Tuesday, October 19, 2010

the pain thing

one of the things that they never tell you when you're being recruited into athletics is that it involves pain. and not just a little, but a lot. and not just possibly, but certainly. sports, in short, hurt.

while such a failure to disclose is not a lie, it is an omission of a material matter, since it has the consequence of subverting our decision-making process by taking out a factor that most of us ordinarily would choose to avoid.

as a result, a fair number of newcomers to active lifestyles invariably end up finding themselves afflicted by a measure of discomfort that they never really expected and in a magnitude that they never really encountered. unprepared and ignorant of how to deal with the pain, they often become overwhelmed by an experience entirely contrary to what they had been led to believe. intimidated, they then do the one thing most logical but ultimately most counter-productive: they quit.

there's a frequent perception--sustained by both sedentary and active communities--that this is just the way things are, and that sports and athletics are things reserved for those of special character, and that they serve as a litmus test revealing those who have the fortitude to deal with hurt and those who lack the qualities to persevere. the mindset is that sports and athletics is the domain of the strong, and that it seeks to weed out the weak. this attitude is reflected in the mantras recited as part of everyday lore: "either you have it in you or you don't," "either you play or you get played," "either you're a player or you're a player-hater," "only for the strong," "only for the brave," "only for those with guts," "you're not in the club," etc.

the underlying message tied to this reference frame is that the ability to participate in sports or athletics is genetic, with athletes being those who don't feel pain and non-athletes being those who do, or alternatively athletes being those who are "strong enough" to deal with pain and non-athletes being those who are "too weak" and crumple before pain.

this is unfortunate, because it runs entirely contrary to the goal--a goal shared by so many in sports and non-sports community alike--of trying to promote active lifestyles in the general population, whether as a form of physical health or personal development. if the goal is to inspire and encourage more people to engage in athletics, then it is entirely self-defeating to delimit them before they even start.

more than that, it's also just simply wrong.

there has always been a contingent of coaches, athletes, and sports medicine personnel who have asserted that athletics can be taught. these perspectives have always argued that as much as athletic ability is determined by genetics, the ability to engage in athletics is not, but is instead something driven by the person and the person's environment. which means that 1) the ability to overcome the challenges of athletics, including the challenge of pain, is driven by a person's ability to deal with those challenges, and 2) such an ability is something that can be trained by the person's environment. in other words: people, if given the right coaching and right coaching environment, can learn how to deal with pain, and deal with it in ways typical and expected for athletes and athletics.

there was an article in the New York Times that references recent sources confirming this:
if the link doesn't work, the full text of the article is at the bottom of this post.

the implication of this is significant relative to sports: anyone can become an athlete. they may not be great, they may not be good, they may not be elite, but they can engage in sports, and in that sense they can be athletes. anyone can adopt an active lifestyle. meaning that the benefits of such a lifestyle are available to anyone willing, able, and accessible to appropriate training.

on a personal note, i have to say this is something i've heard from almost every coach i've encountered: pain is something anyone and everyone in sports encounters and will encounter, but the difference between those who achieve their goals and those who don't is how they respond to the pain...and that response can be trained.

i'll reference Chris Carmichael as an example. Carmichael, long-time coach of Lance Armstrong, always insisted to his amateur clients that Lance felt the same pain they did, but that he had learned over his personal and professional athletic career how to deal with the pain--and to not only deal with it, but to deal with it in ways constructive to his performance as an athlete. Carmichael would always stress that the tools Lance used to do this were the same tools that he taught to everyone, and that they were tools that could be used by anyone.

the message of this is that no one, including newcomers and neophytes, should surrender their athletics too easily, and that they should recognize that active lifestyles and the benefits of active lifestyles are not genetically predetermined but things that can be gained with the right training. all you have to do is to choose to pursue it.

and that means it is not destiny; it is choice.


How to Push Past the Pain, as the Champions Do
By Gina Kolata
New York Times
October 18, 2010

My son, Stefan, was running in a half marathon in Philadelphia last month when he heard someone coming up behind him, breathing hard.

To his surprise, it was an elite runner, Kim Smith, a blond waif from New Zealand. She has broken her country’s records in shorter distances and now she’s running half marathons. She ran the London marathon last spring and will run the New York marathon next month.

That day, Ms. Smith seemed to be struggling. Her breathing was labored and she had saliva all over her face. But somehow she kept up, finishing just behind Stefan and coming in fifth with a time of 1:08:39.

And that is one of the secrets of elite athletes, said Mary Wittenberg, president and chief executive of the New York Road Runners, the group that puts on the ING New York City Marathon. They can keep going at a level of effort that seems impossible to maintain.

