Pain in Training and Racing

Last week I tweeted that to a friend whom I’ve been helping with her marathon training. It sparked a whole bunch of thoughts about pain and its role in training and racing that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few years.
1. Pain kinda sucks.
2. Pain can be physical, mental, and emotional. It can also emcompass more than one of the three, or all three.
3. We can build tolerance for pain through training. Through progressive experience with pain, we can raise our threshold for it.
4. Pain can and will stop us from doing whatever it was we were doing. It is a natural defense mechanism that tells us that we have reached some limit and that crossing that limit is a dangerous thing, and that we should back off.
5. There are two kinds of pain: that which is just experienced but is not a result of physical harm or injury, and that which comes with true physical harm or injury. Many times it is hard to distinguish between the two. But I’ve learned that through experience, we can raise the probability that we can distinguish when pain is telling us something bad has happened and when it is just a sensation. With 6 Ironmans under my belt and 8 years of triathlon training, I think I’ve gotten fairly good and knowing which pain is which when I experience it.
I say “probability” because I’ve found that sometimes I still diagnose a pain sensation as not the result of harm when it actually is. This is most often the result of us athletes attempting to train hard and to train through pain.
6. No matter what, pain is sending you a message. It is always worthwhile to analyze and diagnose why you were experiencing pain.
7. Generally, if you don’t experience pain during training, it means that you’ve adapted to the level of stress you’ve been putting your body through. To increase your performance, you have to add stress beyond where you are now; often this comes with some level of pain.
However, you don’t have to add significant amount of pain to improve. Inching your way up is much better than trying to ramrod fitness improvement. You risk injury and overtraining if you try to ramrod.
8. Many people (and their old school coaches) think that you have to push to the limit every single time in order to improve. No Pain No Gain is their motto. The problem with that is that they ignore when someone’s injury threshold has been crossed, as they are trying to improve their pain threshold. They heap abuse and negative motivation at you when you collapse, thinking that you have wimped out. That may be the case, but they unfortunately also have no ability to recognize when true injury happens and when to back off.
The reality is that the body needs to recover. Young people recover sooner than older people. Even within an age group of people, individuals will have different recovery speeds. When the body is subjected to overwhelming stress, it will attempt to adapt. In fact, it may improve for a while. Then some limit happens when the body cannot recover quickly enough to deal with the next overwhelming workout. Injury occurs, or worse, we enter an overtrained state which requires month of rest to pull out of.
Current research has shown that a measured and orderly approach to adding stress, even what I would call overwhelming stress, can safely progress an athlete to the best performances of their lives. It’s too bad that most people don’t know this. Generally it’s best to avoid training with people who still think that way.
9. As my fitness has increased, and my tolerance for pain has increased, my experience of pain has changed for pain which is not injury/harm related. It has transformed itself into more of a rising discomfort level in the body to maintain a current pace. Mental pressure increases and my brain wants to back off on the effort. However, I only flirt with this at the edges of maximum effort. Physically, I feel it in the lungs as my breathing becomes more heavy. I rarely feel burn in my muscles however; instead, I feel rising tightness and tiredness, an inability to maintain/increase effort no matter how hard I will it.
I think that other people characterize this as a type of pain sensation, but I don’t experience it as a pain anymore.
Thus, it has become a battle for stamina, and where tempo and threshold training really becomes important for the latter parts of races where diminishing resources compete with rising effort to get to the finish line.
10. It is well documented that all serious Ironman competitors experience a lot of pain in races because they are giving max 100+% effort the whole way in order to place high in the rankings. You have to know how to dig deep and ignore any pains in your body to do this.
My coach M2 has told me that he trained his body to go within 2-3 beats of his lactate threshold heart rate the whole race. That’s pretty tough to race like that; racing too close to your lactate threshold heart rate for too long can cause a flame out. On the other hand, M2 has won Ironman Canada and was a serious professional Ironman contender for many years.
So this kind of level can be attained through training and practice. It is not enjoyable practice, but achievable if one puts their mind to it.
11. Now we return to my original tweet. To me, training is very much about pain reduction on race day. The better trained you are, the better prepared you are for the race and what convolutions race day may throw at you.
Some things that can happen:
a. You want to get a personal record, so you push hard. However, if you don’t train to race at a certain pace, you could flame out or bonk well before the finish line, which causes pain in the form of cramping or wiped out, tired muscles, or mental/emotional frustration because you can’t run as fast as you started and thus disappointment sets in.
b. Related to a., you set some time goal and then set out at that pace, thinking to maintain it the whole way. However, if you don’t train correctly, you could find that you went out too fast and then somewhere around midway your speed starts dropping and you can’t maintain speed. Again, this could lead to muscular and mental pain.
c. Normally races start in the morning, sometimes pretty early. Ironmans usually start at 700a, the Honolulu Marathon I will race later this year starts at 500a. Why? Because as the day wears on, the sun rises. The temperature also rises as well and it may be in the low 50-60s in the morning but may get into the 90s. For example, a buddy of mine told me at Ironman Louisville this year, it was 75 degrees at 700a and rose to 95 degrees by midafternoon: a brutal race for those who have raced Ironman in those conditions.
Some people think it’s cool to kind of meander through the race casually and think it’s going to be a great experience. I can tell you that after 6 Ironmans under my belt, that the more time you are out there, the worse it gets…period.
The longer you are out there, the more your personal resources get used up, both physical and mental. You may even lose the will to keep going, and the probability of you quitting just grows. As the sun rises, the ambient temperature also rises. Believe me it is a different experience racing in 60, 70, 80, or 90 degree weather. Faster races always happen with cooler temps; your body doesn’t have to work as hard trying to cool itself. Your body will use up water and energy to cool itself at higher temps, which could have been used to propel you but instead is used up sweating. In many Ironmans, the wind tends to pick up also later in the day, so if you’re still on the bike, this just gets worse and worse as you fight wind and declining resources to get to the finish line.
Other things have happened, like aid stations will start running out of fluids and nutrition. At Ironman Austria in 2006, at the last moment they let in a few more hundred people, which resulted in aid stations on the bike running out of both fluids and water bottles to pass out as the temps reached the mid-80s midday. I wasn’t the slowest but even when I hit the last 2 aid stations they were already out of water bottles. I can’t imagine what it was like for people after me.
As the race progresses, there is a high probability that you will slow down. So now that you’re slower, the time between aid stations grows. You’re still sweating and getting tired, but can’t get the next batch of fluids and nutrition for a longer period of time, and you need it more now. Great.
One of my main mantras these days is to get faster and to do anything it takes to get faster. That means training smarter, not necessarily harder, but with a focus on improving fitness and speed. It’s all about doing the right things to get to the finish line as fast as possible as I know that the longer I’m out there, the more the potential I’ll have a bad experience.
To me, training properly has a lot to do with pain reduction during a race. I would much rather experience smaller bursts of pain over the course of training for a race than getting to race day and experiencing it there. Preparation in the physical, mental, and emotional aspects are all important in having a great race but if you don’t put in the time and effort beforehand, I guarantee you that you could have a miserable experience out there on the course.

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