97

I haven’t done anything like the hour but I have done various distance time trials in a velodrome with a coach yelling “suffer” at me. If I finished and could walk away with a smile, clearly I hadn’t worked hard and suffered enough! Going fast on a track bike hurts. It’s not about bike fit or about things you can fix. It’s about working your body that hard. There’s definitely pain involved. Rowing was similar.

Hutchinson also reports on various tests of endurance athletes and pain. It’s true that athletes can take more pain than the average person. It’s not that they perceive pain differently. In the tests that Hutchinson reports on both athletes and non athletes report pain starting at about the same point. The tests involve non fun things like holding your hand in ice water or having a blood pressure cuff squeezed well past the point of comfort. But notably, for a given test, where the average person says “stop” at point n, the athlete is still going strong at 2n.

The gap between athletes and non athletes is striking. But so too is the gap between athletes in season and off season. It also makes a difference how you get in shape. Athletes who train using high intensity methods, repeated all out sprint drills for instance, develop a high tolerance for withstanding pain than no athletes who train at a moderate pace.

I’m going to his Guelph launch on Wednesday night. See BOOK LAUNCH: Endure! Award-winning journalist Alex Hutchinson launches his book, Endure! on Wed. May 30th at 7pm in the ebar. And I’m going to give him a copy of our book and hope he spreads the word.

Past posts on pain:

Greetings from the Pain Cave

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

Are athletes masochists?

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

Here’s a cycling t-shirt I love but I don’t feel the same way about knee suffering as I do about really hard ride suffering:

View this post on Instagram

New cycling t-shirt

A post shared by Samantha Brennan (@samjanebrennan) on

accessibility · disability · fitness · illness · injury

consider pain: why the social model of disability fails (reblogged)

We don’t reblog a lot around here but sometimes something just strikes me as so right and so important I want to share it. As I’ve been thinking about injury, disability, living with pain, and trying to come to terms with my left knee, I’ve been thinking about the social model of disability. Here’s Andrea Zanin on what the social model of disability leaves out.

I’m hoping to get Andrea to guest blog here about her return to yoga and biking and other things after years ago coping with pain and very serious health issues for many, many years.

But we can start with this. Thanks Andrea.

Sex Geek

pain punctuationToday I am spurred to rant about the social model of disability and why it’s inadequate.

The social model says, essentially, that disability, rather than being a characteristic of an individual, is created by society. On its surface, this is super useful. For instance: if a building has stairs, and a person cannot go up them because they use a wheelchair, then the disability is caused by the lack of a ramp, and by the lack of universally accessible design more broadly. Problems are also caused by ableist attitudes, both interpersonally and within larger power structures.

So far, I totally agree. When the built environment is designed on the assumption of a normative set of physical or mental abilities, then all who fall outside that set have trouble navigating it. Which includes almost all of us, eventually, as we age. It’s good for pretty much everyone if we shift the…

View original post 1,496 more words

athletes · training · triathalon

Greetings from inside the pain cave


Three things got me thinking about sports training and pain again.

The first was a series of ads for indoor training videos, Sufferfest. There’s something about indoor training whether it’s on your bike on a trainer or on an erg, or rowing machine, that’s particularly brutal.

And finally some female faces.

The second was a lively discussion with a friend on the age old question of whether being a masochist helps with sports performance. My answer, yes.

The third was this story,  It’s true! Triathletes are tougher than the rest of us.

Triathletes can tolerate more pain than the rest of us, a new study confirms, which helps explain why they would swim, then bike, then run, all because they want to and not because they are, perhaps, being chased by a bear.

That’s interesting on its own, but there’s more: Researchers say that understanding how athletes can withstand the pain of a grueling endurance event may eventually lead to potential treatments and therapies for people with chronic pain.

“It’s a very masochistic sport,” said Jenna Parker, who was the top female finisher in the New York City Triathlon in July. She was joking, but only kind of. “I guess to some extent, I always wondered what it is that makes people able to compete at a high level in athletics. Obviously there’s something that’s different that makes us able to push our physical boundaries in a way that other people can’t.”

Here’s my past posts on the topic:


On Training for Labour…And Failing (Guest Post)


A look at hill climbs through the eyes of a photographer. from
A look at hill climbs through the eyes of a photographer. from

Recently I wrote a post for this blog about my daily running routine, which I think of not as training but rather as a non-negotiable, necessary, therapeutic part of my life that allows me to function well. The minute I see exercise as training it becomes an added stress, which is the last thing I need.


In light of these strong anti-training convictions, it struck me as odd that toward the end of my first pregnancy, I thought that somehow I could successfully train for labour. As an athlete, this made perfect sense to me: labour is a physical activity, one improves at physical activity by training (physically and mentally), therefore, by training for labour, I would be able to improve my performance during labour.