“Mental tenacity — and the ability to manage and even thrive on and push through pain — is a key segregator between the mortals and immortals in running,” Ms. Wittenberg said.

You can see it in the saliva-coated faces of the top runners in the New York marathon, Ms. Wittenberg added.

“We have towels at marathon finish to wipe away the spit on the winners’ faces,” she said. “Our creative team sometimes has to airbrush it off race photos that we want to use for ad campaigns.”

Tom Fleming, who coaches Stefan and me, agrees. A two-time winner of the New York marathon and a distance runner who was ranked fourth in the world, he says there’s a reason he was so fast.

“I was given a body that could train every single day.” Tom said, “and a mind, a mentality, that believed that if I trained every day — and I could train every day — I’ll beat you.”

“The mentality was I will do whatever it takes to win,” he added. “I was totally willing to have the worst pain. I was totally willing to do whatever it takes to win the race.”

But the question is, how do they do it? Can you train yourself to run, cycle, swim or do another sport at the edge of your body’s limits, or is that something that a few are born with, part of what makes them elites?

Sports doctors who have looked into the question say that, at the very least, most people could do a lot better if they knew what it took to do their best.

“Absolutely,” said Dr. Jeroen Swart, a sports medicine physician, exercise physiologist and champion cross-country mountain biker who works at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.

“Some think elite athletes have an easy time of it,” Dr. Swart said in a telephone interview. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And as athletes improve — getting faster and beating their own records — “it never gets any easier,” Dr. Swart said. “You hurt just as much.”

But, he added, “Knowing how to accept that allows people to improve their performance.”

One trick is to try a course before racing it. In one study, Dr. Swart told trained cyclists to ride as hard as they could over a 40-kilometer course. The more familiar they got with the course, the faster they rode, even though — to their minds — it felt as if they were putting out maximal effort on every attempt.

Then Dr. Swart and his colleagues asked the cyclists to ride the course with all-out effort, but withheld information about how far they’d gone and how far they had to go. Subconsciously, the cyclists held back the most in this attempt, leaving some energy in reserve.

That is why elite runners will examine a course, running it before they race it. That is why Lance Armstrong trained for the grueling Tour de France stage on l’Alpe d’Huez by riding up the mountain over and over again.

“You are learning exactly how to pace yourself,” Dr. Swart said.

Another performance trick during competitions is association, the act of concentrating intensely on the very act of running or cycling, or whatever your sport is, said John S. Raglin, a sports psychologist at Indiana University.

In studies of college runners, he found that less accomplished athletes tended to dissociate, to think of something other than their running to distract themselves.

“Sometimes dissociation allows runners to speed up, because they are not attending to their pain and effort,” he said. “But what often happens is they hit a sort of physiological wall that forces them to slow down, so they end up racing inefficiently in a sort of oscillating pace.” But association, Dr. Raglin says, is difficult, which may be why most don’t do it.

Dr. Swart says he sees that in cycling, too.

“Our hypothesis is that elite athletes are able to motivate themselves continuously and are able to run the gantlet between pushing too hard — and failing to finish — and underperforming,” Dr. Swart said.

To find this motivation, the athletes must resist the feeling that they are too tired and have to slow down, he added. Instead, they have to concentrate on increasing the intensity of their effort. That, Dr. Swart said, takes “mental strength,” but “allows them to perform close to their maximal ability.”

Dr. Swart said he did this himself, but it took experience and practice to get it right. There were many races, he said, when “I pushed myself beyond my abilities and had to withdraw, as I was completely exhausted.”

Finally, with more experience, Dr. Swart became South Africa’s cross-country mountain biking champion in 2002.

Some people focus by going into a trancelike state, blocking out distractions. Others, like Dr. Swart, have a different method: He knows what he is capable of and which competitors he can beat, and keeps them in his sight, not allowing himself to fall back.

“I just hate to lose,” Dr. Swart said. “I would tell myself I was the best, and then have to prove it.”

Kim Smith has a similar strategy.

“I don’t want to let the other girls get too far ahead of me,” she said in a telephone interview. “I pretty much try and focus really hard on the person in front of me.”

And while she tied her success to having “some sort of talent toward running,” Ms. Smith added that there were “are a lot of people out there who were probably just as talented. You have to be talented, and you have to have the ability to push yourself through pain.”

And, yes, she does get saliva all over her face.

“It’s not a pretty sport,” Ms. Smith said. “You are not looking good at the end.”

As for the race she ran with my son, she said: “I’m sorry if I spit all over Stefan.” (She didn’t, Stefan said.)

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