The Willingness To Suffer By Coach Bri Gaal

Posted: March 11, 2011 in Cycling, Information, Race Information, Running, Swimming, Training Information

If you want to become a better triathlete or runner, you have to have a willingness to suffer. The word suffer does not need to have a negative connotation. Although the official definition is to undergo or feel pain or distress,  it can also mean allowing yourself to push beyond your comfort level. Our comfort level is just that – comfortable. It’s working hard, but not hurting too much. It’s breathing hard, but not uneasily so. Willing to suffer can help you break through those barriers.

But how do you do it?

Train yourself to suffer

You have to suffer in training. There is no way around it. We all have goals for the season (at least, I hope we all have goals for the season), and these goals need to be at the forefront of your mind when you need to make it hurt. Training with others can also help push you past places you haven’t been, or don’t usually go by yourself – the hurt locker.

Every training session should not be a suffer-fest. Key training sessions, breakthrough workouts, and workouts that your coach marks “Do not miss this one!” are the ones where you need to focus and be willing to suffer.

Growing up, there was a very well known high school running coach in my area. I remember reading an article about one of his best athletes who had just had an amazing race. When asked how she had such a breakthrough performance she said, “Coach told me I needed to run with PAT today. Pain, Agony and Torture.” Now that seems a bit extreme, but the idea of it has never left me. Be open and embrace the discomfort – yeah, okay PAT, I’m ready to run with you today.

Suffering takes experience

Experience is needed to know how and how much to suffer. Everyone’s perceived pain tolerance is different. I was once told that if something hurt, that was your body’s way of telling you to slow down. I was completely baffled by this idea – how will you ever make any athletic gains if you don’t ever allow your body to hurt? But my hurt and your hurt may be completely different. Training at different effort levels, at different paces and heart rate zones can all help us develop our own internal guide. All of this will help when you get to your races, but pure racing experience is tough to simulate. So get out there and sign up for some races!

Suffering in races

Suffering in racing can be easier for some folks, but here’s the thing – you can’t expect to show up to a race and put up with racing discomfort when you have never put yourself in that type of discomfort in your training. Magic doesn’t just ‘happen’ on race day. You wouldn’t show up to a race and expect to swim fast if you haven’t swum fast in training, right? Aha – caught some of you. It’s time to go throw in some really hard intervals on short rest in the pool! 😉

As mentioned above, every race does not need to be a suffer-fest. This can lead to burnout very quickly. That’s why it’s good to have ‘B’ and ‘C’ races where you may be dialing down the effort, working on something specific, or just not worrying about your finish and simply having fun. When you toe the line for your ‘A’ race, though, you’ll be ready to go to that proverbial well.

Check your ego

This is an interesting quote:  “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily…” I can relate this quote to many aspects of training, but it also resonates with racing. Have you ever gotten close to the end of the race and seen another competitor up ahead? You can dig really deep and try and beat them to the line. It’s going to hurt and, and – gasp – what if you fail?! It would be so much easier to just sit back here in this comfortable position and finish. But, so what if you don’t catch them? You have shown yourself that you’re not done racing until you cross that line, no matter what the outcome may be.  And of all the outcomes that could happen…failing to try your best is definitely NOT going to be one of them.

Mental Tricks

There are many different ways to handle suffering other than just telling yourself to suck it up. If fact, telling yourself, “suck it up,” is so intangible it may not help at all.
Remove yourself from the situation. I don’t mean in a way that causes you to lose focus on the task at hand, but in a way that you can put some of the discomfort your feeling toward the back of your mind.

I remember reading that when Shalane Flanagan won the bronze medal in the 10K at the Beijing Olympics, she imagined she was doing one of her hard runs on the Tobacco Trail. There she was, vying for a medal in arguably one of the most important races of her life and she’s mentally putting herself on a trail where she knows she’s had fantastic runs and can stay relaxed, rather than getting wrapped up in the high pressure moment.

Focus on specific form cues. Having short mantras you can repeat can get your mind focused on something that will enhance your race, while also alleviating negative self talk. Here are couple of examples I will use. During the swim: “Reach…and pull” During the run: “Quick feet, elbows in.”

Develop some of your own form cues to concentrate on

Come up with small goals. Sometimes you may need to resort to bargaining with yourself: you can walk at the next aid station, or, run 3 more light poles, walk 1, run 3 more. These little goals can help break the race and/or training down into doable parts when you’re having a particularly rough time.

Draw confidence from some of your hard training sessions. “I got through that horrible bike workout where coach had me do multiple 20min rounds at Z4…I can get through this!” or “Remember those mile repeats you nailed? You were strong then and you can be strong now.”
Run with PAT.

Finally, I need to stress that when I’m talking about suffering and pain, I’m referring to workout discomfort, NOT injury pain. There is a big difference between pushing your body to make physical gains and knowing when to stop because you’re going to hurt yourself. As an endurance athlete it is extremely important to understand when to say when…and when to not say when. Sometimes this only comes through experience, but often times it comes from listening to your body and responding appropriately.

Coach Bri Gaal of One Step Beyond is certified with USA Triathlon and USA Track and Field.  She has suffered a lot over her athletic career, in a good way.

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Comments
  1. Jen Harrison says:

    Great read, Bri !!! Thanks. :))

  2. Frank says:

    So much well-meaning wisdom today counsels us “not to beat ourselves up.” We fail to understand that there are times we MUST beat ourselves up. I believe that any commitment and discipline comes form breaking our own will, over and over again, and submitting to What Is Required.

  3. neevaN says:

    @Frank, how does one break one’s own will?

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