I don’t think anybody lines up for a race truly expecting it not to be hard. Many athletes experience anxiety about the amount of discomfort they might feel during an event. Even with the guarantee of some low points, I’ve found that most athletes don’t take the time to equip themselves with the mental tools needed to handle the discomfort waiting for them down the trail. Here’s how you can approach your next race-prepared, and avoid psychological breakdown.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
Accept and Embrace It
Roebuck et al. performed a research study to uncover some of the contributing factors to what they identified as “supranormal pain tolerance” in ultramarathon runners. They had participants perform a cold pressor test (holding their hands in ice-cold water) and then, upon completion, issued them pain-related questionnaires. Compared to the control group, the immersion time for ultrarunners was significantly longer. Through the information gathered in the questionnaires, the researchers found that up to 40 percent of the performance disparity in the test could be explained by differences in pain-avoidance behaviors. In other words, it wasn’t that the ultrarunners felt less pain. They were just better at accepting it.
When you try to avoid or escape something, the resistance generally intensifies the experience rather than ridding you of it. Not only do you not feel any less pain or discomfort, but the fact that things aren’t improving increases anxiety about the situation you’re in. It’s in that state that athletes start to make mistakes or decide to call it quits when they physically could have made it to the finish line.
Mindfulness and acceptance techniques are a very effective way to start noticing and acknowledging any discomfort while also making peace with it. In workouts and training runs, practice noticing that it’s hard or that your legs are throbbing without putting mental energy into wishing it away. Learn to embrace the struggle as a welcomed and reliable training partner.
Don’t Give Meaning to the Pain (Unless it’s fixable)
Anytime you’re experiencing discomfort or pain in a race, the first step is to troubleshoot it, identify the source, and see if it can be remedied. For example, if your feet are hurting is it because of a blister that can be taken care of the next time you see your crew? If you’re experiencing a bonk, could you take some extra time at the next aid station to refuel with fluids and calories? If so, initiate a solution-focused plan.
Whatever you’re feeling is not good or bad, it just is.
However, sometimes that’s not the case and the struggles you’re experiencing are related to the inevitable fatigue and muscle soreness that comes with racing long distances over tough terrain. If that’s the case (and, there’s no serious medical reason why you should stop to avoid further injury) then you have no reason to let the discomfort hold any meaning or value. Whatever you’re feeling is not good or bad, it just is. Struggle and discomfort don’t mean that the race is going poorly nor does it mean you’re not strong enough to get through it. They are the side effect of trying something hard and pushing your limits. When you think about it that way, the presence of struggle is a good thing – it’s a reflection of your level of badassness!
Break Up the Effort
It’s your brain’s job to protect you and keep you alive. When you’re experiencing discomfort or pain, the intensity depends a lot on how much further your brain thinks you have to go – a concept called anticipatory regulation. When the end is really far away, your rate of perceived exertion is higher even if the workload or the actual effort is the same. Your body is trying to protect you and make sure you don’t empty your reserves. Even though it’s well-intentioned, your brain will convince you that you’ve reached your limit when, in fact, you’re quite far from it.
When it feels like you can’t go any farther: Left foot, right foot, left foot.. Breaking it down to the tiniest forward progress makes it doable, no matter how hard it is.
One of the most effective strategies to pushing on when things feel impossibly hard is to break up the effort into manageable pieces. With practice, you can get really good at tricking your brain. One person who does this better than anyone is Courtney Dauwalter. She recently posted a tip on her Instagram page saying “When it feels like you can’t go any farther: Left foot, right foot, left foot.. Breaking it down to the tiniest forward progress makes it doable, no matter how hard it is.” Tell your brain to get to the next mile marker or the next aid station. If you continue to do that, you continue to move forward, and you will get to the finish line.
Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone.
As Leadville 100 founder, Ken Chlouber, has famously said “Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone.” You can’t push yourself farther, become stronger, or achieve great things without the presence of struggle. Make discomfort your companion and treat it as the welcomed side effect of seeing what you’re made of.