Burning lungs, lactate-filled legs, Z5 heart rate, the ‘heaves’: discomfort is part of the game. Most of us have experienced one or more of these symptoms at one point or another – sometimes all too often – during both training and racing. In training, physical discomfort is a necessary ingredient for physical adaptation – the reason why we train in the first place. In racing, pushing that physical and mental envelope is a mandatory ingredient for top performance: regardless of whether you’re doing it, your competition is.
There are three primary reasons that stop us from pushing harder. They are both mental and physical.
- Expectation of pain. Past experiences that were unpleasant often cloud our minds. If we expect an experience to be painful, it most likely will be. Often that expectation creates a mental barrier to higher performance.
- Fear of failure. Sometimes we hold back because we truly do not know our limits and are afraid to test them. Bonking or blowing up is a very real possibility and it’s no fun. The fear of hitting the dreaded wall holds many athletes back.
- Physical or mental exhaustion. Sometimes, we truly have nothing else to give. Our physical or mental stamina is tapped. There isn’t much to be done here, but this is the least common of the above scenarios in amateur athletes.
Now that we’ve established the reason for the existence of our collective masochism, here are some techniques that may help. Try them all. Some will work better than others
1. Know why you are here
Every training session or race should have a goal. There are end goals – for instance: ‘I will qualify for Boston in this marathon’ or ‘I will finish upright’. They can be process – in-between – goals: ‘I will walk every aid station’ or ‘I will stick with the pacer’. Both types are necessary as both will motivate you past your discomfort. You’re that much more likely to push through pain if there is a goal at stake.
2: Let’s make a deal
When the going get hard, make a deal with your body that you’re only going as far as the next aid station, lamp post, or side street. Once you reach your target, you’ll realize that you still have a little more to give. Pick your next target. Repeat.
3. I said relax!!
The mind has a terrifically powerful impact on the body. You can convince your muscles to relax – trust me. This one takes practice, so make sure you do it training before the races. Here are some tips
a) Periodically check in on your form and breathing. Focusing on breathing can be a very relaxing exercise – right yogis?
b) Use repetitive mantras to trigger relaxation. For example: ‘relax face, relax shoulders, straighten up, relax hands.’ Repeat.
c) Smile! The body can affect the mind just as much as the mind affects the body. A simple smile – something that’s associated with positive emotions – can trigger a relaxation response. Try it.
4. Focus on form
This trick is great for two reasons: it works to get your mind off the pain AND it makes you swim, bike, run, or crawl under electrified barbed wire better. When you feel that tingle of hydrogen ions in the legs or the burning in the lungs, shift your focus to one technical element of the current sport. Pick one only and pick one that you’ve been working on improving in training. Here are just a few examples:
a) Swim: high elbow catch, pushing the water back (not down), complete stroke finish, strong kick, etc., etc.
b) Bike: high cadence, relaxed hands
c) Run: high knees, strong glute contraction, proud chest, relaxed shoulders, arms, and hands, diaphragmatic breathing
5. Focus on those process goals
Process goals are immediate racing objectives – as opposed to results goals like ‘place in my AG’ or ‘finish the swim in under fifteen minutes’. Process goals should be instantly – or near instantly – achievable. Good examples for each sport are:
a) Swim: I will site every six strokes
b) Bike: I will keep my power in Z2
c) Run: I will keep my cadence above 85
6. ‘I am the greatest’ and other mantras
Positive, repetitive self-talk is very beneficial in a race. Not only is this inner monologue – if you can call a single sentence a monologue – distracting from the discomfort of the push, it also helps tune your mind into a more positive state of being. This technique is used by many in both the amateur and professional athletics to great effect. I use it myself. Here are some rules:
a) Keep it short. The mantra or phrase should short enough to be mentally uttered in one or two breaths. Mine are usually super short: e.g. “I am strong” or “I am abundant’.
b) Keep it positive. Rather than “I will NOT fade at the finish’ try ‘ I WILL finish strong’/
c) Pick a phrase that resonates with why you’re in the sport in the first place. Mantras are more effective when they’re meaningful.
d) Repeat, repeat, repeat.
e) Don’t wait until you hurt to start. Establish the positive connotations of your mantra when you’re still feeling super. That way you’ll be able to carry that positive feeling through to a time when you are feeling less than super.
7. Embrace the pain
Pain is your friend. Embrace it, invite it in, look forward to it, own it, love it! Practice this type of thinking and it’ll turn a negative into a positive. Remember that your perception of discomfort directly affects your tolerance of it: mind over matter and all that. Here are some tips.
a) Positive self talk (again):
-‘I love this! I am lucky to push my body to its limits.’
-‘I love climbing’
-‘I love the heat’
b) On occasion, push past the end of an interval during training to practice ‘pain love’
c) Misery loves company. Know that everyone around you is suffering in that heat or on that big climb. Your mission is to be the only one who’s enjoying it!
8. The 1% rule
When you’re having a hard time – especially in your ‘A’ race – ask yourself this: ‘Can I go 1% harder?’ 1% isn’t much. 1% isn’t daunting. More often than not, the answer will be ‘yes’. If however, the answer is an honest ‘no’, then congratulate yourself. You’re all in now. You’ve done your best.