Suffering in Endurance Sports—How Much is Too Much?
by Drew Davis, image courtesy of LiFT Creative Studios
Ed Note—Contributor Drew Davis joined us last month to give us his perspective as a newcomer to the sport navigating the tribulations of race day nutrition. Today he joins us to discuss a thorny topic: when is the discomfort associated with training too much?
I have a recurring nightmare. I’m staring down the 606, an elevated running path that runs through the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago. It’s dark and quiet. I just finished my warmup and I can feel the sweat and the summer heat sticking to my skin. I look down at my legs. They’re anxious. Eager. Ready to work. I bring my right hand to my watch on my left wrist, press the lap button on my watch, and takeoff.
But something is wrong. It feels like someone poured sand into my shoes and that tar is covering the pavement. There’s a heavy vest on my shoulders and my lungs feel weak. I rifle through my brain about all of the set-up for the workout. I fueled last night, drank water before bed, foam rolled in the morning, fueled before the workout, did my 20 minutes warm-up, said my positive affirmations. I did it all right. And it feels like shit.
This isn’t actually a nightmare. This happens to me probably once a month. Despite what feels like perfect preparation, I fail. These workouts sit with me for days. I feel betrayed by my body. Confused. They bothered me a lot more when I was just starting out. I believed wholeheartedly that if I did the right things, I would at least have a shot at nailing the workout, but this is not always the case.
Triathlon and suffering have a funny relationship. It keeps the masses at bay. “I could never do that,” “The swim would kill me,” “You must be CRAZY to do all that in one day,” are all phrases we hear from friends, co-workers, and family. It’s hard not to wear this suffering as a badge of honor, to carry it around like evidence of our toughness and our worth, or to feel a flush of pride as someone says they could never do what we prepare to do.
But the other side of the coin is uglier, when our legs won’t put out the prescribed watts, or you look at your watch every five strides begging the average pace number to rise to where you think it should be. This suffering is lonely and consuming. It is how we deal with that suffering that has become a hot topic on the self-improvement circuit of late. “Keep your head down,” “Keep pushing, keep fighting,” “Giving up is not an option,” circulate in the social media bubble of endurance sport. We put this ability to push through adversity on a pedestal and claim that the fastest and the greatest athletes are the true masters of this skill.
But is that true?
Virtually every professional athlete in the sport, in addition to their shoe, wetsuit, and nutrition sponsors, also has a recovery sponsor: Marc Pro, Ceracor, Normatec, et al...Along with the passive recovery tools there are also equal calls for true rest and recovery. Even Lionel Sanders, who is a notorious glutton for punishment, explains in his latest video his breakthrough on pumping the breaks to limit his suffering to the prescribed workout rather than tearing himself to pieces.
So, where does suffering belong in the context of triathlon? How do we use it as a tool that makes us stronger, rather than carry it around like a heavy discomfort, a necessary burden to pursue this sport that we love. Or risk taking it too far, and creating injury or burnout?
In his new book, Everything is F*cked, Marc Manson explains the relationship between the thinking brain and the feeling brain. We often think, he explains, that the thinking brain is in control and that the feeling brain is an irrational drama queen trying to drag us down. But in reality, our feelings do way more of the driving. His useful analogy is that our feelings are like an elephant, and our thoughts ride the elephant. Our thoughts may influence the elephant, but if the elephant wants to throw a tantrum, logic and reason may not work. We all know that finishing the workout and pushing hard will help us reach our goals, but it’s not that simple. When finishing the workout requires you to beat your emotions to a pulp, the long term costs can be drastic.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever said any of the following to yourself during a workout: “Don’t be a p*ssy,” “You can fight through this,” “Don’t be lazy.” The self-hatred of this kind is popular and can be effective. But it’s just not good for you long term. You will be better served acknowledging that your feelings are there, and drawing your attention to the positives that come with pushing yourself, getting faster, and participating in this sport.
I went to the CBCG/Wattie Ink. training camp in Tucson this year (five stars, would go again) and on one of the nights, we were treated to a chat with Heather Jackson. I asked her how she can tell the difference between physical fatigue and mental fatigue when she’s approaching a session. I loved her answer. It boiled down to, “No matter how bad I’m feeling, or what else has been happening, I give the first interval my absolute best. If I make it, or if I start to feel better, I push through the workout. If my absolute best isn’t enough to get me through one interval, I call it a day and let the workout go.”
Heather is one of the toughest athletes out there. She has the medals and the stories to prove it. And still, sometimes, the body just isn’t ready to go. This revelation put suffering in perspective for me. As triathletes, to some extent, we have to welcome the experience of suffering with open arms. The whole sport is designed to make you uncomfortable. But there is such a thing as too much suffering and pushing too far. And if you don’t let your feelings win out from time to time, you may be losing a part of your emotional firepower that is just as important as all of the hours of training that you pour into this sport.
This is a departure from the articles you often see on this blog. No lists or exact step by step approach for how to fix this. I know that this may be disappointing for some but I want you to know that this is intentional. The mental/emotional part of the sport is messy. Nonlinear. The way you approach suffering will likely be an individual battle more than a strategy you heist from a blog post. But I’m hopeful that this gives you some food for thought, or a starting point to talk about this with some other folks. We all love to talk about how many miles we did or what splits we hit but if we create some space to talk about our feelings in this sport, we might tap into something more powerful than we could have imagined.