Learning To Embrace The Pain

The win was within my grasp, but I knew if I backed off even a smidge, he’d catch me. Every time I turned around, Tom Nielsen was right there, only a few minutes back. All I had to do was to keep on running to maintain my lead, but my head hurt, my legs ached, and it took all I had to muster the strength to run up even the slightest slope. We were running the now defunct Catalina Island 100k and I had taken the lead near halfway, like I did when I effortlessly coasted to victory the previous year. This year was way different—Tommy was much stronger—and I was on a trip to the deepest part of the pain cave.

I was lucky enough to learn about physical suffering, as it pertains to running, at an early age. My high-school and college coaches and teammates pushed me through tough practices and competitions. I remember instances when my coach would lean in during a race or workout, yell instructions or encouragement into my ears, and I’d neither remember nor hear what they said. I had become solely focused on only two things—drawing in every possible morsel of oxygen I could into my suffocated lungs and forcing the movement of four rebelling limbs. These intense bouts lasted for only minutes at a time and I became pretty good at digging deep when necessary during cross-country and track races. However, my Catalina race experience demonstrated something much different.

Ultramarathons bring on a whole new level of suffering. You will suck wind and feel the burn at times during these lengthy contests, but more notably, we must contend with the seemingly endless hours of nausea, dehydration, blisters, sore muscles, and exposure to the elements. This is an entirely different type of hurt and, as ultramarathoners, we have to prepare ourselves for feeling uncomfortable for long periods of time. This then begs the question: Can we develop the ability to suffer?

What the Scientists Say
According to a recent story by Elizabeth Svoboda in Discover magazine, the ability to suffer isn’t necessarily an inherited trait that you either have or don’t have, but rather a talent that can be acquired by all runners with the right kind of training.

In studies conducted by University of California, San Diego psychiatrist Martin Paulus and his colleague Douglas C. Johnson, they had subjects take a course called Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (also called “M-fit”). Test individuals were trained to build attention and concentration control and taught skills for coping with the physiological and psychological effects of extreme stress. Participants focused on specific internal cues (like the way they sat, stood, or breathed) and then shifted their focus between those inner sensations and the outside world.

“The goal of such exercises is to teach people to pay nonjudgmental attention to exactly what they’re feeling in the moment,” says Svoboda. “That means that if they get a cramp during a run, rather than thinking, ‘Ow! This hurts!’ they think, ‘I have a strong pain in my side.’ By monitoring your feelings without judgment you achieve detachment from them, which allows you to soldier through difficult moments without letting discomfort disrupt your focus.”

The members of the study that received the “M-fit” training were subjected to a restricted-breathing test. They anticipated the stress, remained calm while dealing with it, and continued to function efficiently while those who lacked the training couldn’t handle the stress and reacted poorly.

What the Coach Says
Svoboda’s article confirms the fact that there is no magic pill we can take that will help us endure the curve balls we’re thrown during an ultra. It’s the training we do before race day that will see us to a successful finish. However, proper preparation is more than the simple act of running; it’s doing those things our bodies aren’t familiar with or that we might not care for. Venturing outside our comfort zone during workouts in the months preceding our goal event is arguably the best training we can do to ready ourselves for the rigors we’ll face. Here are some proven workouts that will prepare you for the worst of what race day might impose.

  • Pace changing workouts – You will be ready for the possible surges your competitors will throw at you by occasionally varying your running speed during a workout. These workouts also help you develop a sense of pace and effort and improve your VO2 max.
  • Carbohydrate depleting runs – Experience what it’s like to keep running with a sugar-starved body. If this feeling arises during your event, you’ll be familiar with it, won’t panic, and will take steps to correct the problem quickly.
  • Back-to-back long runs – It’s tough to set out the day after a six-hour long run, but it’ll be even more difficult to keep moving after covering 75 miles of a 100-mile race. Make the back-to-back long runs a part of your routine and you’ll calmly handle those late, harsh miles on race day.
  • Hill workouts – Don’t let race day be the first time you experience the previously discussed burn in your lungs and legs. Hone your sense of running at a very high effort before your event so that you know just how much you can tolerate before irreversible muscle fatigue becomes an issue.
  • Group runs – Join others who are faster than you. You’ll be challenged and you might even make new friends.
  • Expose yourself to the elements – Perform your workout in less than optimal conditions: heat, cold, rain, snow, and in the dark. If you’re running a mountainous 100 miler, you’re guaranteed a tango with Mother Nature. Get a taste of what she can dish out beforehand so you’ll feel more comfortable when you’re in the thick of it.
  • Use your gear – Train with the equipment you will race with such as poles, lights, clothing, and packs. Don’t expect to wing it during your goal event with untested gear or with a body that isn’t used to carrying it.
  • Races – Don’t worry about your UltraSignup percentage. Go forth, run hard, deplete yourself, and discover your limits. You’ll learn a lot about your weaknesses and strengths in the process.

Running an ultra involves varying levels of physical and spiritual difficulty. Svoboda writes, “While pushing though discomfort might initially be an effortful process, over time your brain begins to make the necessary adjustments almost automatically.” Therefore it’s imperative to learn to manage hardship in training or risk folding once the suffering begins. We must get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Either that or find a new sport.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. “Feats of Will.” Discover. Oct. 2014: 24, 26. Print.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When was the last time you really had to embrace the suck in an ultra? Can you describe the situation?
  • Have you learned how to embrace the pain of running ultras? If so, what do you do in your training and racing to help you tolerate discomfort?
  • Which of Ian’s recommendations have you previously tried in training for ultras, and which do you think could help you become better prepared for ultramarathoning’s challenges?

