The art of suf­fer­ing,

If you want to win races, you have to be able to tol­er­ate pain. But what does suf­fer­ing on a bike re­ally mean? Can it be mea­sured, tested and trained? Tom Daly in­ves­ti­gates

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Some years ago, while brows­ing cy­cling ar­ti­cles on­line, I be­gan sav­ing im­ages of Sean Kelly with pain etched all over his face. These photos were, it struck me, ar­che­typal por­traits of suf­fer­ing. They in­trigued me be­cause, like great works of art, they seemed to of­fer a tan­ta­lis­ing glimpse into the hu­man con­di­tion pushed to an ex­treme, chal­leng­ing my imag­i­na­tion. I could only won­der at them and spec­u­late on the depth of the suf­fer­ing be­trayed by Kelly’s gri­mace. I won­dered, where does my abil­ity to suf­fer rank by com­par­i­son? Why does one cy­clist will­ingly en­dure hor­ri­ble pain for the sake of a bike race while others de­cide it’s too much to bear?

Ev­ery­one agrees that suf­fer­ing is syn­ony­mous with cy­cling, and that the abil­ity to tol­er­ate pain is a vi­tal part of per­for­mance. Fausto Coppi, who many con­sider the great­est of all, put it sim­plest: “Cy­cling is suf­fer­ing.” Eddy Mer­ckx added a lit­tle more ex­pla­na­tion: “Cy­clists live with pain. If you can’t han­dle it, you will win noth­ing. The race is won by the rider who can suf­fer the most.”

The Amer­i­can ex-pro­fes­sional Bob Roll said that “suf­fer­ing is the coin of the realm in cy­cling”, and his fel­low coun­try­man and Olympian Scott Martin added: “To be a cy­clist is to be a stu­dent of pain. At cy­cling’s core lies pain. If you never con­front pain, you’re miss­ing the essence of the sport.”

It’s all very well great cy­clists com­ment­ing on the im­por­tance of suf­fer­ing, but how does it ac­tu­ally help us? It is dif­fi­cult to find in­struc­tive in­sights into the ex­pe­ri­ence from pros. Even the most ar­tic­u­late among them don’t seem able. Af­ter set­ting his Hour record of 49.431km in 1972, in Mex­ico City, Mer­ckx sim­ply said: “I will never try it again.” Twen­tyeight years later, af­ter beat­ing Mer­ckx’s record by 10 me­tres, Chris Board­man ex­pressed a sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment: “If I’d known how hard it was go­ing to be, I would never have at­tempted it. The last 15 min­utes were ter­ri­ble.” There is no way of mea­sur­ing suf­fer­ing de­spite all the data avail­able to mod­ern coach­ing. The best pa­ram­e­ter we have, lac­tate con­cen­tra­tion in the blood, merely co­in­cides with dis­com­fort; no di­rect link be­tween lac­tate and pain (so-called ‘lac­tate burn’) has ever been proved. We have com­puter-based scales such as ‘In­ten­sity Fac­tor’ and ‘Suf­fer Score’ but these are cal­cu­lated by al­go­rithms writ­ten by de­vel­op­ers — they don’t get near to dis­till­ing what we see etched on the faces of rid­ers like Kelly.

The truth is, we have no ad­e­quate met­ric for suf­fer­ing. It re­mains an enig­matic and elu­sive fea­ture of our sport. Each rider’s suf­fer­ing is their own — we can­not com­pare it to our own, we can only imag­ine. I might like to be­lieve I’m more pain-re­silient than another rider, but I’ll never know for cer­tain.

Psy­chol­ogy of suf­fer­ing

Though the abil­ity to man­age suf­fer­ing is with­out doubt a key req­ui­site for suc­cess, it still re­mains a ne­glected part of prepa­ra­tion. Men­tal train­ing is rarely ad­dressed in a struc­tured

“Why does one cy­clist en­dure hor­ri­ble pain while others de­cide it’s too much to bear?”

way. As cy­cling writer Graeme Fife put it in his es­say ‘Ex Duris Glo­ria’ (‘Glory through Suf­fer­ing’), “Suf­fer­ing is one thing; know­ing how to suf­fer is quite another.”

