Breaking pain barrier through micro goal setting
‘Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it’s absolutely cleansing. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain… Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. ’Pleasure?’ I said. ’I don’t understand the question.’ I didn’t do it for pleasure, I did it for pain.’
Damn good quote but I appreciate Armstrong might not be the best choice so also:
‘Shut up legs! Do what I tell you’ – Jens Voigt
The greatest battle in cycling is not always physical but psychological. The history of the sport is filled with endless tales of will power, sheer courage and legendary pain. By the very nature of the competition – day after day self-inflicted suffering through monumental distances across the toughest terrain which some organizer drove over during his summer holiday – the sport asks riders to push themselves to the very limit, until either they break or their challengers do.
Even the training is merciless, all about digging deep and emptying the tank. It requires a mental toughness because the ‘result’ of your sessions isn’t a scoreboard (that’s a reference to a luck goal, missed penalty stuff) but your personal output – and you better get be better than last week.It is quite simply perfect for anyone looking to push themselves day in, day out; for those that crave a challenge in which you can see a steady progression of results (I speak the true here, you are always learning, improving; my FTP has gone up over 15% in 2 months under the direction of the dungeon master/coach at the cycling facility – Athlete Lab – and I still get whooped by the big boys).
Many would argue that bike riders define heroism in sport. Glory is achieved through suffering. Winning is a matter of pain. And the more you can endure, the better you can compete.
Ok enough of that praise for sporting masochists. How can a cyclist ‘train’ to break through the pain barrier (no matter what level they are at).
A cyclist’s nemesis or the ‘burn’ is lactic acid, which accumulates under anaerobic conditions in the muscles as a result of energy requirements needing more oxygen than your lungs can produce. Instead of breaking down glucose, the body uses a quick stop gap in glycogen, a process which synthesizes lactic acid – in protest, your body starts the agony and misery.
Now with training you can improve your VO2 max – ability to take in more oxygen – your energy efficiency, your tolerance of high lactic levels, but there will always be a point when the pain kicks in. After that it is psychological. One of the ‘mind’ techniques which many athletes use to handle the pain pulsating through the legs/body and has been proving to be very effective, even in life or death situations, is ‘micro goal-setting’. This is where you break down the entire route of the race into a series of small goals or if you took an hour of cycling you might break it into ten minute segments. It is essentially taking each step as it comes. Personally I use visual references (by that stage the brain isn’t thinking to well), so perhaps I would say to myself right push til the top of this climb then you can easy up – once you reach that point, even if you take a moment as a reward, you will feel better than what you predicted 10 minutes before. Not to be too morbid but many emergency rescuers – life boats, mountain rescue – describe how climbers/sailors will be picked up ‘OK’, but very quickly their condition deteriorates. Researchers put this down to psychological motivation – ‘I will survive’, ‘they will be here soon’ – which inevitably leads to physical outputs such as heightened adrenaline; effects which are dramatically redrawn when they are ‘rescued’ [if someone could leave a comment on the medical term for this I would appreciate it; completely forgotten it].
Micro goal setting creates virtual finishing lines in your mind which leads to the maximum amount of athletic effort & enables you to put up with the pain from point to point. Think of it as the sum of the parts is greater as a whole.
This is a very famous motivational video on youtube from an NFL movie which demonstrates breaking down a challenge into parts [start it from 1.10]
In ‘Psychology Today’ Dr Piers Steel’s article on ‘Breaking the pain barrier’ he quotes his book on The Procrastination Equation for mountaineering:
Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard. How powerful is this mantra? Joe Simpson, in one of mountaineering’s greatest survival stories, used it to save his life. Left for dead at the bottom of a crevasse in an isolated Peruvian mountain with a shattered shinbone, he had three days to pull himself to a base camp through five miles of truly treacherous glacier field or be really dead. He was already utterly exhausted from an arduous marathon of an ascent, with no food and only a little water, so this journey should have been impossible, except for one critical survival tool: his wristwatch. With it, he set goals. Setting the alarm for twenty minutes at a time, he made for a nearby rock or drift — he was elated when he reached it in time and he despaired when he didn’t. Battling exhaustion, pain, and eventually delirium, he repeated this process hundreds of times and reached the perimeter of the base camp just hours before his friends’ intended departure.
An investigation of former Olympic cyclists’ cognitive strategies for coping with exertion pain during performance by California State University came to the following 6 conclusions:
1. The degree of pain was purely a perception
2. Pain varied depending upon the satisfaction the athlete received from the experience when all physiological variables were held constant
3. Cognitive skills such as goal setting, imagery and positive self-talk were routinely used
4. The mind and body were viewed as a dualism when performing
5. Pain was a positive experience and part of sport and an individual’s identity
6. Riding in a position of control tended to lessen the perception of pain
As an aspiring cyclist this analysis – and the study was formed on the basis of 222 quotes – demonstrates that who you wish to excel in the sport you must confront rather than attempt to ignore the pain. You can be stronger from it or at least will be until you fall into a messy heap post workout.
So it seems suffering is one thing; knowing how to suffer is quite another. Pushing mental exertion, inner resolve to the limit works and makes you perform better. Embrace the pain, its science.
Extensive work has been done in this area of sport science – one notable review is O’Connor & Cooks (1999) ‘Exercise and pain: the neurobiology, measurement and laboratory study of pain in relation to exercise in humans’ – and you even have reviews entitled ‘Can we conquer pain? Pain is an adaptive sensation, an early warning system to protect the body from tissue damage (it also aids repair), but can also be maladaptive – i.e. can be made to not response adequately to its environment. Without proposing chemical treatments, we can ‘train’ our brain’s limbic system – a structure associated with emotion, behaviour, motivation – to tap into our ’emotional raw power’ (there must be a better scientific name for this) and ask more from our aching body. As mentioned in Dr Steel’s post this is triggered through precise conditions – using specific goal setting to create an artificial deadline which mimics the real deadline (this is why imagery is extremely good as your mind has innate responses to memories – relief some would say at the top of a mountain). The goal in question must also be realistic and that is why sport psychologists focus on improvements step-by-step. Its why if you are trying to hit a new personal best FTP at athlete lab you should aim for 5%, 10% improvements – no stupid numbers.
Perhaps for all the non-cyclists reading this you might be thinking all this talk of hurt, pain, suffering, how can it be enjoyable? Well much like the joy you experience in travelling to a new country, as a cyclist being able to endure physical stress – even mental stress with some of those ultra, 12-24hr events – you are; and I quote a great post by Rapha on ‘Glory through suffering’ –
‘entering a new territory of understanding, an expanded psychological landscape.This is the ultimate proving time. The spells of mind-numbing dysfunction when your head fills with disconnected trivia and only the wheels, still responding to the pedal stroke, like the cogwheels in your brain’s clock, seem to have any logic about them. Mechanically you mutter: if the road goes on, so can I….. The pleasure comes when you grasp just what has happened inside your head and spirit. It doesn’t stop when the bike stops, when you reach the top of the col or peel off at the end of the ride, so tired you can hardly think or stand straight. That’s where the pleasure begins. The self-knowledge.’
Cycling has embraced this idea of developing mental toughness, getting through the hard slog & misery of training. The sport talks about the glory of absolute conviction and the weakness in not giving the best you have. Of course this talk is giving it somewhat a beauty – and countless riders have an incredibly satisfying experience from all of that. It is without doubt exhilarating – but if we look at the science, if you want to be the best you can be you must confront pain using methods such as micro goal setting.
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