There are 3 comments

  1. senelly

    Right on, Ian! As someone once said: Preparation is EVERYTHING! You are so right in your advice… and yet I know folks who insist on trying to learn these lessons during events. One additional thought: each person has a proclivity for certain challenges… but, perhaps, not for others. In my running, the pain of an all all out short race is not my cup of hemlock… but a looong day on the trail is. Pick your poison. As a coach who occasionally encountered young people who "hated" running but enjoyed the challenge of some other physical activity, I would encourage them accordingly.

  2. austinhobbs

    Every race I run — good or bad — I'm left wondering if I could have pushed harder, suffered more, if I backed off too quickly in the face of pain. Training the body is critical, but training the mind for suffering is one of the biggest factors for success in this sport. Thanks for the tips Ian.

  3. @SageCanaday

    I dunno, every race I do frickin' hurts… a lot! Over years of doing hard workouts (i.e. negative split Long Runs, tempo runs and intervals) it seems like it's easier to accept that lots of pain will be present and you "go through the motions" of pushing yourself 100% a tad better. When it comes to mental training there is a lot to be said about preparing with visualization and positive affirmations and getting into that "Flow" zone. I think in this state we can be kind of masochistic and the high state of fatigue actually becomes something we crave (to remind us we're alive of course). In my 15 years of racing (granted I did a lot of shorter, non-ultra races mostly) I've always woken up race morning with this horrible sense of dread and impending doom. But then I remind myself that I chose to do this race and that it's a real privilege to just be able to run. No matter how fit or experienced you are the challenge is always there…and it always seems to hurt a lot!

    1. te_korimako

      It is nice to hear that the 'pros' have that sense of dread. I am about to tackle my first ultra – granted it is a relatively short one (52km trail run), but even though I have trained pretty well for it, the closer it gets, the more nervous I become, even to the point of wanting to pull out (I wont !!). I love your comment that "it's a real privilege to just be able to run" I'll definitely try and keep that in the front of my head!!

  4. @EricAshleyNJ

    I couldn't agree more with Ian's advice. I think a major training goal is bringing previously unknown pain and exhaustion into my realm of experience, just so I won't be surprised when it shows up in a race. Of course, it doesn't always work; my worst recent pain was at TNF Bear Mountain in May, where I underestimated and overran the course and managed to get overheated and dehydrated by mile 22. Plenty of hurt locker to finish off that one!

  5. Ben_Nephew

    For me, the keys for increasing pain tolerance are hard long runs and time trials. In both instances, if you keep track of the times of your runs and try to keep improving them, the pain is going to come. This is obvious for road and track runners, but it is easy for trail runners to just go run for time at a certain perceived effort. The clock doesn't lie, and will ensure enough pain is involved. I've rarely had the time for back to back long runs, but hard long runs are definitely a staple, and are very close to race efforts.

    Another way to increase your pain threshold is to try to be competitive at other sports you are not familiar with. While most people do hill workouts, try something like Mount Washington or Pikes Peak. Those races are like getting to that point at the end of your last 5 minute hill interval and holding it for another half hour or so. Snowshoe racing is like trail racing with a plastic bag over your head. I've never come closer to DNFing or experienced complete muscle failure like I have at an 8 hour Spartan Race. I saw some crying on the course, and came pretty close myself. I'd like to think that running is a very challenging sport in terms of pain tolerance, but you can only run to the point where you can stand up, and you are only really using your legs to the point of exhaustion. With rowing, you are using just about every muscle in your body at an incredible intense level, and you are sitting down. You can push yourself well beyond the point of falling down, and unconsciousness is not uncommon. The pain at the end of a rowing race, it'll make you want to cut your body off.

  6. ripvanracer

    Ben mentions rowing. A few years ago I did a lot of xtraining on an elliptical machine. I could push myself much harder than I could running because I knew the chance of an injury was very slim. If I ran that hard, I would have been injured in a couple weeks. I could transfer that intensity over to the last mile of a 5k race because I had made it routine to me.

  7. Wej1971

    I think once you realize and accept not just the possibility, but the *probability* of real, prolonged pain, it all becomes a lot easier. I've noticed in two 'looped' races recently that I did with my partner (one a 50K, the other a 60 mile) that although we've not really wanted to go out for the second loop as we finished the first loop, we've hydrated, fed ourselves and just got on with it. A lot of people didn't go out for the second loop in those races but we did, not because we weren't hurting, but because we've reached an 'acceptance' of that hurt and know that, although generally it will get worse, there will be lows and highs.

    The only way to reach this level of pain acceptance is to experience it over and over again, and make sure you don't give in. Eventually you begin to associate not giving in to the pain as a positive thing, and it becomes easier to do. Doesn't hurt any less, just becomes easier to ignore!

  8. arniefonsecajr

    Great article Ian! My coach taught me that everything is about "pain levels!" How much can you realistically take during the training or the actual competition. I'm amazed that after 40 years of hearing this message, I automatically apply it to life. I believe that those who have had to endure hardship, physical, mental or emotional, become more "Hardy" and become more nimble and flexible when life or when doing one more 1000 foot climb stares you in the face!

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