Understanding and Dealing with Pain and Suffering
Guy Thibault, Ph.D., scientific advisor to the Canadian Cycling Association; associate professor, Department of kinesiology, Université de Montréal
Laurent Vicente, Ph.D. student, Université Laval, Québec
You’ll have noticed, of course, that pain and its alter ego, suffering, are at the very heart of what cyclists talk about. Riders who can really grasp the true meaning of these two concepts, and who apply certain strategies to better cope with the pain associated with intense effort do better at those times when it really counts.
My pain is bigger than yours
What is the most respected element, even above talent, in the world of cycling? The will- ingness to tolerate the level of pain associated with an intense, prolonged effort, in short, the ability to suffer. In the pack, everyone wants to be known as the one who, more than any other knows how to go beyond his limits. This is why, when recounting their exploits, cyclists love to emphasise the pain and suffering that accompanied their effort. And cycling lovers find that the great road riders become even more handsome when their faces are distorted with agony. The great history of cycling is full of these famous moments of devastating weakness when the giants suddenly become mere mortals.
Three types of pain
On the bike cyclists are likely to experience pain from accidents (e.g. contusions) and from
overuse (e.g. tendonitis). Of course, mountain bike riders are quite capable of having a good laugh
while they tell you about their fractures, scars and other contusions; but in the world of cycling,
it’s generally a third type of pain that’s valued: namely, that which is associated with intense and
prolonged effort. One thing’s certain: it’s clearly not a good idea to exacerbate an overuse injury by continuing to ride.
Physical pain is a localized and unpleasant sensation, transmitted by sensitive nerves and interpreted globally by the brain as a threatening disturbance. Pain therefore plays an important role in preserving bodily integrity: it encourages us to alter our be- haviour so as to reduce the disruption of the organism to some extent. Put simply, pain invites the cyclist to take care of him/herself. This is an ‘invitation’ that, as competitors, we reject, because the spirit of competition prefers ‘work like a dog’ rather than ‘take care of yourself’.
Learn to take punishment in order to excel
The capacity to give your maximum is an asset in several sports. We often sing the praises of the marathon runner, and with good reason. But, in general, long-distance runners avoid exceptionally intense bursts, knowing very well that they provoke a level of fatigue which will force them to slow down for the rest of the event. On the bike, by contrast, when there’s an attack on a particularly difficult climb, the cyclist has no choice: he must immediately raise his effort–and so inflict pain on himself–otherwise he’ll be shelled out of the bunch. If this happens, a poor performance is unavoidable–no doubt whatsoever. In fact, all cyclists, sooner or
later, take a beating not only from the pain associated with effort of extreme duration, but also that associated with effort of extreme intensity.
Understanding pain in order to deal with it
Your capacity for sustaining a higher level of pain can therefore make the difference. According to some studies, the better we understand the mechanism of pain, the more able are we to resist it. In fact, your brain constantly interprets pain so as to adjust your desire to push yourself harder or your desire to rein yourself in. It does that by considering elements that are more or less sub- jective. These are, mainly:
• The psychological factor: ‘What pleasure (e.g. what personal prestige) can I gain from hurting myself even more?’
• Of your general strategy: ‘If I drive myself even more, shall I be in shape to keep going until the end without flagging?’ (Here we have a form of teleoanticipation; more on that subject in another paper).
And suffering–what exactly is it?
In talking, athletes use the terms pain and suffering as if they meant pretty much the same thing. In fact, the term ‘suffer’ refers to ideas of enduring, of putting up with something unpleasant, for example, a physical pain, like burning thigh muscles. Thus the suf- fering which the cyclist inhabits is more a process than a condition. We say that pain asks a question, while suffering attempts a reply to it. Suffering is at the same time the cause and the consequence of the propensity of the athlete to confront pain. While suffering aids or permits us to hurt ourselves, it’s the pain itself that hurts us.
Strategies for confronting pain
When faced with pain allied to effort, high performance athletes use special strategies. Some opt for an associative strategy: they concentrate on the pain to better manage the intensity of their effort. But the majority employ a dissociative strategy: they try to forget the pain by concentrating on a particular element, for example their respiratory rhythm, or perhaps a motivating phrase, or a hypnotic mantra that they continually repeat to themselves. The next time you find yourself in the red, you might like to try the fol- lowing mixed strategy: count your respirations backwards, starting from 20 down to one, then from 19, then from 18, all the time telling yourself that you’ll have the right to take it easy after breath number 1. At the end of each backwards count, switch briefly to associative mode in order to assure yourself that you haven’t passed a threshold of effort intensity that could leave you short of energy from here on. If you have to make another important effort having gone through this series of countdown respirations, start the formula over again from the beginning.
All the same, there are limits
If the giants of the road go faster, it’s not necessarily because they know how to drive themselves harder. It’s more likely that their physical qualities are more developed. Thus, even if they could motivate themselves to the uttermost, and even if they de- veloped a very great capacity to support the pain associated with intense effort, those people with a weak or average physique would still not be able to beat the great champions. On the other hand, the ability to hurt yourself when it counts can certainly make the dif- ference between cyclists with equal physical qualities. One thing’s certain: the passion that the cyclist feels for his sport is the key element that motivates him to transport himself into zones of intensity and pain that plunge him into a positive intoxication of suf- fering.
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