The Soap Box: About Pain. Using Pain to be a Better Mountain Biker

Words by Dr Jeremy Adams | Images by Jordan Cole

If you’ve ever trained on or off your bike, chances are you’ve come up against a pain barrier. A part of you wants to keep going, but a much larger part tells you to slow down. So most of the time we do – which is fine, until we actually have to perform at or beyond that pain barrier – like in a race.

Pain sucks. And it’s supposed to. Pain is there for a good reason – when it happens, as far as your body is concerned (or, more specifically, the part of your brain that monitors input from different parts of the body), something is wrong. And because we seldom doubt that this system is giving us anything but useful information, we usually listen to it.

And let’s face it: mountain biking is a painful sport. Climbs hurt, descents hurt, falling off hurts, getting back on hurts…

But here’s the thing. Whilst it’s true that pain can be a useful warning signal, it’s important for any athlete to be familiar with the different types and levels of warning. Many of us experience pain as one thing, sort of like an on/off switch. We interpret pain as either manageable or intolerable. But it can be a lot subtler. Some pain requires your immediate attention: injury pain says that something is damaged and ongoing activity will make that damage worse. Most high-level athletes know when damage has occurred and don’t try to “push through” – the consequences are usually a lot worse than losing a few competition points*.

Other types of pain can be extremely useful though. Muscle pain when we’re riding (assuming it’s not from an injury) alerts us to poor riding position, poor technique, inadequate fuelling, low hydration, or tension. Pain from riding hard above your anaerobic threshold means that you’re in oxygen debt and have an increasing lactic acid build-up in your muscles (meaning you’ve got a limited amount of time left before you need to stop). And for these types of pain it takes a lot more than we think to do damage. In other words, the only thing stopping you from continuing to perform alongside these types of pain is you.

Now, this is not the part where I tell you “no pain, no gain”, and advise you to “muscle through it”. First, that would be pointless. If it were easy to muscle through your pain, you’d already be doing it. Second, as powerful as we think willpower is, it has a definite time limit. Willpower only lasts so long (before needing to reset) so, if that’s all you have to rely on, once it’s gone, you’re done.

Nope, learning to ride with pain is not about increasing willpower, it’s about removing distraction. After all, that’s all that pain is: a large distraction. And we can overcome distraction in two ways: by increasing our tolerance, and by increasing our focus.

Increasing pain tolerance is not really what it sounds like. It’s not like training montages in martial-arts movies. It’s about listening to the pain, determining what’s actually going on, and acting differently. Most of us try and distract ourselves when we’re in pain, which is a really bad idea. If we’re distracted, we’re not paying attention, and if you’re not paying attention on your bike, things go wrong. So instead of distracting yourself by thinking of other things, you need to learn to think about what the pain is telling you. If you’re fatigued, for example, it means that your technique is likely to get sloppy (which can have nasty consequences on the bike). So back off a small amount, and focus consciously on your form: body position, head position, balance point, etc.

Training yourself to pay attention (increasing your focus) when you’re in pain, has a triple effect: (1) it helps to identify a problem; (2) it keeps you focused when you’re most likely to fail; and (3) it helps you train yourself to perform better when you’re fatigued. Let’s look at each of these areas in a little more depth.

1)   Learn to read what your pain is telling you. You can’t do anything about a problem if you’re not aware that it’s there. So learning to read your body and determine what a pain message means is paramount. As I’ve said, fatigue should mean paying greater attention to your technique. But cramping can mean “slow down and rehydrate”; loss of power even though you’re working hard can mean “you need fuel”; and back or neck pain can mean that “your body position needs attention”.
2)   When you’re in pain, practise focusing on whatever is getting sloppy. If pain is about getting your attention it’s also about focusing that attention on what’s important. One of the biggest things that pain can tell us is that there’s a higher risk of immanent failure. So bringing your conscious attention to what you need to do at that point becomes paramount.
3)   Train under fatigue. Training well when you’re physically, emotionally, and psychologically fatigued (states usually associated with pain) trains you to perform better when you actually need it. It’s all very well to perform well when you’re feeling great, but it’s the mistakes we make when we’re tired and distracted that result in injury or catastrophe. Notice when your focus is flagging, and pay even more attention to what you’re doing. Ensure your form stays good when you’re fatigued or in pain.

 

OK – if paying attention is the key, how do we pay more attention, especially when we’re distracted? First, we need to learn to notice when we’re distracted. Rather than cover old ground here, take a minute to read my article on ‘Riding in the Hear and Now’ (http://flowmountainbike.com/features/the-soapbox-riding-in-the-here-and-now/). Remember, whenever you notice that you’re distracted deliberately bring your attention back to what’s going on right now. Do this whenever you’re riding and you find yourself daydreaming, or distracting yourself because you’re in pain. Next, focus on what the pain is telling you and do something about it (see above).

Last, practise focusing on what’s actually important right now. Whether it’s about finishing a training set (well), making it through a technical section when you’re hurting, or getting to the top of a hill, there’s a good reason that you’re doing whatever you’re doing. As much as you might be hurting, you chose to be on your bike. Doing whatever you’ve chosen to do, to the best of your ability and in the here and now, is a lot more important than any uncomfortable feelings you might have^.

 

* Seriously, pushing through an injury is not a good idea – get off your bike (assuming you can still ride it) and get medical attention.

^ I’ve deliberately avoided talking about chronic pain in this article. It’s a different beast altogether, but also something we can do a lot about. If you’re having issues with chronic pain, get in touch and I’ll talk you though your options.


 

About the author:

Dr. Jeremy Adams is a registered psychologist and director of Eclectic Consulting Ltd. He divides his time between mountain biking, working with athletes and other performers, executive coaching, and private practice.

In past lives, Jeremy has been a principal lecturer in sport and performance psychology at a university in London, a senior manager in a large consulting firm in Melbourne, a personal trainer in Paris, and a scuba instructor in Byron Bay. He’s also the author of a textbook on performance in organisational management, a large range of professional and popular articles, and a regular blog about how to be human (www.eclectic-moose.com).

Jeremy is based in Melbourne and can be contacted through his website (www.eclectic-consult.com) or on (03) 9016 0306.

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