“The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most” – Eddy Merckx
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” – Haruki Murakami
These two quotes, apparently contradictory, are in fact two sides of the same coin. Murakami (a prolific Japanese author famous for running at least 6 miles every day) goes on to say: “The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not he can stand anymore is up to the runner.”
In the context of endurance sport, suffering is indeed a choice, not for the obvious reason that you can always choose to stop, but because pain and suffering are subjective, situation-dependent experiences.
In other words, pain has a volume control, and you can learn to dial it down.
“No pain no gain” is probably the oldest cliché in sport, repeated like a mantra by coaches the world over. Like many clichés it has some elements of truth while being a gross simplification.
It is not supposed to hurt all the time: eighty to ninety percent of endurance training should be at aerobic pace, in the active recovery or endurance zones. There shouldn’t be any pain there.
Where the pain, or maximal effort must appear, however, is in the ten to twenty percent of training that should be genuinely hard, and of course in competition. If performance is important to you, this is where you need to push your body to its limits, and pretty obviously, it is going to hurt.
Does this mean faster riders have higher pain thresholds than the rest of us wimps?
Probably, yes. As Alex Hutchinson writes in his 2018 book Endure – Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, à propos Jens Voigt’s successful attempt at the Hour, “it does appear that top athletes really push themselves to a darker place, and stay there longer, than most people are willing to tolerate.”
Hutchinson also quotes research showing that top athletes feel pain at the same intensity as anyone else, but they are willing to tolerate it for much longer. Digging a little deeper, another set of researchers found that the more high-intensity training, the higher the pain tolerance, leading Hutchinson to conclude that, “pain tolerance is both a trainable trait and a limiting factor in endurance”.
So the question becomes:
If training to ride faster means I’m going to suffer more, how can I train as effectively as possible and still enjoy the experience?
Before answering this question, we need a bit of context. Not all pain is good and not all training sessions are good. So first you need to be sure your training session design is good, and then make sure that any pain you suffer during the session is not “bad” pain in your joints or in parts of your body that should be affected, but only “good” pain in your leg muscles (some would say that as a signal of self-imposed effort this sensation shouldn’t even be called pain, but there’s no obvious alternative word for it). If you start getting sharp pains in your knee, or in your lower back, for example, STOP.
Equally, please bear in mind that recovery is absolutely essential to the adaptation process. A little high-intensity training goes a long way.
With that in mind, let’s focus on the sessions that are supposed to hurt. In training, these are the sessions you dread: the interminable threshold session, the lung-searing VO2max intervals and the leg-breaking long sprints. In competition, depending on your event, these might be the draining effort made to stay with the leaders over the first climb; the intense struggle to bridge a gap; or the world-of-pain effort to reach the summit finish.
With practice, you can learn to push through effort or pain barriers that would normally bring you to a stop. Here are ten different mental strategies that can help:
1. Start with a clear objective
It doesn’t matter what the objective is, so long as it is YOURS, it makes sense to you and it will help you keep going when things get really tough. For some people it might be to finish in a specific time or above a specific position in the classification, for others it might be to beat a rival, for others simply to finish. In training, it might be to do one more interval than last time, at the same intensity.
It’s also worth thinking about a couple of “how-to” objectives, like how hard to make the climbs, how much to eat and drink, where to stop, etc.
2. Embrace and welcome the burn
One set of strategies involves embracing the sensation of effort as something good, to be welcomed. You might call this the Eddy Merckx strategy. It starts by not even thinking of it as pain. People differ in their ability to enjoy a certain amount of discomfort, but there’s no doubt that many cyclists enjoy the burn produced by a prolonged hard effort.
Think of this sensation as positive, smile at it, welcome and enjoy the feeling, revel in it! Feel the warm burn spreading through your muscles, feel the power in your legs and your mastery of the effort. Feel the bike driving forward, the cranks spinning smoothly, the tarmac passing below your wheels, the wind in your face. Congratulate yourself on how well you are doing and visualise how much you will improve your performance once rested from the current effort.
The more you can experience the feeling as positive, the longer you will be able to keep going.
