Pain Tolerance - Athlete journal by Clara Hughes

Performance. It’s a question of how much pain a person can handle. At least, that’s what I’m beginning to realize more and more. Athletes typically focus on training in the sense of improving endurance, strength and speed. It’s a natural thing to believe these are the only elements that make one better. But really, the more I train, the more I suffer, the more I realize that these are but the basic elements to the intricate recipe which needs more exotic, mysterious ingredients if it is to become the dish all athletes dream of- the perfect race at the perfect time.

In my sport, that race would be the Olympics.

Enter, pain. By no coincidence, it is a four-letter word. Experiencing it in the intense doses training entails, it becomes synonymous with another four-letter word anyone competing at the highest level knows so well. While attempting to endure huge amounts of torture, this other four-letter word seems but a natural response. But that’s a whole other story, and what I want to talk about here are my thoughts on pain.

To begin with, it deserves a capital. So let’s call it Pain. I’m learning that all of these previously mentioned elements, the ‘higher, faster, stronger’ ideals of the athlete, are mere fillers when it comes to the real recipe of performance. Each session I spend working to improve, each session under the sun imitating the skating position, being told to get lower, when I am already as low as my body will mechanically go (picture heavily-muscled athletes, scattered around a soccer field, indoor speed skating oval as a back-drop, bent over in a crouched position, appearing to be looking in the grass for coins or some other hidden, elusive treasure- that’s us)…

When every muscle in my body is revolting from the torture my stubborn brain is putting it through; when the urge is to stand up, not to get lower; when I have tears blurring my eyes and feel numbness creeping up from toes to knees to nose, and I still push myself to keep the excruciating position, and then am asked to jump explosively into the air every, say, three seconds, for two minutes at a time; when the pain is so intense I can’t help but think I’m going to collapse, or worse, stand up; when at that precise time I think about the pain of a 3000 m or 5000 m race, and the feeling of those last three laps when everything inside is revolting and my brain screams to my body ENOUGH!!!

What has become clear to me is that the ability to execute training isn’t so much as to adapt physically, it’s the capacity to endure more Pain that is where improvement lies.

When I think of my years as a cyclist, and the hundreds of races I competed in, I can’t help but think of the ones where I was not as fit as I wanted to be, perhaps in the spring when I was heavier than I wanted to be and the climbs didn’t come so easy, or for whatever reason I was just not as strong as my competitors. I remember the Tour of Texas in 1997, when I was in such bad shape that only sneaky strategy allowed me to win a few road races, and when it came to the time trials, or races of truth, I knew I should have been well back, that others were stronger than me. I remember vividly realizing that no matter what shape I was in, I had something the others did not. I had the ability to suffer more than most people I had come to know in sport. It was a weapon and I knew that if used properly, no one could beat me. Of course, the time trials were short, which helped, but nonetheless, I set my mind on the focus of pain. With little in my legs, I would focus on each sign on the road, pulling myself towards each marker and then focusing on the next. I put myself in a state of numbness, embracing the screaming sensations in my legs and settling into the feeling of exhaustion. And it worked.

In some ways, it is easier to do this when not at one’s best. The key is to build this capacity and combine it with the three basic ingredients of ‘form’ I already wrote of.

Thus, I am not so much training in the physical sense; I’m delving into the more complicated world of Pain tolerance. When I think of training, I think of expanding my Pain capacity. As each week gets harder, as I become more tired and grumpy, I am increasing this ability to suffer.

The more I think about it, the more I realize this is the only way to improve. It is the only thing that will make me better than my competitors when we are all at the highest-level, come the Olympics. Who is willing to suffer more, who can handle the Pain when it becomes so intense even the fittest, strongest athletes begin to crumble?

As Olympic Champion rower Marnie McBean so eloquently stated, ‘there is the key moment in each race, when you either attack or begin to pray for the finish line.’ This attack is only possible if one is prepared to endure terrifying doses of Pain.

With this in mind, I step into each session of weighs, imitations, interval rides and runs, and I work to increase my own capacity. After a nice build from a good post-season rest, my brain feels ready to challenge my body and step into this limitless realm of potential.

If anything, I’m really going to appreciate the easy rides and rest days!