Nonethe­less, progress has been made re­cently in psy­chol­ogy, in terms of pro­vid­ing prac­ti­cal guide­lines. A pop­u­lar the­ory, stem­ming from the work of Pro­fes­sor Tim Noakes at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, sug­gests that the fi­nal lim­iter of ef­fort is a ‘cen­tral gov­er­nor’ in the brain, which shuts down ef­fort to pro­tect the body from be­ing pushed, by the ath­lete, to dan­ger­ous lev­els of ex­haus­tion. (It is thought that Tom Simp­son’s death on Mont Ven­toux may have re­sulted from am­phet­a­mines in­hibit­ing his brain’s cen­tral gov­er­nor, al­low­ing him lit­er­ally to ride him­self to death.)

Ac­cord­ing to this the­ory, the abil­ity to ma­nip­u­late the cen­tral gov­er­nor — to raise the level of ex­er­tion at which it kicks in — is the mar­ginal (or per­haps even sub­stan­tial) gain that sep­a­rates win­ners from the rest. How­ever, even Noakes him­self, writ­ing in the jour­nal Fron­tiers of Psy­chol­ogy in 2012, ac­knowl­edged: “How ath­letes and coaches achieve this win­ning men­tal at­ti­tude is the great un­known.”

A con­trast­ing school of thought, scep­ti­cal of the cen­tral gov­er­nor the­ory, is be­ing de­vel­oped by var­i­ous re­searchers in­clud­ing Pro­fes­sor Sa­muele Mar­cora of the Univer­sity of Kent. Mar­cora con­ducted an ex­per­i­ment in which he asked cy­clists to ride to ex­haus­tion. Then came the trick: as they hit their per­ceived point of no re­turn, he urged them to ride as hard as they could for another five sec­onds — dur­ing which they man­aged to put out three times higher power. It proved that a sim­ple men­tal strat­egy could triple rid­ers’ out­put af­ter they’d felt they were at the end of their per­for­mance tether. The im­pli­ca­tion is that the ul­ti­mate lim­iter of per­for­mance is per­cep­tion of ef­fort rather than a phys­i­o­log­i­cal bar­rier.

Train to suf­fer

Many suc­cess­ful rid­ers have in­de­pen­dently de­vel­oped meth­ods for deal­ing with pain which are now be­ing for­malised by psy­chol­o­gists; we can learn from both sources.

Some of these are clas­si­fied as ‘dis­trac­tion or dis­so­ci­a­tion’ meth­ods; for ex­am­ple, pick­ing a wheel to hang on to when we are on the verge of crack­ing on a big climb — fo­cus­ing on the wheel dis­tracts from the dis­com­fort.

Aus­tralian time tri­al­list Felic­ity Ward­law de­scribed a bizarre dis­so­ci­a­tion tech­nique that helped her to be­come na­tional cham­pion: “I de­vel­oped a se­ries of power thoughts, power words and power im­ages. I imag­ined I was a pan­ther. I could see my­self look­ing through the eyes of this pan­ther, in that I was fast, re­laxed, smooth, pow­er­ful and lean. I prac­tised this dur­ing sev­eral train­ing ses­sions, and dur­ing the Na­tion­als I re­ally used this to over­come the pain and trans­fer it away from my legs.”

When I caught up with Sean Kelly to ask him about suf­fer­ing, he de­scribed a mo­ti­va­tional tech­nique that Mar­cora clas­si­fies as ‘mo­ti­va­tional self-talk’. When near­ing his limit, Kelly tried to con­vince him­self that ev­ery­one else was suf­fer­ing at least as much as he was. Cy­cling cham­pi­ons and psy­chol­o­gists agree that, what­ever strat­egy is used, you have to reg­u­larly train and race with pain in or­der to man­age it well. Pain never gets less painful, but we get bet­ter at tol­er­at­ing it.

