Endurance athletes need pain to pace themselves

You will become a whole new animal

You will become a whole new animal

Consider the majority. Most people find it hard to make the time or energy to work out at all, let alone train for a grueling endurance challenge – whether that’s a marathon, ultra marathon, Ironman triathlon, Race Across America – events which quite frankly you aren’t sure you are even going to finish after all that time put into the training.

It therefore begs the question: how do they do it? Many endurance athletes say there is nothing special about their physical abilities – it is really just time invested in a cause. They set about to accomplish these feats only because of their own mental outlook – they want a challenge, what to explore their limits. Persistence and stubbornness is definitely essential in allowing endurance athletes to train day in, day out for some race in the distant future.

Death valleyAll endurance athletes have common personality traits – grit, tenacity, endless curiosity, a lack of fear when it comes to failure and a sense of boldness. At times pain is the central reality of their existence and there has been numerous sports science studies on this topic – for example The psychology of the marathoner : of one mind and many. And I want to use that background to bring us back to the title of this post – ‘Endurance athletes need pain to pace themselves’. Successful athletes know how to overcome or ‘face’ pain during events but they also know their ‘personal pain’ records and importantly can make an intervention when they are about to ‘bonk’, ‘hit the wall’. Research has even described how we ‘naturally’ seem to do this. Human endurance stronger at ultra distance was a particular study describing how in the Tor des Geants – a 330 kilometres footrace in the province of Val d’Aoste in the Italian Alps, at an altitude of 2400 metres, a time limit of 150 hours, and no required stops – racers showed less ‘wear and tear’ than runners in ‘shorter races’, possibly because pacing strategies (there’s your pain) and fatigue may have exerted a protective effect.

However that being said, as Dean Karnazes, probably the ‘world’s most famous ultramarathon runner’ and author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner, once said:

“Unless you push yourself to failure, you don’t know how far you’re going to go.”


Endurance athletes don’t go out to not hurt themselves.

In 2012, Dr. Schultz et al (full study) published a study on the pain tolerance of ultra-endurance runners competing in the TransEurope Footrace (about as badass ultra as you can get. An epic pain fest in which participants cover 4,487 kilometres over 64 days with no rest days). In this research they used the ‘ice water pain test’ whereby 11 of the competitors dunk their hands in ice water for three minutes and then on average rated the pain as about 6 out of 10 on average. The non-athlete control group gave up, on average, after just 96 seconds when their pain maxed out at 10 (only three of them even completed the test). Many would see these results as no great surprise, there is growing evidence that these athletes have greater pain tolerance than the general population – or just they are willing to endure it at higher levels, and for longer.

Race across americaFor the cyclists out there this study is for you. Dr Alexis Mauger, a researcher at the University of Kent (UK), who studies the relationship between pain and the limits of athletic performance, carried out a series of investigations on cyclists taking acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) and whether they were able to cycle farther or faster than those given a placebo. His results indicate that the cyclists experiences approximately the same amounts of steadily increasing pain but only their pace varied. This suggests that sustained pace isn’t set by the burning sensation of the lactic acid in your muscles but rather your willingness to endure a threshold of pain. So if you taking painkillers or Red Bull (which I saw in one study was associated with a significant increase in pain tolerance – study) it might not even help you.

Common cognitive strategies athletes use to increase pain tolerance include: Association/Disassociation. Association occurs when people concentrate on the act itself, while dissociation occurs as people think of something positive to distract them. It is said that women tend to be more dissociative than men and that’s probably why you get some phenomenal female ultra endurance runners that regularly win or get in the top 5 of mixed gender races. The two techniques are often described as a pingpong game–each type of distraction is never 100%,but if you can swap your focus enough you can get yourself through it. A bit of mental flexibility is in order.

Resistance to pain can be learned over time and as athletes get fitter, exercise intensity leads to just higher endorphin releases.  As Dr Mauger claims, research suggests that pain tolerance can be trained – “Learning to break through a conservative pain barrier so that you can operate closer to a true physiological limit.” This is a further example of one of his studies – Fatigue is a pain—the use of novel neurophysiological techniques to understand the fatigue-pain relationship

Athletes become more determined to break their personal records – this comes back to the micro goal setting – and if they have to break the pain threshold to ‘show’ they performed at the best of their ability, they do. Indeed I read about some research by physiologists at the University of Wisconsin which using spinal injections of a powerful painkiller to block lower-body pain in a group of cyclists, the cyclists actually got slower. Yeah they started out faster but without the feedback of pain they couldn’t pace themselves properly. 

Paula marathon

Pain management is a vital tool/knowledge which competitors pick up after sometimes years of racing and whether it is relying on methods of distraction to get through the difficult patches or knowing when to ease it back just to get some vital fluids in; that is all elements of a successful race day. Of course in the event that you should have to quit, endurance athletes should also know how to embrace their failures, too.

Interestingly researchers have found that sportmen & women who carry specific gene variants – this study review looked at the gene SCN9A – were more likely to report higher levels of pain. But don’t take that as an excuse – remember mind over matter. If we really want to get technical research has also shown that genetics isn’t everything – Ruiz et al who published a paper on ‘Is there an optimum endurance polygenic profile?’ in the 2009 Journal of Physiology, found that in the seven genetic polymorphisms that are candidates to explain individual variations in human endurance phenotypic traits, at least in Caucasian people (ACE Ins/Del, ACTN3 Arg577Ter, AMPD1 Gln12Ter, CKMM 1170 bp/985 + 185 bp, HFE His63Asp, GDF-8 Lys153Arg and PPARGC1A Gly482Ser) only three of the best Spanish endurance athletes (out of 46 world-class athletes and these are amongst the best in the world) had the best possible score of six genes and none of them had the optimal profile. Alright yes the mean was still higher in athletes and there could be other variants BUT still, no excuses!

So as you prepare for a big endurance test practice coping methods – it could be counting swim strokes to keep pace or having the confidence to not panic if you are just off the pace and simply run your own race. Basically it is how you don’t ‘blow up’ in the blistering heat on 35km mark of a marathon – don’t worry we’ve all done it, even if it was just in training. Good luck.

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