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How to Embrace the Suck for Hard Days on the Bike

with Lesley Paterson

“I wanted to quit because I was suffering. That was not a good enough reason.” -Ted Corbitt

Endurance athletes are very familiar with the discomfort that comes from pushing your body into the ‘hurt locker.’ Your legs are burning, your breathing is in overdrive, your energy systems are like a fast burning fuse, and everything just... hurts. If this goes on for long enough, your head soon asks for a cease-fire, begging you to, “just ease up, nobody will know,” or, “I don’t want to deal with this any longer!” or “Urg, this sucks! Make it stop!”

Don’t believe anyone that tells you they actually enjoy being on the suffer bus. It runs counter to our survival instinct and your brain will play all sorts of tricks on you to convince you to make it stop. We can often stay in it because we know it’s temporary, not life threatening, and, most importantly, we believe that we need to endure it if we are to complete something we care about. We must be motivated to reach the other side.  That said, we can get better at it.

If there’s one thing that scientific research has told us about coping with discomfort, it’s this: the best techniques rely on not fighting it, but embracing it. Here are the techniques I use to embrace the suck. I advocate using these techniques with one humongous caveat: that under no circumstances is anyone to use mind tricks to cope with an injury. These techniques are to help you deal with the unpleasant sensations from an effort, not tissue damage – there is a big difference.  

  1. Practice suffering. The single most effective strategy to becoming better at suffering is to force yourself to experience it. When you practice suffering, you are strengthening neural pathways in the brain that make you better at suffering in the future. What this means for you: Don’t shy away from opportunities to put yourself the hurt box. They’re a gift. Put on your big girl/boy pants and force yourself to feel uncomfortable. If you are dreading the session or feel nervous about how much it’s going to hurt: you’re on the money.
  2. Build the expectation of pain. Contrary to popular wisdom, you can improve your ability to tolerate a sufferfest by preparing for the worst rather than pretending it won’t hurt as much as you think. Scientists call this ‘feed-forward’ but you can think of it as “bracing” for it. Your ability to suffer improves if you prepare for it to really What this means for you: Develop a pre-suffer ritual (or pain pledge) where you accept the potential for ‘worst possible discomfort’. Are you willing to go through this today? Your answer will help shape your ability to cope.
  3. Segment every single effort into tiny chunks. Your brain will poop its pants if it thinks it has to endure a long, arduous bout of suffering. We even know the part of your brain that’s doing the pooping: the anterior cingulate cortex. What this means for you: Break every session into small chunks and only think about the segment you’re on. Doing 10 x 5 min threshold efforts is much easier than smashing for 50 min straight. Riding 10 x 10-mile segments is far easier than riding 100 miles straight. Break. It. Up. Always. Your brain will thank you.
  4. Start Counting. Your brain loves repetitive sounds as means to deal with pain because it helps quieten other parts of your brain that are screaming at you to stop. What this means for you: Count your pedal strokes over and over again to help reduce the perception of effort and increase your tolerance of discomfort. The worse it feels, the more obsessively you count. Don’t aim for high numbers. We’re looking for repetition: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8…. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Get your Rain Man
  5. Learn a meditation or mindfulness technique to practice keeping your focus on a single cue (typically your breath or your heart rate). This works much in the same way as counting, except it helps you also deal with intrusive thoughts of stopping, declining motivation, or negativity when the suffer bus gathers speed. What this means for you: Download a free app to learn the skill of passive attention – accepting the sensation (“Hello pain”) without judging it (“This sucks!”). My favorite app for learning this skill is called HeadSpace. Start with 10 minutes per day for 10 days.

Lesley Paterson is a Liv ambassador, a 3-time World Champion triathlete, professional mountain biker, and co-author of “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion.” (VeloPress).  Available from www.braveheartcoach.com.

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