In his book Faster, mul­ti­ple time trail cham­pion and CW writer

“Cham­pi­ons and psy­chol­o­gists agree that you have to train and race with pain to man­age it well”

Michael Hutchin­son puts it as fol­lows: “That it ‘hurts’ is al­most nei­ther here nor there. You try to tol­er­ate it, em­brace it, put it in a box, lux­u­ri­ate in it, turn your back and go to your happy place, deal with it in what­ever other way you can. You have to go back again and again, and while you get bet­ter at it, it never gets easy.”

The im­pli­ca­tion is clear: ev­ery racer should in­cor­po­rate men­tal train­ing into their prepa­ra­tion. In my coach­ing work (mccm.iwsi.ie) I pre­scribe a sprint work­out based on Mar­cora’s the­ory of trick­ing the mind to go be­yond its per­ceived lim­its: three 15-sec­ond full­gas sprints to a road sign, hold­ing noth­ing back, with eight-minute re­cov­er­ies. When you reach the sign on the last sprint, no mat­ter how ex­hausted, surge again for at least three pedal rev­o­lu­tions. Most, to their sur­prise, find that they can do the ex­tra surge; with pur­pose­ful train­ing, they can ex­tend their pre­con­ceived lim­its.

Sim­i­larly, based on the ‘self-talk strat­egy’ de­scribed by Mar­cora (see left), I help pre­pare rac­ers for key events by iden­ti­fy­ing likely make-or-break sce­nar­ios in which self-talk mo­ti­va­tion might make a dif­fer­ence. In a long race that is go­ing to end in a bunch sprint, for ex­am­ple, we would iden­tify a land­mark, per­haps 5km from the fin­ish, when the rider will be­gin to use both mo­ti­va­tional and in­struc­tional self-talk along the lines of: “Ev­ery­one else is just as ex­hausted as I am… There are only 10 min­utes left… This is the time to dig deep… If you just sit on a wheel you’ll fin­ish in the bunch and waste the last two hours of ef­fort… Start mov­ing up in the bunch…. Make the ef­fort… Move on the shel­tered side.”

The mes­sage is that ev­ery rider can get deeper into the pain cave through men­tal train­ing, which can make a cru­cial dif­fer­ence.

Though our knowl­edge of how to man­age suf­fer­ing is im­prov­ing, there is an aes­thetic or tran­scen­den­tal el­e­ment — the part that is be­yond log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion. This is best de­scribed as a re­la­tion­ship and rap­port with pain that is out­side of ob­serv­able hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence and com­pre­hen­sion. Some even de­scribe it in terms of beauty. British pro Mark Mc­nally puts it thus: “[Suf­fer­ing] can be so cruel and so beau­ti­ful at the same time. The con­trast be­tween the pain and the eupho­ria it brings is what makes it seem more beau­ti­ful.”

Sports writer Bill Gif­ford agrees: “Suf­fer­ing is es­sen­tial to the beauty and mys­tery of the sport. It gives the ride mean­ing. The great­est rac­ers have a love of suf­fer­ing that goes be­yond any ra­tio of sac­ri­fice to pay­off.”

In other words, you have to learn to love suf­fer­ing not just for the re­wards it be­stows but for its own sake too — per­verse as that may seem.

Others re­fer to it in spir­i­tual terms. Sam Marye Lewis, writ­ing about ‘The Zone’ in the Jour­nal of Sport Psy­chol­ogy, de­scribes suf­fer­ing as “a spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence, a tran­scen­dent state, go­ing be­yond the self, a mys­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.”

It is prob­a­bly just as well that sci­ence can’t ex­plain suf­fer­ing. Its enig­matic na­ture en­sures that cy­cling will never be re­duced to a game of num­bers. This mys­tery is why I find those im­ages of Kelly so in­trigu­ing, but it’s also an as­pect of the sport that af­fects rid­ers at ev­ery level, from first-time sportive rid­ers to sea­soned rac­ers. Ex­plor­ing pain is a key part of what we do. Are we able to reach de­grees of suf­fer­ing any­where near to those tol­er­ated by the likes of Kelly? Who knows; we have no way of mea­sur­ing it, and I for one am thank­ful for that.

“Suf­fer­ing is es­sen­tial to the beauty and mys­tery of the sport”

Sean Kelly: mas­ter of the art of suf­fer­ing

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