Embracing the Pain


This might seem a little extreme for a blog post but I promise I have a good reason. Working with two coaches this season has resulted in a suddenly very noticeable increase in both volume and intensity over the past few months (as well as, you know, training for a half Ironman!). I’ve been working with Coach Gerry for years, but Coach Jim is a very recent addition. What’s great about working with the two of them together is the way that the workouts tend to work in tandem––Coach Jim is also a disciple of Gerry’s (along with several other high performing professional athletes), so he has insight into the full scope of my training. And with Jim to push me along now, I’m putting in much more volume than I have before, and making gains in ways I hadn’t expect to make them.

I’ve certainly gotten stronger, and I have no doubt that my fitness and stamina have improved.  I’m faster in the pool, on the bike, on the run and I’m very happy about it, but I had always expected improvement to feel the way it did when I coached myself.

Back when I was on my own, I (intentionally or not) kept workouts comfortable. Maybe I’d push a little harder on really good days, and if I noticed a little blip in performance then I’d give myself a pat on the back. But overall, not a whole lot ever changed. I’d been a runner for several years, and while I’d been able to increase my distance, I never really got much faster. When I swam on my own, I could take on more and more yards, but I would swim them just as slowly as I had before. Now everything is changing.

I had a revelation during a fast swim set that I haven’t gotten better so much as I’ve just gotten better at tolerating the pain. Gerry once flippantly commented that once an athlete reaches the level of elite performance, the only thing that separates that athlete from other elites is the ability to manage pain. At the time, I hadn’t expected the need to ever experience what the pros go through (and, thankfully, I’m still nowhere near that level) but in my own non-elite world, pain management has suddenly become a very significant part of my training and my performance.

The thing about pain is that it’s almost worse to fear it than to embrace it. I remember waking up in dread on conditioning days in high school. I used to grumble about having to “run the mile”––ONE mile!––on off-season practice days. (Don’t worry, I got over my fear of miles very quickly). Even now I still have twinges of anxiety when prepping for time trials and threshold tests, but now I have the comfort of knowing that I can handle the pain and it will end and then I can wake up and do something similar again tomorrow.

This is probably a fairly simple revelation to anyone who has already made a habit of intense athletic training, but every day I realize that it’s still something new for me.  We all know what we think our limits are, and how to back down (knowingly or unknowingly) when we start approaching the red line.  I always figured that my own red line would just be pushed further away as I got stronger, and it has, but I’ve also gotten used to getting closer to it and not shying away from the pain. Embracing might be a bit of a stretch, but every day I get a little bit closer.

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