This light bulb went off for me about five weeks before I was due. I was at the gym on the elliptical machine and the television was showing the Giro d’Italia, a three-week annual bicycle race through the Alps. As I watched these world-class bikers perform athletic feats of Herculean measure, I was struck by their focus, their stamina, and the fact that they didn’t seem to be flinching even while performing the most grueling (and no doubt, painful) of climbs. I began to draw certain parallels in my mind between what these bikers seemed to be experiencing in terms of pain and perseverance and what I thought labour might be like.


(Note: in keeping with my very hands-off approach to pregnancy and childbirth, I read virtually nothing about either so I had no expert testimonies against which to compare my own intuitions about what I thought it would be like).


What I did know was that I was in excellent physical shape for labour since throughout my pregnancy I continued my daily running and yoga routine, but with my due date quickly approaching, I realized that I had done nothing to prepare myself mentally for the pain. In order to prepare for this part, my doula recommended that I put myself in very uncomfortable positions (like sitting in a semi-squat position against a wall and holding it). But this and her other recommendations did not seem sufficiently challenging or painful to me (I like holding that position). As a marathon runner and as someone who is accustomed to pushing myself physically, I wasn’t worried about the physical pain as much as the mental side of things.


So my idea was this: for the month leading up to the birth, while at the gym doing my physical workouts, I would also begin to prepare myself mentally by watching world-class bikers pedal through grueling terrain. I thought that somehow by attuning myself to their focus, stamina, and perseverance, I could train myself to focus through pain.


Now for anyone who has experienced the pain of labour, you are probably laughing right now. And rightfully so.


But for a neophyte who had read nothing about ‘what it is like’, this reasoning made sense to me. And my dear partner, doula, and midwives were all so supportive of me in every way that when, very excitedly, I told them about my plan, they encouraged me and told me that they thought this was a fantastic idea. With all of my enthusiasm, I don’t think that any of them had the heart to tell me that training (or, “training”) for labour doesn’t quite work that way.


And so not only did I get my daily dose of Giro for three weeks (my son arrived a week early), but I also solicited videos (“bike porn” as one of my biker friends called it) of impossible climbs and unimaginable races to help build my mental stamina even more.


The one person who vociferously objected to my training regime was my osteopath. After having told him about what I had been doing and planned to continue to do he laughed to himself and responded with four simple words that flew in the face of my strategy and that also turned out, in during labour, to be the most helpful advice I received.


“Surrender to the pain,” he said.


He continued: “In the moment, that is all you can really do. If you try to fight it, you will be fighting against your body. Just surrender to the pain and let your body do the work.”


My osteopath – who specializes in pregnancy and birth issues – is a wise man, both in issues of the body and also in reading characters. He knew me well enough to know that I thrive when I am in control of physical situations and he had the foresight to warn me that this would not be the case in labour. When we spoke about labour and birth, and even leading up to these events, I did not want to believe him. I could not conceive of a physical situation that would so completely overtake me.


But during labour, I very quickly learned that he was right.


All I could do was surrender to the pain.


No amount of mental training could have prepared me for the pain I was to experience (I gave birth at a birthing centre where medical interventions and medication were not options). There was no sense in trying to “fight” or “power” through it, for my body was in control, not I.


(Here I realize that I am making a false distinction between “body” and “self” but there is a real sense in which during labour and birth, I felt a split between my “body” and my “self” in that my body was doing work that my self was in no way willing).


In the end, surrendering to the pain was what I did. It was the best advice that I received.




aging · fitness · Guest Post · health · injury · training

Stretch or bust! (Guest post)

One other important thing I have learned working with personal trainers (see my post Rediscovering my Body: Personal Training) is the importance of stretching. I used to never stretch. Unless you count stretching for 30 seconds overall proper stretching. I used to go straight from doing nothing to exercise, and from exercise to shower. Heck, I am a busy girl and who has time for stretching, right?

Sometimes I feel like a Formula 1 but this is not because I feel high performance. Rather, I feel like I need a whole pit crew to keep me going and take care of my frailty (yes, Formula 1 cars are very fragile). I have a crew of massage therapist, chiropractor, and osteopath to keep the vehicle going and fix it when it needs it. But I have been forgetting the role of the driver in taking care of her vehicle. Stretching!!!

When I was a little girl, I used to really enjoy my grandparents’ yearly visits. Every summer, they came to stay with us for two weeks. For those two weeks, every morning I would do my exercises with my grandfather. He would turn on the TV to some American channel where women wearing leotards and their best smile would make us do various stretching and other light exercises for 30 minutes. Grandpa and I would do them together. Once we were done, grandma would bring us breakfast (an orange, a toast and a cheddar cheese sun for me) and we would watch The Price is Right.

