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February 3, 2009

Taste the Pain

Admin note: By this point, I had been doing track workouts on a regular basis. My split times were dropping from week to week, but one thing that never resolved was the amount of pain involved with running fast. Looking back, I’d still place those workouts very near the top of the list of things I dreaded most in my entire running career.

And yet, they were a necessary means to an end - as the following piece explains. Also, on the topic of pain – and since it’s been a while since I’ve included any music video here – there’s a very fitting old-school rock video at the end of the article.

Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 6: Taste the Pain

Reporter (to Clubber Lang): “Clubber, what is your prediction for the fight?”
Clubber (long pause, staring at camera, scowling): “Pain.”
- from Rocky III

Runners are accustomed to dealing with pain. Even those of us who are passionate about our sport would have difficulty arguing that, for the vast majority of the time, running is an inherently uncomfortable activity.

Everyone has heard of the “runner’s high,” or being in a zone where running becomes effortless and the miles just float by - but let’s be honest: the percentage of time spent in such a zone is extremely small in comparison to any runner’s overall mileage. The predominant physical satisfaction of running only comes afterward- whether it’s the immediate relief of being finished, the satisfaction of achieving a goal, or the more gradual rewards such as an enhanced body shape or higher energy level for our daily routines.

Unfortunately, in order to reap these rewards, there is a price of pain to be paid.

After a great race or exceptional effort, muscle soreness seizes us for the next few days, reminding us of the damage we inflicted upon ourselves. Hard workouts leave us sore and fatigued, and several weeks of conditioning take a cumulative toll on the body. When I’m training for marathons, one of the first indicators of my improved overall conditioning is a constant lingering soreness in nearly every muscle group, lasting for several weeks or more. Those aches tell me that I’ve been working hard, and that once I finally start tapering, I’ll be primed to race.

(In fact, dealing with pain has become such a constant fact of life that when I periodically take a long layoff from running, it strikes me as strange when my legs don’t hurt if they are touched. Runners live a somewhat deranged existence sometimes.)

All athletes deal with pain. In any sport, on almost any level, pain is a factor in how events transpire and which competitor prevails. What distinguishes runners and endurance athletes is that our pain is entirely self-inflicted, whether in training or in competition.

Part of the strategy in team sports (think football) or contact sports (martial arts) is to inflict pain on your opponent while trying to avoid it being repaid. Compare this to running a 10K, where any individual’s actions are basically independent of everyone else. The only thing that allows us to succeed is the ability to override the constant pleas of our rational brain to stop the senseless physical assault on our bodies. Some competitors handle this factor better than others.

Therefore, in addition to high VO2 max and anaerobic threshold, an athlete’s intrinsic capacity to cope with pain is a prime factor in becoming successful. For example, an abnormally high pain tolerance is the reason many cyclists cite when discussing what sets Lance Armstrong apart from the rest of the peloton (although the fact that he has the highest recorded VO2 max on record certainly helps).

As a marathon runner, I was a bit ignorant of the physical toll taken in training for shorter races. I thought that since I would be running shorter distances and fewer days, my body would handle the strain without significant problems. I very quickly learned that running fast hurts. A lot. And it’s a really good way to injure yourself if done foolishly (that lesson only took me a few weeks to understand).

Throughout this season, I’ve had more aches and pains throughout my entire body than during any marathon buildup. My elbows hurt from pumping my arms so fast. My abdomen hurts from stabilizing my flailing limbs during interval after interval. There's soreness in all of my leg muscles that feels like I’m continually on the verge of a muscle strain. And that’s just the pain that occurs between workouts, when I’m not actually running.

On the track, I’m never certain that I’ll summon the willpower required to make myself run fast. It’s an entirely different type of pain than experienced when running long distances.

Think of it this way: imagine that running a marathon is like developing a severe sunburn on a hot day. The pain doesn’t feel too bad to start with, but after several hours, it can become excruciating. By comparison, racing a mile would be like stepping into a shower of scalding hot water, and staying there for (in my case) about five minutes. The resulting burns to your back would be the same, but the manner in which they are acquired is dramatically different. Either way, you’re going to get fried – but which method would you prefer?

