Becoming Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

A woman running in a triathlon.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of them, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products and services I love and use on a regular basis.

I’ve been an athlete all my life, but the sports I’ve played (softball, soccer, tennis, karate, cheerleading, equestrian) haven’t necessarily prepared me for the physical discomfort I feel when competing in a triathlon.

Often times, I stand at the start line of the swim with a sense of foreboding about what’s to come. I know what it feels like, and it’s not pleasant. Once the gun goes off and I get started, I’m good, but it’s the anticipation that gets to me. 

I’ve decided it’s the anticipation of feeling pain.

I don’t like pain. My husband jokes that if that’s the case, I chose the wrong sport. Perhaps he’s right, but I don’t necessarily agree with the perception that all triathletes are what researchers have described as “benign masochists.” These are people who enjoy being tormented by physical fitness. The heart-pounding, heavy breathing, muscle-burning, flood of lactate rushing through their bodies provides a thrill, and it keeps them coming back for more.

That certainly describes some people, but not me. 

Don’t misunderstand. I push myself hard, both in training and during races. I enjoy feeling strong, powerful, and fast, but I don’t relish the feeling of gasping for breath or having legs so heavy that it feels like I’m running through molasses. 

I think part of it is due to my lack of experience with pushing my body in this way. (I’ve been doing this for 5 1/2 years, not 20.) But there’s something else. 

Maybe I’ve been thinking about pain all wrong. 

“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.” Dean Karnazas, Ultramarathon Man, Confessions of an All-Night Runner

Pain is relative, and pain tolerance varies from person to person. 

I read an interesting study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Therapy about the science of enduring pain.

Did you know that the structures within the brain that process pain are also involved in processing emotions like fear and anxiety? So it’s only logical that pain and emotion are intertwined in some way. If that assumption is correct, then psychology techniques could be used as a way to manage the experience of pain and help with endurance.

Scientifically speaking, pain threshold can vary based on factors like genetics, sex, and age. But pain tolerance, or the maximum level of pain a person can endure, varies wildly among individuals, and even in the same individual on a given day.

Our tolerance to pain is affected by our mood, sleep quality, belief, and expectations. That’s why you crush a hard bike workout when you’re rested, hydrated, and stress-free, but that same workout is challenging to complete when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, your boss is being unreasonable, and your kids are sick.

It’s been well-demonstrated in scientific literature that athletes have a higher pain tolerance than non-athletes, so kudos there! You’re already on the right track.

In the aforementioned study, researchers interviewed nine, former, successful Olympic cyclists about their strategies for coping with pain. Here’s what they had to say:

  1. The degree of pain was a perception.
  2. Pain varied depending on the satisfaction they received from the experience.
  3. Skills like goal setting, imagery, and positive self talk were used routinely.
  4. Mind and body were viewed as dualism. (the separation of what you think versus what you feel.)
  5. Pain was a positive experience, part of the sport, and part of an individual’s identity.
  6. Riding in a position of control lessened the perception of pain.

Analysis revealed that all athletes will feel fatigue, but “successful ones feel fatigue and happiness simultaneously.” Those who don’t cope as well with pain have a tendency to feel negative emotions, like fatigue or anger. Therefore, the suggestion is that athletes can benefit by making pain a positive experience and having some measure of control over the pain.

How on earth are we supposed to do that? Apparently, with practice, the skill can be developed.

A female runner smiling after a run
Why am I running intervals in 90°F? Because "it's fun."

“You can not turn a cart-horse into a race-horse simply by using psychological techniques, but they can make both go faster.”

I’m not quite sure how to turn pain into a positive experience, except for thinking about the purpose behind what you’re doing. If you’re training to complete your first 70.3, for example, and you have a strong “why” for taking on this feat of athletic endurance, then might that change the way you think about the 8-mile tempo run you have to do in 90°F heat?… I’m not sure that works for me, but it’s a strategy to try.

Instead, what I suspect might work better is being intentional in thinking about pain as a choice, because that gives you some measure of control over what you’re feeling.

One of the best female ultrarunners in the world, Courtney DeWaulter, has described going into the pain cave like an actual cave where she visualizes going with her bucket and chisel to do some hard work. For some reason that brings to mind the image of DeWaulter skipping along with the Seven Dwarfs off to mine for jewels. (She seems like a fun person who would probably appreciate that analogy.)

One of the best books I’ve read about endurance is Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson. He talks about both sides of endurance- mind and body- and how the limits we set for ourselves might be more mental than physical.

South American scientist, Tim Noakes, coined the term “central governor” to describe the brain. The brain anticipates physical or psychologic harm and tries to protect us from it. That’s why we feel an overwhelming need to slow down or stop when things get hard, not necessarily because we’ve reached our physical limit, but because we’ve reached our mental one.

Physical fitness is definitely important, but it’s mental skills that truly separate the great athletes from the ordinary. When you see videos of professional triathletes who collapse mere feet from the finish line, it’s because they’ve somehow found a way to override their central governor to convince their brain that they can keep going. But their body just won out that day.

So how can we learn to better cope with pain? 

How can we become more comfortable being uncomfortable?

I think the answer is probably two-fold: equals parts psychological preparation and repeated exposure.

In quoting the study at the start of this post, “psychological preparation is best done on a backdrop of tough physical training, which will invoke the feelings of fatigue that you will experience on race day.”

That’s what my husband was doing this morning when he was pushing 325 watts at a heart rate of 185 bpm. That’s what I’ll be doing running .5 mile intervals over 5K pace tonight. We do hard things to push ourselves to a place of discomfort, not just to grow physically, but also mentally.

Visualization might help us better prepare for pain. 

Matt and I have been watching the US Olympic Swimming Trials. Last night, we listened to an interview with a swimmer who prepares for each competition by watching videos of his past meets. (I think it was Bobby Finke, who swam the 800m Freestyle in 7:44:22).

He does this so he will remember the part of the race when it starts to hurt and he recognizes that it’s going to hurt again. So he’s prepared for the pain. But, more than that, watching the video provides visual evidence that he’s pushed through before and that he can do it again. 

Self-talk is a big thing for me. 

Instead of saying, ”My legs are done. I need to stop,” I try to reframe to something like, “My legs aren’t giving me what I wanted today, so let’s focus on form and breathing to push through this.” 

I’m also a big fan of creating a race mantra. Something for a future blog post I think.

Finally, the repeated exposure thing… the least enjoyable of the bunch. Unfortunately, to get more comfortable being uncomfortable, you have to spend more time being uncomfortable! 

It’s not fun. It sucks. But that’s the point.

To get used to pushing your body to a point where it feels like you’re going to die, but you aren’t actually going to die, so when you approach that point again, your brain will chill out and realize, “Everything is ok.” 

At least that’s the hope.

Exciting News! Triple Threat Life is on Substack

What’s Substack? It’s an extension of the Triple Threat Life blog where you can subscribe and have posts delivered to your inbox each week.

Think of it like a weekly newsletter that will contain blog posts, my musings about triathlon, random philosophical thoughts, articles that magazines didn’t want to pay me to write, and more.

Click here to subscribe today. 

If you’re new here, I post on the blog on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Be sure to follow @bblife234 and @thetriplethreatlife on Instagram to find out when they’re live.