Aiming for…Pain?

27 10 2012

Does exertion need to hurt? How much does success have to hurt? 

by AndrewLeonard

In Philadelphia, the elite New Zealander Kim Smith was running hard, breathing heavily and testing her limits as she  pushed through the last few kilometers of the Philadelphia Half Marathon. She had saliva all over her face. It was not a pretty sight.

In Hong Kong, Lau Chek-lun crossed the finish line at the Standard Chartered Half Marathon, and collapsed 40 meters later. He was declared dead soon after.

On the training track, my teammates sprinted interval after interval, their faces contorted and grimacing in agony as they worked their bodies to the maximum. At the finish line, they plopped down on all fours, heaving and wheezing as they tried to catch their breath before the next sprint.

And now, as I strive to become a strong, faster and better runner, I can’t help but wonder: how much pain is enough pain? Where is the line between pushing too hard and under-performing? At what point does exertional pain become a liability, rather than an accepted reality?

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful,” said Roger Bannister, the first man in history to run a mile in under four minutes, “is the man who will win.”

For years, the four minute mile seemed an elusive and impossible goal. The Australian runner John Landy himself declared that it was an impenetrable “brick wall”, and after running the mile in under 4’03 on six separate occasions, vowed, “I shall not attempt it again”.

Then came Roger Bannister.

As a medical student at Oxford University at the time, Mr. Bannister could only afford 45 minutes of training a day. His weekly mileage, by modern standards, was surprisingly low. And yet, despite minimal training, Mr. Bannister made history in 1954 by breaking the four-minute barrier. How did he do it?

Many believe that Mr. Bannister’s legendary feat was achieved not so much by his physicality as by his psychology. Gunder Haegg, a Swedish runner who came within 1.3 seconds of breaking the four-minute barrier in 1945, “always thought that the four-minute mile was more of a psychological problem than a test of physical endurance”. In a way, he was right.

Just six weeks after Mr. Bannister ran the mile in 3’59″04, Mr. Landy, who had all but declared the feat impossible, lowered the barrier even further by running the mile in 3’58″00 —  1.4 seconds faster than Mr. Bannister, and close to 3 seconds faster than any time he had run before.

It appears that the barrier was indeed a purely psychological one.

One theory has it that pain and fatigue are but tricks of the mind.Called the Central Governor Model, it proposes the following: Your heart requires oxygen to function. During vigorous physical exertion such as intensive running, the heart runs short on oxygen as more of it is diverted to the muscles. Sensing this, the heart sends signals to the brain, which then proceeds to restrict oxygen flow to the muscles. Hence, the pain and fatigue in your legs and the annoying voice in your head that says: “Why don’t you give up? Stop running.”

But — and here’s the catch — if you could override this subconscious impulse with a conscious effort, you will push past the pain and fatigue that prevents you from realizing your full potential.

Mr. Bannister may have done just that. He was able to convince his central governor (his brain) that the four-minute mile was achievable. He overrode the subconscious, and forced more out of himself than his brain would have allowed. Mr. Landy’s governor, by contrast, could not be convinced until it had evidence that someone else had achieved the impossible.

Is pain, then, all in the mind?

“Mental tenacity — and the ability to manage and even thrive on and push through pain — is a key segregator between the mortals and immortals in running,” said Mary Wittenberg, president and chief executive of the New York Road Runners, in an interview with the New York Times.

Of course, all runners hoping to run competitively must first attain a certain level of physical fitness. But at a certain point, the subtleties of the mind may start to play a bigger role than the brute force of the body.

Paavo Nurmi, a Finnish runner who dominated distance running in the 20th century, credited his physical feats with his psychological strength: “Mind is everything; muscle, pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.” He didn’t think his way to his nine Olympic golds, of course, but to him, mind rules over muscle.

In June 2012, I competed for Hong Kong in the Asian Junior Athletics Championships. Rounding the final bend in the 3000m steeplechase, I was neck and neck with a Vietnamese opponent. We emerged into the final stretch, and I braced for a final push to the finish. Suddenly, though, she accelerated. My legs felt like rubbery jelly, but I knew that there was still some fuel left in the tank.

Treacherously, my central governor kicked in at that precise moment:  “Don’t push. Just settle for your spot.” I watched my opponent pull further and further away.

She finished four seconds ahead of me — a massive and unacceptable gain over a mere 100 meters.

I had succumbed to the voice in my head, and though I broke my personal record, the race was an agonizing defeat for me. Never again, I decided, do I ever want to be defeated by my mind.

Chrissie Wellington, a British triathlete and a four-time world champion in the Ironman, has a timeless piece of advise. Put off by the idea of painful exertion? Don’t worry. “Expect it will be painful and have faith in yourself that you will overcome those dark times.”





Pain and I: A Love Story

15 06 2011

Pain. Lungs burning, legs on fire, muscles tearing, heart exploding – this is the pain that I enjoy, even crave.

When I wake up at five in the morning to go run, it is partly the pain which I know awaits that makes me jump out of bed with excitement. Off I go: as I slowly pick up the pace, I can feel my heart shifting up a gear. It starts to pump harder, faster. I feel my lungs, too – they begin, slowly, cautiously, to press against my chest. Ah-ha! My excitement edges up a notch. Yes, it’s going to be a good run. It’s going to be a good day. Why? Because I can feel the pain just peeping around the corner, ready to embrace me.

I start to pump my arms with more force. I put more bounce in each of my strides. I land on the balls of my feet, and instantly push off, propelling myself forwards, upwards – towards that wonderful thing called ‘pain’. Steadily now and with increasing speed, I’m cruising up the hill. At first, it feels effortless. I think to myself, I can keep on going like this forever! But then the pain comes.

Your legs start to feel like someone has attached huge weights to them. They are burning in the lactic acid build up. It’s as if the acid is corroding the insides of you legs, and each extra step tears a little hole in your muscle fibres. Likewise for the heart and lungs – they’re ablaze, in flames, sizzling. Any time now, I’m expecting to just disintegrate, melt away.

And yet I continue running up that hill. There are morning hikers dotted along the route. Some ignore me, but some give me a small smile. What are they smiling about, I wonder? It’s probably a smile of incredulity: why on earth is the girl putting herself through this??

I smile back. The pain doesn’t hurt – far from it. It wakes me up. It makes me boundlessly happy. I feel as if I’m at the top of the world. Pain hasn’t conquered me, nor have I conquered pain.

No, pain and I have fused into one – and the sensation is priceless.

 

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