Learning To Embrace The Pain

Ian Torrence writes about learning to suffer in ultramarathons.

By on November 4, 2014 | Comments

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?
Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at SundogRunning.com.