• Drew Dillman

#2: Pain Tolerance

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

Welcome to the Coach's Blog, powered by Dillman Coaching. I've recently started blogging with the purpose of sharing the knowledge I've gained through years of racing and training. The primary audience to whom the blog is written are the athletes I coach personally, but also to anyone else who is interested in riding their bike faster. For more information on the reasons behind the blog check out Blog #1.

With this being the first official post that dives into training and racing, I wanted the topic to be a good one. And I've had a lot of good ideas running through my brain for specific blog posts like nutrition, threshold intervals or even race day rituals, which we will get to later. But for the first post I wanted to hit something even bigger. And it all centers upon a phrase we've heard for decades: No Pain, No Gain.

The Theory

I can still remember my Mom saying it all the time growing up, "No Pain, No Gain." My Mom is one of the toughest people I've ever known so she taught me a lot about gritting through pain to get a job done. Thanks Mom. After years of training and racing I've developed a sort of race mentality that centers upon the idea that my mom ingrained upon me; Pain Tolerance. Pain, as defined by Dictionary.com, is "physical suffering or distress, as due to injury, illness, etc.; a distressing sensation in a particular part of the body; mental or emotional suffering or torment." Sounds exciting! Tolerance, as defined by Dictionary.com, is "the act or capacity of enduring; endurance." When you put these two together you get "the act of enduring physical suffering or torment." That's Pain Tolerance.

When I say my training/racing mentality is one based upon pain tolerance, what I mean is that the guys and gals who can endure the most amount of pain are going to be the most successful. This applies to all aspects of life as a bike racer. In racing, who can dig the deepest when it counts. In training, who can dig the deepest when no one else is watching. In cross-training, who can endure the most reps or push beyond what they think they can handle. In nutrition, who can sacrifice the foods they want versus the foods they need. This is all painful. It hurts to race a bike and if it doesn't, you're not doing it right.

But there has to be a balance. There is a smart way and a not-so-smart way to apply this theory. I am not advocating that you should push yourself to the point of injury. There is a certain point to which pushing too far can lead to injury and can cause more damage than growth. It is the responsibility of the coach and the athlete to work together to find those limits and then push them, but in a healthy manner. A strong athlete is a healthy athlete.

I am also not advocating that this should be applied all the time. It must be applied in the right places and at the right times. If you go out and push yourself to the limit of exhaustion every single day, day in and day out, your body will eventually crack under the pressure and you won't even be able to turn the pedals, much less be competitive in a race. This theory should be applied on certain days; interval days, practice races and race-days. On the days you need to push yourself, you should really push yourself. And the best way to figure out those days is by working with a coach to get a personalized training plan set up to fit your specific needs and goals.

The Science

This idea or mentality of Pain Tolerance is my own thinking and my own opinion, which may or may not be a viable resource. Therefore, I want to dig a little deeper into some of the science that is out there about pain tolerance and the research that has been conducted with pain tolerance among athletes.

Time magazine posted an article titled Why Athletes Can Handle More Painthat explained the concept of pain tolerance in athletes versus the average joe. "Researchers reporting in the journal Pain looked at 15 studies that examined pain threshold and tolerance in athletes and non-athletes. While both groups had similar pain thresholds (the point when pain is felt), athletes consistently tolerated more pain (the maximum amount one can handle before it becomes unbearable)." The article goes on to admit that researchers still don't have a definitive answer as to why athletes can endure these higher amounts of pain. Some suggest that pain tolerance can be learned over time and that exercising at high intensity can lead to endorphin release. However, others suggest that it is because of the high levels of motivation found within athletes. I agree with these folks.

The Association for Applied Sport Psychology, in the article titled Pain Tolerance in Sport, explains how pain can actually be an athletes friend. This article explains the different types of pain associated with athletes. The one I want to focus on is Positive Training Pain. "This pain often occurs with endurance exercise, and includes muscle fatigue and sensations in the lungs and heart that can range from unpleasant to what is typically thought of as pain.  It is neither threatening nor a sign of injury. Because athletes know the cause, are in control of their effort, and recognize that these feelings are beneficial and can enhance performance.  In short, positive training pain is a good sign of effort and improvement."

This type of pain, Positive Training pain, is essential for our success as cyclists. We must be able to go out, often by ourselves, and push our bodies to the limit. You don't have someone behind you with a bull horn to tell you when to go harder or when to push it. You don't have a coach on the sidelines to give you tips and tricks along the way. All you've got is yourself and a bike. To be successful at this sport you have to be so motivated that you'll force yourself to endure the pain of high intensity workouts day in and day out. There are no short cuts, the pain must be endured.

