The way our minds process pain signals (both consciously and subconsciously) is something we can hack for better results
When we talk about training and racing, pain seems to be an inevitable piece of the equation. A lot of times, the sense of accomplishment our athletic endeavors bring is directly proportional to the amount of adversity and discomfort we have to endure. So what is pain? And more importantly, how do we conquer it time and again? First, we have to look at the physiology behind pain.
The four stages of pain
Pain signaling comes in four stages: transduction, transmission, modulation, perception.
Transduction is, in essence, the encoding of pain into signals our body can understand and process. Our sensory nerve cells, called nociceptors, detect stimuli such as heat, pressure, or chemical irritation and convert them into electric signals.
These signals are then sent to our central nervous system via the second stage, transmission. Neurons along our body, spine, and brain stem relay the electrical signals to the brain.
Along this path, modulation happens. Modulation in simplified terms is a feedback system in which pain is regulated by the body. Ascending pain modulation involves reducing the amount of sensory signals perceived by the brain from peripheral sites. Descending pain modulation is when inhibitory influences are sent by the brain to the spinal cord so that the perception and reaction to pain signals are blocked. In this stage of pain signaling, the amount of pain our body senses is regulated.
In the final stage, perception, our brain decodes the signals sent by our nervous system and translates it into a sense of awareness. This is highly influenced by numerous factors such as emotional or psychological state, experience with previous pain stimuli, and even attitude toward pain.
Unmasking pain’s layers
As you can see, pain is not as simple as one would assume. There are a lot of layers behind it and to be able to conquer pain, we need to look at how we can manipulate these layers to our advantage.
Pain medication commonly deals with the first three stages of pain signaling: transmission, transduction, and modulation. Obviously, we cannot be dependent on any sort of medication to help us cope with pain in sports, so we need to look further.
The answer might just lie in the final stage: perception. Our mind is an enigmatic thing. There is still so much we don’t understand about it. We hear of people accomplish amazing things with the power of their minds, specifically in the realm of pain tolerance. Maybe we can tap into this paradigm to help us with training and racing.
The way our minds process pain signals (both consciously and subconsciously) is something we can hack for better results. There are numerous ways we could go about this, but here are a few tips:
1. Gradually introduce pain
Our body doesn’t like change. Introduce something new and more often than not, it will fight back. This is especially true with pain. A sudden introduction of something uncomfortable or downright excruciating is a recipe for disaster. However, just like in training, this is something we can gradually adapt to. By methodically making workouts challenging, we’re giving our bodies and our minds the chance to adapt. The goal of this approach is to familiarize ourselves with discomfort, such that our body will be somewhat desensitized when it encounters it in the future.
Tip: Consider introducing workouts with ascending effort or negative splits. This involves starting out easy then gradually increasing the intensity as the workout progresses. This will familiarize your body with the pain gradually.
2. Keep your mind busy
Time flies when you’re having fun but crawls when you’re bored or in pain. If you’re like most people, you probably dread the clock during long or hard workouts. Just looking at how much time has passed is already torture in itself. However, things don’t have to be that way. Keep your mind preoccupied and things will seem to go by faster. This happens because our mind shifts its awareness to something other than the discomfort of physical activity.
Tip: Try breaking down your workout or race into bite-sized chunks. For example, if you have a two-hour run, instead of looking at the whole workout, think of it as eight sets of 15-minute runs. Focus on running within those 15 minutes and don’t look too far ahead. Furthermore, think of running from one landmark (such as a tree, sign post, or building) to another. By keeping your perception scaled down, it’s easy to stay motivated.
3. Learn how to meditate
We’ve heard this a lot: Meditation is supposedly important. But before anything else, what is meditation? I used to think that meditation is the absence of thought; however, I learned that it’s actually the opposite. Meditation doesn’t mean your mind is empty. Rather, it is the act of being aware of your thoughts. In simple terms, as your mind is generating ideas, feelings, and memories, your mind is also aware that it is doing this. This kind of mindfulness is a powerful way of staying in control of your consciousness. And for our purposes, it’s a method that allows us not only to distract ourselves from pain but more importantly, a means for us to channel these energies into something we can utilize better such as positivity and self-belief.
Tip: To get started with meditation, think of your thoughts and ideas (especially negative ones) as cars along a street and yourself as a passive observer sitting on the side of the road. As thoughts pass in front of you, do not focus on a single car. Rather, watch them pass by and remain as an observer. This will give you control over your mind rather than being a slave to it.
4. Change the way you look at pain
Our natural instinct is to stay away from pain and discomfort. The primitive part of our minds associates pain with danger. This is an evolutionary adaptation that allowed our species to stay alive and flourish. However, as athletes, pain is an inherent part of our day-to-day lives. Running, lifting weights, and pushing ourselves all involve some sort of pain and this is something we should embrace.
Having raced almost 200 multisport races, I have always accepted that pain is a part of it. I refer to my races as “controlled suffering” and that the true sense of accomplishment is enduring this torture. Rather than thinking of pain as an enemy, condition your mind to accept it as a welcome friend. By accepting it rather than fighting it, you can slowly condition your mind to deal with it better.
Tip: Before each race or training session, take a few seconds to clear your mind and condition it for the activities ahead. Think about what you’re supposed to do and imagine how it will feel. Anticipate the discomfort and challenges ahead. Accept it as an inescapable fact and that the only way to deal with it is to conquer it.
Have some training questions, feedback or suggestions for future articles? Drop a note in the comments section below or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You can also get in touch with Don directly here.