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How to manage pain when cycling

29 Apr 2021

No sport embraces pain quite like cycling. Here’s some expert advice on how best to deal with it

Words: Pete Muir Photography: Sean Hardy

Eddy Merckx once said, ‘The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most.’ It’s hard to argue against 525 professional victories including all the Grand Tours and Monuments, but was Merckx right? Does the key to success lie in how well we can cope with pain?

‘I’d say there’s an element of truth to that,’ says Neal Henderson, head of sports science for Wahoo, the US-based company that owns training platform The Sufferfest.

‘I’d use the term “exercise-induced discomfort” as opposed to pain. Pain is something that’s actually causing damage; exercise-induced discomfort means that when you stop, it goes away and you can do it again.

'But yes, there’s an element of being able to dig deep and go to that next level that’s associated with good performances.’

‘You know those tests where people put their hand in a bucket of ice until it hurts and then time how long they can endure the pain?’ adds Mac Cassin, senior physiologist at Wahoo and The Sufferfest, who was himself coached by Henderson.

‘Studies show that the point at which it hurts – your pain threshold – is about the same for everyone regardless of training. But elite athletes, particularly endurance athletes, can last twice as long as everyone else.’

So pain tolerance and performance are intrinsically linked, but is it something that can be taught and improved in the same way as power output?

‘Think of a firefighter,’ Henderson says. ‘The normal response to a fire is you don’t run into it. But with the right training you can manage the task in a dangerous situation.

With an athlete at maximal effort, there are basically fire alarms going off in your brain saying, “Stop, it hurts.” The skill is to manage those messages to continue doing the task, and those skills need to be trained like any other.

‘It’s not about ignoring the messages. There’s no point trying to think about butterflies or whatever while you’re in a time-trial effort.

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'You have to be in the moment and paying attention to form and technique. You might say to yourself, “OK, the alarms are going off, we have 10km to go, we’re going to keep going. I can do this.”’

Cassin adds, ‘If I was in a pursuit or time-trial, when I got the alarm bells I’d tell myself, like a mantra, this is supposed to hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.’

It’s not that elite athletes can block out the pain, it’s that they have learned to accept it and deal with it.

‘When you talk to someone like Rohan Dennis after a time-trial and you ask him what hurts, he replies, “Everything”,’ says Henderson, who used to coach the former Time-Trial World Champion.

‘Everything hurt because it was perfectly balanced to do that, and that takes years of training and finessing to master.’

Feel the pain and do it anyway

Cassin suggests the first step towards mastering pain should be to make a list of the reasons why you’re doing this. If you’re punishing yourself doing intervals on a turbo trainer, it helps to remember why: ‘Perhaps you’re trying to lose weight, or you want to beat your mates up a local climb, or you’re trying to win an Olympic medal. If you can articulate those reasons it can get you through those tough patches.’

Next, Henderson suggests finding your own positive mantra that you can repeat when the mental alarms go off. Something simple like you got this.

After that it’s time to understand how your body feels when working at the limit. Henderson says, ‘Close your eyes during an effort – on a turbo, as it’s best not to try this outside. What sensations do you feel? What does your heart rate feel like? What’s your posture like, the tension in your shoulders, the sensation in your legs?

'I get riders to do this for maybe three minutes, then build up to five or 10 minutes. The best athletes have that internally developed sense of their power, cadence, muscle tension and breathing rate for a particular effort.’

Learning to read your own body also offers a chance to adapt your technique to help reduce pain in particular areas. Cassin says, ‘You might take a look inside yourself and say, “Actually my legs don’t feel too bad but I’m breathing so hard it feels like my lungs are about to jump out.”

'Being able to recognise that means you could switch into a bigger gear to put less stress on your cardio system and more on your muscular.’

It’s pain time!

How often should we train ourselves to deal with pain? ‘Five minutes a week is better than nothing at all,’ Henderson says. ‘Five minutes of visualisation – seeing yourself doing what you want to do – can be incredibly powerful.’

And what about those gut-wrenching, leg-searing turbo sessions where you explore the depths of your pain cave while muttering positive mantras?

‘Literally all-out?’ asks Henderson. ‘I’d say about every eight to 12 weeks. Sure, do an intense training session once or twice a week, but a lot more than that is simply too much.’

When asked which of the pros they’ve worked with impressed them most in their ability to cope with pain, Cassin says, ‘When it comes to training, Chloe Dygert [former Time-Trial World Champion]. I’ve never seen someone do a motor pace session on the track, collapse onto the ground, lay there for five minutes, get back up and do that same effort at the same exact speed again. Phenomenal.’

Henderson says, ‘Sarah Hammer [US track cyclist] is one of the toughest in terms of being able to go deep in races.’

Their answers beg the question: is it true that women can simply deal with pain better then men? Cassin is unequivocal: ‘Yes, they can.’