The Scriptures

It's called Dillman Coaching, so you get the whole package. And before I am a coach, or a cyclist, I am a Christian, saved by the blood of Christ. With that being said, there will be aspects of my coaching where I will incorporate my faith. As a Christian, I believe the Bible is the true Word of God. It was relevant for people who lived 2,000 years ago and is still relevant for our lives today.

Romans 5:3-4 says, "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." According to this passage, we should rejoice in our sufferings. It is the very suffering we endure that makes us stronger. Paul, the writer of this passage, knew what it meant to suffer. Throughout his life he had been beaten and whipped on several occasions, mocked, ship-wrecked and even exiled on an island. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say Paul had a pretty high pain tolerance. But I'm pretty sure Paul wasn't an athlete. So what motivated him to endure such pain? Answer: The prize.

Desiring God posted an article titled The Secret to Self Discipline in which the self discipline of Lebron James is studied and then questioned. Why would James endure all this pain and self-discipline? Here is what it says.

"Here’s the point: elite athletes don’t live disciplined lives because they think disciplined lives are virtuous. They aren’t stoics; they’re hedonists — pleasure-seekers. They live disciplined lives and endure all kinds of self-denial because they want the pleasures of the prize.They believe the pleasures of the 'wreath' (or medals, trophies, rings, and records) are superior pleasures to the pleasures of self-indulgence. The power for self-discipline does not come from admiring self-discipline. It does not come from wishing we were more self-disciplined. It does not come from making new resolves, plans and schedules for self-discipline (though these help when the fundamental motivation is right). It certainly does not come from loathing our lack of self-discipline and resolving (again) to do better — and this time we mean it. The power for self-discipline comes from the prize — whatever we really want, the reward we believe will yield us the greatest pleasure."

This is the reason Paul was willing to suffer. He knew the prize for which he suffered was great, eternity with God. As cyclists, we too must learn to suffer with our "eyes on the prize."

The Results

I can talk all day about the "theory" of pain tolerance, but if there aren't results to back it up then what's the point. However, pain tolerance isn't a specific type of training method where I can plug it into an athletes Training Peaks calendar. There is no such thing as a 2min pain tolerance workout with 2min recovery between intervals. It's not something that can be measured or quantified. It's a mentality. It's in your head. It's what drives you to push harder. It's the motivation to endure.

There is, however, a 2min Power Interval with 2min rest between intervals. And this is where the pain tolerance mentality kicks in. When you get those workouts that you know are going to be really grueling and tough to complete, those are the days where the person with the high pain tolerance will push a bit harder and go a little longer than the other guys. The extra time they spend in the pain-cave during training days will show on race-day. They've already pushed themselves so hard in training that they know they can tolerate it in racing. You teach yourself to be comfortable with more and more pain.

Like I said at the beginning, this theory has it's limitations. You can't go hard every day and expect your body to get stronger. The body gets stronger when it recovers from the intensity we put on it. So knowing when to endure the pain and when to back-off is very important.

Here is a recent pain tolerance success story: Lawson Craddock, otherwise known as "Awesome Craddock." Lawson Craddock has been through a rough couple of years. He raced in the 2016 Tour de France and then had a ton of issues in 2017 that prevented him from racing in the Tour. However, he came back in 2018 stronger than ever. On Stage 1 of the Tour Craddock crashed, injuring his face and breaking his scapula. The broken scapula made it very painful for Craddock to ride his bike and nearly impossible for him to stand up on his bike. But he persevered and he ended up finished all 21 stages of the Tour, including the Team Time Trial, the cobblestone nightmare of Stage 9 and over 140,000 feet of climbing. There is no doubt about it that Lawson Craddock was very familiar with the pain-cave before he got to this years Tour. And it all paid off.

The Take-Away

The pain tolerance theory really gets me excited. There is something about suffering that gets me motivated. Even on my ride today I found myself repeating in my head, "Pain tolerance, pain tolerance" and it motivated me to push harder. And I hope I've motivated you as well. Suffering is the name of the game. The best athletes know how to push themselves. They are very familiar with pain. They don't spend their weekends in the man-cave they spend their weekends in the pain-cave. Because that's what it takes to get the prize. What's the prize for you? And, is that prize worth suffering in order to attain?


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