We all have that friend. You know the type: the one who can push harder and longer than anyone else you know. They’re often world champions and Olympic caliber athletes. They find themselves in the most grueling of sports and are able to practically nose breath through it, showing no signs they hurt. The Chloe Dygerts, Sarah Hammers, or Pat Warners of the world. Somehow, someway, they interact with pain differently than 99.99% of the population. When the pain seeps in, they keep pushing. It’s as though they don’t even notice it. And they break record after record, after record.
So what is it about these athletes that allows them to go that much harder than the average person? Sure their VO2 max and threshold power is likely off the charts. But I reckon they also have the ability to block out pain interpretations in their brains when they want to.
When something hurts, your brain sends a signal to that part of the body as danger! Back it off or you could die. The limbic system is activated and our cave person ancestry comes into play… the fight or flight response. If we encounter pain frequently, our brains create a looped response. The experience happens, our brains assign a value to it, our body is able to react to that value and it feeds back into the experience. If you don’t like VO2 intervals because they hurt, chances are you’re going to avoid them as much as possible or they won’t go as well as they could have. But if you’re able to re-circuit your brain to embrace that “pain” and know that hurting is okay and that you’re not going to die, suddenly you’re able to stay in that zone that much longer.
Think back to the last time you did a hard interval workout. Were you able to complete it as prescribed? Or did you find that your mindset came into play and determined its success? What about the time nailed the workout.. what was your mindset then? Did it feel differently than the time before?
Still with me? So how do you trick your brain into dealing with pain and garner a different response? The first is by practicing. The more often you subject yourself to that pain, the more your brain and body adapts to that feeling. (Enter in periodization theory.) Ever had a rest week and the next week you return to training it hurts worse than the week before your rest week? Your pain receptors built a tolerance toward an effort and when you rested, your resiliency temporarily lessened. Give a week and you regain that tolerance.
Another tool to trick your brain is through disassociation. Say you’re outside doing a hard interval or climbing a hill. It’s just you, the bike and gravity. It’s hot out, you’re sweating and your feet hurt. Your brain starts to send a signal to your body that it’s in the red and in danger of over heating, and that this exertion is dangerous. If you focus on those sensations, you automatically slow down. But if you’re able to focus on something else like an upcoming tree or repeat a mantra to yourself, you’ve suddenly introduced a distraction that could keep your brain at bay as you continue to push yourself through the red zone. Additional disassociation tools include music and/or counting. Anything you use to keep yourself out of your head and delaying the messages your brain is sending your legs.
Next time you ride, try those disassociation tools and just notice. What works, what doesn’t? Do you find that you’re able to push a little longer or maybe even enter the flow state? Once you build up that muscle, try applying it to harder workouts. Even if it works for just 30 seconds, you may see some improvement. You might not see results right away, but over time, as with any consistent practice, you’ll start to notice a difference.
One thing is for sure, if I had a super hero power, it would be to not feel pain.