I am sitting at my desk, thinking about pain, and trying to figure out where to begin. Why am I thinking about pain? When I focus on training, my mind constantly tries to figure out ways I can improve, and pain is what my mind latched onto this time. It is a topic I have thought a lot about in the past, and the result has been faster running. I am not saying this will happen to everyone, but at the very least this will be ‘food for thought.’
Pain is an unpleasant feeling. There are many unpleasant feelings. Some are physical. Some are emotional. Most people don’t like unpleasant feelings, but there are many things that people don’t like that they have to deal with anyway.
The first time I really dove into this topic was in the middle of a particularly cold winter in Dallas a few years ago. Staying warm was an ongoing challenge for me. As long as I remained active in the cold, I felt fine, but once I stopped, I was a shivering icicle. Getting out of a shower after a run was the worst, most unbearable cold time for me. One day when I felt like I was so cold that I was going to die right there, wrapped up in a towel in my bathroom, I wondered if there was a way to turn the ‘cold feeling’ off. I decided that feeling cold was just a feeling. My body temperature and the temperature of my house was not cold enough to kill me. There was no real threat. So, there was no reason for me to feel so cold that I was going to die.
I decided that I could feel the coldness of the air without allowing my body to react to it. This took practice and concentration. I still didn’t like being cold. For a while my initial reaction was still tense up, wrap up, shiver, shiver, shiver. Eventually, I developed a method that worked for me. Slow deep breathing. Acknowledge how the air feels. Remind myself that my body is just telling my mind that the air is cold. To my relief, the shock of the cold air went away, and shivering to death was no longer a concern after showering. Shortly after, I realized that this method and perspective could be applied to pain as well.
The pain I am talking about is not the type that comes with broken bones, torn ligaments, or other serious injuries. I am addressing the pain felt during a race, or training, that means the body is working hard and getting tired.
I dread the pain that I am going to feel at the end of a half marathon. I tense up as I get closer and closer to that feeling. I wonder if I can even make it to the finish line. It is an all out fight to make it to the finish, but it was not the strong finish I had hoped for.
(For those of you who read my Half Marathon Race report, you are probably thinking that this sounds familiar. The truth is that I never felt right during that race. Some races are just like that.)
I know the pace will feel uncomfortable for the last 3-5 miles of a half marathon. I am past the halfway point and begin to focus on slow deep breathing. My legs are getting tired. Discomfort and hurt are setting in. I know I can make it to the finish. If my body didn’t need my mind to hold this pace, then my body could keep going, so I keep going. I finish strong.
Obviously, Situation #2 is the better of the two ways of thinking. I find that accepting the pain and continuing is a more effective strategy than just fighting through it. The pain is just a feeling. A message that says my body is tired and working hard. During a race, the body is supposed to be tired and working hard, so pain is good. There is no need for anxiety and worry, which only intensifies the discomfort and makes the body work harder. Staying calm and relaxed makes it easier to run fast.
Fighting through the pain results in fast running for a short time, but it exhausts the body pretty quickly. Sometimes fighting through to the finish line, to the top, or to the end of a tough workout is necessary. It may be the whole point of a workout all together. I am thinking of strength workouts, sprinting, and hill workouts that require a fight to the end of an interval or set. However, an acceptance of pain is needed to be able to complete the entire workout.
Our bodies are amazing if we allow them to be. Mind over matter. Matter over mind. The mind holds the matter back when there is pain up to a certain point. Mental toughness is a key to greatness, but sometimes the mind needs to let the matter go. Don’t fight the pain. Accept it, and keep going anyway.