My grandfather’s morning stretching routine was not only a vacation one. He did that every morning of his life. He was right. Stretching is good for you. Getting into a relaxed state and moving every limb gently, waking them up for the day to come is the best thing one could do for oneself. If one trains or engages in more strenuous physical activity more seriously than he did, daily stretching becomes an imperative as is the pre and post workout stretching.

For years I have disregarded stretching. I am very flexible. Who needs to stretch when one can touch their knees with their nose, right? Wrong. Or so my aching body has been telling me. When I picked up running again with my personal trainers in January, my right knee started bothering me again. I mentioned that to my massage therapist (pit crew member, see above) and she offered to work on my legs rather than my back. What she uncovered was a real mess, a situation which, as she said, has been building up for a long, long time. I suspect all the bike rides I have done over the years, ranging from 30 to 120 km, without stretching either before or after, are to blame. Also to blame are all the gym workouts, elliptical, stepper and other devices used without stretching whatsoever (or just a little, once in the shower). Other culprits: the jogging sessions wrapped up with mere walking, no stretching. All of that has generated issues for me that I could easily have avoided if I had stretched properly.

I have learned many things with my personal trainers. A very important thing I have learned is to start and end every workout with stretching. Dynamic stretching to start, static stretching to end. Just get those limbs ready for the effort, you will be better at it and then relax your muscles when you are done, you will feel better after it. In short: stretch or bust!

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

It’s 2 km day!

Today I completed my second 2 km erg test as part of the Off-Water Masters Program at the London Rowing Club. Part of my goal for the Fittest at Fifty campaign was to try something new and rowing is that thing. To find out more, read Row, row, row your boat!.

Each month we’ll be doing a 2 km erg test which will both measure our progress and form the basis for future training efforts. (For example, we did a workout earlier this week at +10, where +10 is 10 seconds above your 500 m split time for the 2 km effort. I did the last 2 km with a 2:10 avg so my goal for that workout was to avg 2:20.)

This is familiar to me from the cycling world. When I was training with the Vikings Cycling Club in Canberra we did monthly field tests–two 5 km time trial efforts, with a recovery in the middle–and sent our times into our coach. Another time we did monthly 15 km time trials, different distance but same general idea. Again, that’s a sure way to track progress and to match people for team trial events. We also used those times to see if we’d adequately recovered during our monthly rest and recovery week.

One thing that’s different is that for rowing on the erg we divide into two groups so that we can cheer one another on. I like that. I always do better with people screaming at me.

I think I was pretty much guaranteed to do better this time around since I have a better idea of the technique: fast, short strokes at the start to get the flywheel spinning, then an all out effort, then before you blow up settle into a pace you can maintain for the middle. For the last 500 m you sprint again.

Here’s my times, last time and this time to compare:

Nov 2nd:

2 km time 8:45.4
avg split 2:11.4

Dec 4th:

2 km time 8:30.1
avg split 2:07.5

What will January bring?

Here’s Coach Jay on How to Pull a 2k test

He’s also got some more thoughts on a favourite theme of mine, pain and suffering. (You can read my post, Why are painful workouts so much fun?)

The 2k test became a staple in the rowing world in 1995, when the Charles River All Star Has Beens changed the format of their little event from 2500m to 2k. Everyone can blame these clowns for the invention of the dreaded erg test in 1980. They thought it would be “fun.” Thus the erg, never very popular before, became synonymous with pain.

You see, there is a big difference in discomfort between a 6000m and 2000m test. As I’ve written before, the 6k is a test of endurance and mental toughness. The 2k emphasizes endurance, power delivery, mental toughness, and pain tolerance. The 2k hurts you, if you do it right. It hurts you a lot, and being mentally prepared for that pain is far better than not knowing what you’re walking into. So, off we go.

I loved only one thing about 2ks, and that was the feeling of the first 350m. All the nervous energy would burn off, and most people get to their target split without too much trouble. (Always have a goal or target for a 2k. Always.) After that first 350 is the beginning of the “fun,” because the rower starts to hurt.

Not a lot at first, but enough to be noticeable. Lactic acid was produced in that first 200m burn, and it ends up in the muscles where it was born, so the legs start a little complaining. The best route here is to find that goal split and concentrate on “building the piece” of as many of those splits in a row as possible. If 1:40 is the goal split, make sure every stroke is there at 1:40. An early indication of a piece in trouble is the inability to hold that goal, with the splits jumping around with every stroke.

At 1500m to go, I’d like to take a little power 10. Nothing serious, just 10 strokes to push the splits down 1 or 2 and get ready for the worst 500m of my life. Because the 2k is going to fail or succeed right in that second 500m, and the mental toughness of the athlete will decide it. Right there, I would usually think, “I can’t hold this pace. I need to back off,” because here it really starts to hurt and you are not even halfway done yet!!!

Read more here.

And here’s what it really looks like! No vintage waves, long hair, or wild wind.

row2 row

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!