This approach has its limits, however, and as the fatigue and discomfort builds you will eventually reach a point at which it is no longer pleasant or welcome. When it becomes insistent and screams at you to stop, you need a different strategy.
3. Coach yourself
Talk to yourself like a coach, with simple reminders of good technique. “Relax the shoulders”. “Look far ahead”. “Smooooooth power”. “Heels down”.
4. Motivate yourself
Remind yourself of why you are here, and of all the efforts you have made so far. You are not going to give up now. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. “This is what you’ve been training for”. “Keep pushing, keep pushing“. “I’m ready for this”. “I’m gonna do it”.
5. Let your mind go blank
An option that works for many is to empty your mind and think of nothing at all. This might be the Haruki Murakami strategy. It certainly borrows from mindfulness, which has its origins in Asian religions. Think of nothing; focus on your breathing, on the sensation of the air coming through your nose and mouth and into your lungs. Imagine the oxygen being absorbed into your blood and transported to your muscles.
Other thoughts will naturally come, unbidden. Try to see them like clouds drifting across the sky or leaves floating on a stream. Let them go and gently return your focus to your breathing.
6. Distract yourself
If mindfulness dosn’t work for you, you might try distraction. Focus on something else so intensely that you drown out the pain. This might be the power output or the speed you read on your bike computer, it might be the pedal strokes (focus on making them as perfect as possible and you’ll produce more power for less effort), it might be the passage of milestones, telegraph poles or corners, it might be music (not on the road!) or it might be something internal such as a rhythmic chant, a mantra or a song. Whatever it is, the key is to focus your attention exclusively on the distraction so that you shut out the pain.
7. Focus on the rider in front
If you are riding close to, or above your threshold, letting your mind go blank or distracting yourself will likely result in you dropping off the pace. Better to focus very intently on the rider in front – his rear-wheel hub, his feet or his seat-post. Let this fill your mind and crowd everything else out as you keep a constant distance from the rider. This is a favourite technique of Olivier Dulaurent, Alpins Cols coach and 7 times top-20 finisher at the Marmotte. Do this with a poker face, or better still force yourself to smile to show that you’re hardly making any effort. This will not only spook other riders but also have a positive effect on your own sensations, releasing endorphins to numb the pain.
8. I’m going to beat that person
Focus on another rider up the road in front of you. Imagine they are attached to you by a rope and you are reeling them in, using your cranks like a winch. Keep it steady, slowly but surely, bring them back little by little. Be sure to keep your breathing under control and not to push yourself into the red (unless the finish line is in sight!)
If you are riding alone, visualise an imaginary rider just in front of you, riding very slightly faster, whom you must stay with at all costs.
9. It’s nearly over
Another option is to tell yourself that you’ve almost finished. I find this especially helpful when doing intervals on the turbo. I tell myself that there is “just one more minute”. Thinking the pain is almost over seems to convince my subconscious system to let me ride a little harder, like a middle distance runner in the final lap. And every now and again, when I do reach the point at which I planned to stop, I force myself to do another 30 seconds!
It is possible to repeat this trick once or twice, but in my experience it works best when I genuinely doubt my ability to go beyond the next minute, and it only works on an occasional basis (otherwise my subconscious knows all too well what is coming).
10. Cheering crowds
Take advantage of any encouragement you can get, don’t be shy! In an event this can obviously come from spectators, but in training you may have to rely on a training partner or your coach, or use your imagination.
Visualising cheering crowds shouting your name and banging the barricades as you ride towards the finish can create an endorphin rush that helps you squeeze out the last, unimaginable 30 seconds or so of effort.
Taken together, these mental strategies can have a significant impact on your performance. Training is as much about the mind as it is about the body: it is important to integrate mental strategies into your training and practice until they become second nature. Combined with adequate rest and recovery to allow the physiological adaptations to take place in your body, you will become a stronger rider.
Remember: pain has a volume control, and you can learn to dial it down.
You’ll also have coffee-stop bragging rights: “I can suffer more than you!”
Hutchinson, Alex (2018). Endure – Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, Harper Collins.
Meijen, Carla (editor) (2019). Endurance Performance in Sport, Psychological Theory and Interventions, Routledge.