The wheels were coming off, and all I could do was watch them roll away. This was my third straight August running the Pikes Peak Ascent in Manitou Springs, USA, and I'd begun the day confident, ready to put hard-won lessons to work.
My first year at Pikes, I’d entered on a whim, overconfident and undertrained, and I’d lumbered to the finish line, 13.3 miles and 7,815 feet above the start, thoroughly spanked.
The next year, I'd come prepared to expect a finish time akin to a road marathon. I'd upped my mileage and practised running above 14,000 feet, but still I'd limped home after aggravating an old Achilles injury. Today I was ready for a charmed third try. I was fit, healthy and confident of a top-10 finish. Maybe I'd even break three hours if all went well.
I'd begun at a moderate pace as planned, but when I reached No Name Creek, about four and a half miles in, where I'd intended to start pushing, my body refused to follow the script. My quads and hamstrings tightened then seized, my chest constricted, my arms went all noodley, and a paralysing fatigue overtook me. It was nothing less than slow-motion agony.
My confidence evaporated, and a downward spiral of negative thoughts engulfed me. I was wallowing in dread at the many miles I had left to plod, when a spectator pumped her fist at me and shouted, "Looking great! You're in eighth place!"
In an instant, my world changed. The weight in my legs lifted, my breathing relaxed, and my spirit crawled out of its hole. Suddenly I didn't just look great to my anonymous fan, I actually felt great, too. So great that I picked up the pace and finished the race sixth overall. My time, 3:08:21, wasn't quite what I'd hoped for, yet I'd turned a disaster into a solid performance.
But how? As I sat at the finish, watching runners trudge up the final switchbacks like a swarm of ants, I wondered what had happened down there. What exactly was that misery I'd experienced early on? What purpose had it served, and why had the pain evaporated with one tidbit of positive information? Is pain and suffering a psychological phenomenon that can be overcome like a bad mood, or is it a danger signal that can't be ignored?
Perceived Exertion (PE)
To better understand the nature of pain, I started talking to scientists. And the short answer, say these experts, is that the discomfort associated with a hard effort is sort of like the 'check engine' light in your car – serious enough to warrant attention, but more of an early warning than a beacon of death.
While you run, your brain gauges the factors that determine the pace you can maintain – your fitness level, the heat, your fuel levels, the course profile – then adds physiological feedback it receives to devise a feeling of perceived effort, says exercise physiologist Jonathan Dugas, co-author of the blog Science of Sport (sportsscientists.com). Researchers call this sensation a rating of perceived exertion (PE). You feel it as fatigue in your legs, tightness in your chest, soreness in your muscles, aching in your feet and heat on your face.
If you try to push yourself to perform beyond your body's physiological limits, "your brain will always protect you, and it does that by adjusting your PE", says Dugas. "It's your brain's way of saying, 'Hey stupid – you can't keep this up.'" In my case, I was running a strong race, but it required more physical stress than I'd expected, so my brain stepped in to remind me.
The spectator's positive cue had changed my interpretation of the discomfort I was feeling, says Alan Utter, an exercise physiologist at Appalachian State University, North Carolina, USA. "Nothing changed physiologically; it was purely psychological," he says. The news that I could attain a top-10 finish had altered how I viewed my muscle fatigue and other signals that had been driving my pain perception up to that point. Instead of taking my discomfort as a sign I was exploding, I now saw it as a symptom of success. "Your brain received an external cue, and it sent commands down to your muscles to keep going," Utter says. "This is why coaches shout from the sidelines."
Just as important, the cheering helped me shut down my negative self-talk, according to sports psychologist Stephen Walker, editor of Podium Sports Journal. The knowledge that I was running within my goals had refocused my mind from thoughts like 'I feel crappy' to ones like 'I'm on target'. "How you talk to yourself in that situation can really define your race," he says. "You need to focus on exactly how you want your body and muscles to feel."
Experience plays a major role in how we interpret pain, says Utter. The year after my miraculous turnaround at Pikes Peak, I returned again and finished within six seconds of my previous year's time – and this time it felt easier. My experience illustrates a component of pain perception that Utter calls teleoanticipation. "The pace you set at the beginning of a race and throughout is based on prior experiences," he says. "Your brain remembers the last marathon that you ran and how you felt and uses that as a benchmark to set your intensity by."
Teleoanticipation explains why it's easier to speed up in the final mile of a race than early in a 10K. "When you only have a mile left, you can usually handle more pain, because you know where your endpoint is," says Utter. "When that anticipatory response kicks in, you can often pick up the pace."
Your expectations about pain going into a race come from your training experiences, says Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of neuromuscular and mitochondrial disorders at McMaster University Medical Centre, Ontario, Canada, and an accomplished runner. "You have to train your pain threshold just as you train your lactic threshold," he says. In fact, the same kinds of intervals that up your lactate threshold also improve your pain tolerance, because they teach your brain what it feels like to approach your limit and keep going, he says. This is both a physical and psychological process – your body adapts to the exercise, while your mind learns to cope with the discomfort and develop confidence that you can handle the pain.
Outsmart Pain: How to mentally fight suffering
1. Believe you can handle the hurt
Like most runners, you probably realise when pain is coming, so plan for how you'll react. If you know that your legs will burn in the last mile, anticipate this feeling and turn it into a cue that the finish is near and you're on target.
Your physiology sets limits on how fast you can go, but self-confidence can nudge your brain into allowing you closer to that limit before it cranks the pain to make you stop, says exercise physiologist Jonathan Dugas.
2. Try relaxing. Seriously
If you're hurting, don't fight the feeling – relax and listen to what your body is telling you. "Digging deeper will just get you deeper in a hole," says coach Ric Rojas. Instead, try relaxing the muscle groups that you're not using in order to save energy and run more efficiently, says William Gayton, a sports psychologist at the University of Southern Maine, USA. "Your forehead muscles don't need to be tense."
3. Challenge negative self-talk
Seize your power to reframe your pain. "If you find yourself focusing on how tired you are, you might turn that around and say, 'So what? Tiredness is normal, it comes in waves, and it's not going to last forever,'" says Gayton. "The thought 'my legs are killing me' might be countered by telling yourself, 'that's a good sign. I must be really working it. Keep it up!'"
4. Divide and conquer
You can tolerate more pain when you know an endpoint is near, says exercise physiologist Alan Utter. Use this phenomenon to your advantage by breaking a race into manageable chunks, focusing on intermediate landmarks. Tell yourself that you just need to tolerate the pain until the top of the next hill instead of focusing on the far-off finish.