During my warmup for each track workout, my stomach gets queasy with dread, and it feels like I’m staring at the burning water, steeling myself to jump in. Almost immediately after I start an interval, I wish I could just quit, to refrain from torturing myself. On most days, I’ve somehow been determined enough to finish the workouts, only to spend the rest of the day dealing with the post-exercise soreness while recuperating. For this novice miler, such experiences are the new normal.

It all begs a question – namely, what is it that drives us? Why do otherwise rational people inflict such misery upon themselves day after day, for no recognition or immediate reward?

Sports psychologists have a field day with this question. Some say that the pain is a form of physical penance for earlier excesses (of food, alcohol, etc), and that the ritual suffering cleanses our conscience until the next time we indulge. Others compare the cycle of suffering and pleasure to that of drug or alcohol abuse - except that we experience the painful component in advance of the euphoria, instead of afterward. There are numerous other theories of how athletes continually drive themselves into repeated bouts of discomfort, but I honestly don’t think it’s that complex.

For me, the main reason that I toil the way that I do is because it is the only way to get better. Despite what many advertisers and product manufacturers want us to believe, there is no easy path to becoming a faster runner. It takes the dedication of hour after hour, hard mile after hard mile, and in many cases, agony after agony.

Sure, I would much rather do easy runs, take days off, and avoid discomfort as much as possible - the problem is, I could never be a 3-hour marathoner that way, or a 5-minute miler, or accomplish any other goal that is truly meaningful to me. I suspect that anyone - from Olympians to back-of-the pack runners – will offer a similar justification.

Finally, here’s the good part. Even though we anguish in striving strive toward meaningful goals, the satisfaction and reward we reap upon accomplishing them is usually worth all the suffering it took to get there. Above all else, that’s the reason we can inflict pain upon ourselves: because a small part of us knows the pleasure we will eventually gain is far greater.

On some days, it’s hard to convince ourselves of this, but then we start to see progress. That’s where I am right now with my mile training - seeing improvements in small doses that encourage me to continue this training cycle towards its eventual conclusion. I’ve slowly forged a sense of confidence that I can break through the five-minute barrier. I also know it will be enormously painful.

So to properly prepare myself, I just have to maintain the motivation to keep jumping into that hot water.

“Walk away and taste the pain-
Come again some other day -
Aren't you glad you weren't afraid?
Funny how the price gets paid.”

- Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Taste the Pain” (click to play):

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


Mark 2/5/09, 5:44 AM  

Really good stuff! It made me think of track workouts and times in racing when I hit the threshold-I'm running on the next breath, trying to catch it and believing I will.

the Dread Pirate Rackham 2/5/09, 9:37 AM  

totally agree with you on the purpose part. I don't push myself into the pain zone the way some do - for most people just getting out there is enough - I'm a relative newbie. I wonder how long you have to be running before you start pushing the speed envelope on purpose?

I referenced/quoted another article you did in my most recent post - which discusses the Why in a roundabout way.

triguyjt 2/5/09, 11:02 AM  

great stuff...makes me realize the times that i think I am in serious pain...not take another breath pain...I really am not.....

robtherunner 2/5/09, 4:33 PM  

I'm lovin the series so far, Donald! I'm all caught up now. Thanks for the good read.

Darrell 2/9/09, 10:23 PM  

After having battled various and sundery pains for the last year, you make me realize I got to work through it to get back to where I want to be. It is a fine line between enduring the pain to achieve a goal and enduring the pain that spells disaster. I hope to get on the right side of that line.

Anonymous,  12/23/10, 5:50 PM  

Nice piece of writing and thinking, on a subject with which I'm getting re-aquainted. The best part is that you've captured the essence of us all, and in that we can take comfort (in a pained way).
Richard A

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