The Art of Suffering

What is your pain threshold?  It may be more important that your lactate threshold when it comes to reaching your swim/bike/run limits.  I read a very thought-provoking article in the August, 2012 issue of Bicycling magazine.  It made me realize that there may be other attributes besides genetics that allow elite triathletes like Alistair Brownlee to run a sub30 min 10K at the end of a ITU triathlon race.

I didn’t envision the potential mental and physical pain when contemplating my goals for the year.  My race schedule includes lots of shorter course races this year.  As a result, I’m pushing very close to max in each race and going into the hurt locker frequently.  Or I am?  If I’m honest with myself, I’m really staying just below the surface.  Why?  One answer is that it hurts like $#@& to push that hard.  When I’ve reviewed race files, I find that despite my level of  “pain”, I still have a little reserve not tapped.

The author of the article, Bill Gifford, opines, “The hard truth of the sport is that you can’t achieve much, or get any better, without going through some pain–the ragged breathing, the burning legs, the oh-my-God-where-is-the-top desperation of a rider struggling on a long climb.”  What gives some athletes this will-power or this ability to suffer more than others? I think it correlates to life in general.  Sadly, Life is rough sometimes.  How do we handle this?  Do we face it head-on or fade when the going gets rough?

Short course triathlon is a practice in suffering.  I’m trying to be competitive even if it’s just in my age-group.  Maybe, I forgot the intensity of this after doing all long workouts last year for IM Lousville.  That’s a different type of pain…more a deep in muscle, bone fatigue/soreness that depresses you the core.  Whoa, that brought back some painful but great memories.  My point is that suffering and ultimately succeeding in our goals is cathartic.  We’re not just suffering the pain but enduring it.

Tim Noakes, a South African Professor of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, has studied endurance athletes and their physiology.  He proposed that the brain is the final limiter when it comes to suffering.  The brain perhaps has a “governor” that protects us from ourselves.  Especially in hot weather, we may only use a fraction of our muscle strength at peak to prevent injury.  This central governor position is somewhat at odds with the V02Max plateau theory.  Essentially, at Vo2Max one’s oxygen consumption plateaus despite increased exercise.  Physiology switches from aerobic to anaerobic and the athlete will predictably be unable to continue exercising soon after.  Professor Noakes suggests this limit is central, not peripheral.  All is not lost.  We have all done V02max intervals on the bike and run to push this top end higher.  This training, in my opinion, is both an advantage to the oxygen consumption rate of your muscles and an adaptive stress to the brain.

I swam hard for 400m, exit the water with a 20sec PR, run into transiton, and jumped on the bike.  I pushed the power over the course slowly getting stronger and fly into T2.  Out onto the 5K run course.  First mile goes by quickly, decent time but slightly slower than hoped.  I realize I have 2 more miles to run.  Legs are burning, lungs burning…doubt is creeping in.  I see other people running and bear down again to finish the second mile.  A little faster, but damn I’m hurting.  My face is burning, I want to stop at the aid station to get the HR down.  I feel it’s maxing.  Then something happens.  Maybe it’s the mantra, “Never quit”. Maybe it’s pride in a new PR.  Maybe you’re bolstered by the encouragement of friends.  But, though, you’re suffering, you’re not stopping.  You finish and recover quickly.  Ok, congratulations.  Could you have gone harder?  Can you tell your brain that the pain is minimal in that last 20mins?  If you can, you are unique in your ability to suffer.

Maybe you can find yourself in a shield of deep focus where the pain seems to subside and the only goal is to finish the task.  Can’t say that’s happened very often, but I have brief periods of what I can only term… joy.  Maybe, I’m not to far from that proverbial peak.

Thanks for reading,




Filed under Triathlon

2 responses to “The Art of Suffering

  1. Dave Truitt

    I’m about half way through “Challenging Beliefs” by Tim Noakes. Got it after reading Scott Jurek’s book “Eat and Run.” Both talk about facing the pain, then moving forward. Finding those limits – that’s where it’s at. Now if my shins and achilles would come with me . . . . . .

    Good read as always, Doc. Good luck on Saturday!

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