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Can I train the brain to deal with pain?

Yes you can – you just need to show your brain who’s boss, says our expert coach

Michael Donlevy
15 Dec 2020

There isn’t one source of ‘pain’ – although in this case we mean ‘suffering’, not injury – and the sources are interlinked. There’s muscular fatigue; the build-up of lactate; oxygen debt and the signals it sends out, such as high heart rate and breathlessness; and there’s mental fatigue.

These act in concert with the central nervous system (CNS) to tell the body we should stop by making us feel pain. It’s not that we’re ‘running out of fuel’, it’s that the function of the CNS here is to protect the body from injury. It limits your output and, in extreme cases, makes you stop.

Pain has a large perceptual element. The good news is that it’s possible to control those perceptions to a degree, so think here of Jens Voigt’s ‘Shut up legs’. How well you do it depends on practice and your mental make-up. Some people just do it better than others.

Psychology starts the moment you climb on the bike. Warming up is important to get muscles up to working temperature and increase blood flow to those muscles, but it can help with the mental process too.

There is lots of evidence that warming up makes subsequent intense efforts easier, and mind and body are linked so both will benefit from a good warm-up. Having a mental routine to run through during your warm-up will also make a positive difference, much like downhill skiers visualising their runs. Visualisation is a powerful and underutilised tool.

One other very effective mental trick is to focus on your technique, for example staying as steady on the bike and pedalling as smoothly as possible. Your form is more liable to collapse at the sort of intensity that elicits pain, so if you can hold your form together you can ride more efficiently and shut out the pain.

Focussing on what you’re doing is a type of association, and you can alternate it with disassociation – where you think of something else that’s nothing to do with cycling or clear your brain of all thought – to shut out the suffering.

The brain works in mysterious ways. For example, there has long been a theory that an energy gel gets working the moment you put it in your mouth because your brain knows the energy is on its way.

In fact there are a number of studies that show swilling carbohydrate around the mouth improves performance, and it seems to work better the more depleted you are. This would appear to be a trick that fools the CNS into lowering the perception of effort.

But banishing pain isn’t all trickery, and there’s a lot of power in positive thinking. Here, some kind of mantra can help: ‘This too will pass,’ or similar. Your heart isn’t going to explode in your chest. Your physiological systems aren’t being pushed to the limit, and there are very few people who can push themselves to the point of passing out.

Even then the CNS has protective mechanisms in place to make you stop when necessary. We usually see this in competition with high-level athletes, and the vast majority won’t do themselves any lasting harm.

In the future, the biggest performance gains will actually come from the mind. The only other area in which we’ll see big improvements is technology, and those will be available to anybody.

The best athlete will beat the best-resourced athlete, and the best athlete will also be the one who can either accept or shut out the pain. And all of these tools can help you too.

The expert

Will Newton is a former Ironman triathlete who is now a cycling, triathlon and endurance coach. He spent eight years as British Cycling’s regional director for the southwest of England. For more info visit limitlessfitness.com

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