Friday, May 30, 2014

It gets harder and then you go faster: new research on pain and performance

Remember the old saw: it doesn't get any easier; you just get faster?  The first part is easier to understand, but that second part is a mystery.  How do you get faster?  Do you stop feeling the pain as acutely, allowing you to go faster?  Or does your body adopt and you still go at the same pain level?  How does this work?

There's some evidence that, at least one part of the improvement in performance, we get faster because we learn to tolerate more pain.

A recent study found correlation between pain tolerance and performance in elite swimmers (the pain test: how many times they could squeeze their fist while blood flow to the hand was cut off). Better swimmers were able to tolerate more pain than average swimmers.  Note, better swimmers still rated the pain at the same level of pain, they just were able to continue through the pain longer.  

Even more interesting, researchers found that the level of pain swimmers could tolerate changed throughout the season.  During the peak period when swimmerss achieved their fastest times, they could also tolerate more pain than they had during the off season.

The saying should be, it gets way harder, and that's how you get faster.

I purchased my first road bike six years ago and didn't know any better than to use it in triathlons.  Attire was a sleeveless top that, when I bent over the handlebars, lifted above my Performance brand shorts, revealing a bit of muffin top.  Training was riding out to Anglers and back on MacArthur, about 22 miles, in erratic bursts of twerking on the pedals followed by erratic bursts of coasting and trying to pull down my sleeveless top over my heaving, hairy muffintop.  Other cyclists were wheels to grab.

In the winter I showed up to a Coppi ride, leaving out of Dean & Deluca.  It was 70 miles out into Maryland, across the Potomac by ferry, and then back up on the W&OD.  I only hung on because I had no idea where we were and I knew I'd die if they left me out there.

The misery of that ride still sticks with me.  It was all I thought about for weeks: how painful it was.

Soon after I decided I wanted to race my bike I broke my collarbone and while recovering I bought a trainer and the entire Coach Troy Sufferfest catalog. I did them assiduously, believing firmly in the value of utmost effort.  Every effort was maximal.  I ruined the apartment floor with the chum my body threw off from the effort; it was so beyond sweat that I don't even know what to call it.

Something had convinced me of the malleability of the body.  I'm not sure this was entirely positive.  In fact, I was abusive.  I firmly believed improvement was almost entirely a matter of effort and suffering.  Spare the rod, spoil the body.

I'm not sure why I came to believe this.  It just happened that one day I suddenly realized every day for a month or two I'd been forcing myself to the point of suffocation and unimaginable misery.

And when the Sufferfest was over, I felt great.  My carpet, despite layers of towels and rubber mats, was becoming a swamp, but I felt great.

I'd hated this suffering part when I'd run track, 15 years earlier.  I'd dreaded it.

When I started into my Sufferfest phase, I spent much of the workday anticipating the misery I was about to enjoy.  I was always pushing for more.

I still recall the misery of those intervals.

For the next few years my training load and the pain I put myself through deepened.  Funnily enough, though, I thought about it less.  I didn't notice it as much.  I had weird moments where, after a 100-mile ride and a complete bonk, I felt as if I hadn't really suffered.

I noticed that my competitors talked about the pain less.  They talked about tactics or conditions or even the place of this in their season, but they rarely spent a lot of time having to process what they'd just done to themselves.

I'm not suggesting it was a choice.  It was just something that came naturally because it happened so frequently, and it had been the case for years, for most of them.

There's no way to shortcut that tolerance-building.  You just have to subject yourself to as much misery as you can.

Coaches recommend tons of sub-maximal work, very precisely focused intervals and refined load and recovery.  But I think they miss what is most essential in training, and that is to thrash yourself, especially in the build and race periods.

That's it.  Thrash yourself. Get used to it.


1 comment:

myk said...

I 100% subscribe to this. I feel like _most_ of training for racing is an exercise in building up pain tolerance, and you do that through hard interval training, and riding with people faster than you.

You can either add raw power to a part of your power profile, or train your body to withstand the pain of riding at insanely high heart rates for set periods of time. Ideally, both.

The "breakthrough" moments I've experienced in my training lately have come from efforts where I'm already at the rivet, but still manage to recover in that space, or attack out of it.

It's a much different feeling than simply adding 20 watts to my 5 minute power.

It's a good thing that I live around lots of people faster than me.