How to Make Friends With Pain

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“Make friends with pain, and you’ll never be alone,” Ken Chlouber, creator of the Leadville Trail 100, has said.

That statement applies as much to running as it does to watching a presidential debate. With both, it’s not about avoiding discomfort; it’s about accepting and embracing it, about feeling the burn and/or “Bern.” Running without some discomfort sometimes is not running, it is leisurely jogging—a valid pursuit in its own right, but not one that comes with the familiar thrill of pushing your limits. By choosing this sport, you are choosing short-term discomfort to gain long-term joy.

So don’t fear pain. Befriend it.

Megan and David Roche share a smiling couple’s moment in the medical tent after both winning the bronze medal at the 2014 XTERRA World Championships. Photo courtesy of David Roche

Pain vs. “Exertion Discomfort”

If that introduction sounds ominous to you, it’s probably my fault. I am mixing vocabulary. “Pain” evokes thoughts of prolonged, purposeless suffering, like kidney stones or watching C-SPAN. You can sometimes feel that type of pain through running—particularly with bad injuries—and it is always to be avoided if possible.

I’m actually talking about what I like to call “exertion discomfort.” It is a fleeting feeling of difficulty caused by pushing your body toward fatigue. The body craves exertion discomfort, which rewards it in the long term with increased strength and in the short term with the same chemicals produced by a cheeseburger or sex.

One of the biggest differences I have noticed between experienced and beginner runners is that experienced runners understand (and embrace) “exertion discomfort,” while beginner runners interpret the feeling as “pain” to be avoided.

That observation leads me to the most important principle of this article: Look forward to “exertion discomfort” and gain power over how you perceive the feeling. It’s actually never that bad (it goes away almost instantly upon slowing down or stopping), and it makes you happy, strong and fast.

Now that you understand the principle, how do you make sure you internalize it for your fastest, most fulfilling trail running? The key is in the following tips.

1. Stay Positive

Before a hard run or race, think about the exertion discomfort to come and smile. In a 2014 study by McGill University researchers, people who used techniques to accept exertion discomfort performed better than those who expressed doubts, even when controlled for ability. So laugh confidently in the face of a workout or race to enjoy it more and get more out of it.

Then, during the run or race, fake positive emotions until you make positive emotions. The only thing I ask of my athletes is that they smile every mile. On the trail, smile at people you pass, high-five spectators and shout “woohoo!” on downhills.

Don’t feel like grinning and greeting people when you’re bonking hard with five miles to go? Do it anyway. Even if forced at first, those outward expressions will eventually lead to actual positive emotions that will diminish perceptions of exertion discomfort and allow you to push even harder.

The author practicing what he preaches at the 2016 Inside Trail Pacifica Foothills 30K. Photo by Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography

2. Think Big Picture

It’s easy to feel despair if you get lost in the feeling of climbing a hill past your threshold. After all, experiencing exertion discomfort forever would be a rather unpleasant way to get through life. Instead, think about why you are doing a big workout or race and the great feelings that will come if you reach your goals.

Also, break it down into smaller, more-manageable chunks. Never consider an entire task all at once, in running or in life. Every great accomplishment is a series of incredibly small, mundane tasks piled on top of one another to form something amazing.

To avoid getting overwhelmed by a workout or race, think of each portion as if you are a builder. Start with one brick at a time. Bricks can form walls, which can form rooms, which can form skyscrapers. My advice is to break down a trail run into the number of hills it has. Whenever I am about to do a race, I look at an elevation profile and count the number of climbs with over 100 feet of elevation gain. Then, on each one, I just try to be in the moment and embrace the discomfort.

If you live or race in the flatlands, I recommend breaking it down by time. For a longer race, view each 30-minute section separately (you can mark the time by taking a gel and drinking water). For shorter races, break it down even further, so that you are thinking about the race five or 10 minutes at a time.

3. Build Your Lactate Threshold

Because of their training, experienced runners can operate at their lactate threshold (or their “comfortably uncomfortable” pace) more efficiently. In other words, exertion discomfort doesn’t affect them as much.

Any runner can improve their lactate threshold with workouts run at one-hour race pace (roughly the effort at which you can no longer talk while running). Aim for 20 to 30 minutes of intervals at lactate-threshold pace (after a 20-minute warm-up) for a barrier-breaking workout.

Ways of configuring those intervals include 3 x 10 minutes with five-minute recovery; 2 x 15 minutes with six-minute recovery; and 5 x 6 minutes with three-minute recovery. Doing one of these workouts once or twice a week (surrounded by days of easy running) will literally change the way harder running feels.

4. Vote for Your Central Governor

The final tidbit is the most fascinating (and theoretical) of all. The central governor theory is the idea that a portion of athletic performance is purely neurological—our primal brain putting a stop to an activity because it is not accustomed to the discomfort.

If you’ve ever taken a little time off, then done a hard workout, you may have thought, “Schnikes, this is hard; how did I ever push through this feeling?” Under the theory, that thought is the central governor.

A key tenet of the central governor theory is that puppies have no central governor. Photo by David Roche

Your central governor can be trained quickly and easily. I recommend doing a small number of higher-intensity intervals totaling no more than 10 minutes. Some of the best examples are 8 x 1 minutes hard uphill (jog down for recovery); 4 x 2 minutes uphill (jog down recovery); and 3 x 3 minutes hard on flat ground with five-minute recovery jogs.

Since the adaptations are neurological, they can happen almost overnight, leading to quicker gains than with traditional workouts. That is why a central-governor workout is good to do around a week before a big race.

Finally, and most importantly, always remember to keep trail-running performance in perspective. A day on singletrack is amazing and life-affirming, but no matter how you perform, your family and/or puppy will love you just the same and the post-run pancakes will taste just as delicious.

David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.

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