How to Push Through Pain like an Olympian

How to Push Through Pain like an Olympian

Mark Kennedy
Founder of None to Run
July 28, 2023

Your lungs are burning. Your legs are screaming for mercy.

Even your mind is beginning to drift.  Your brain is filled to the brim with doubt.

Ahhh, you can't tolerate the pain any longer! 

Stop.  Stop now!

But you don't stop because you know a little discomfort aint going to kill you. 

In fact, if you want a PR in a run or bike ride it's going to hurt.  It might hurt a little bit or it might hurt a lot.  Sorry to break it to you.

Distinguish Your Pain

Pushing through some level of pain is pretty much unavoidable if you want to improve your endurance fitness.

There are a couple of types of pain when it comes to exercising.

There is the pain associated with an intense physical effort. 

Burning muscles and general fatigue are examples.

The other type of pain is associated with the start of an injury.

How does one decipher the difference?Some people call it "athletic intelligence" or getting to know your body.

Getting to know your body takes time.

Imagine a time when you have not exercised in ages. 

Or perhaps, your personal trainer has you doing lunges for the first time. 

On that first set of lunges, your booty is going to burn like hell. 

And it should! 

That burning sensation in your butt and thighs is normal, especially if you haven't performed lunges in a while or ever. 

Your brain is going to tell you to stop because it equates pain with injury. 

But that's not necessarily the case.It's all about getting to know your body and understanding its cues. 

And this takes time.

Change the Way you Handle Pain

A recent study conducted in Germany found that athletes can tolerate more pain than non-athletes.  What I found interesting was that athletes feel just as much pain as non-athletes.  Athletes however, develop more efficient coping mechanisms through their training.Individual variance is also at play here. 

I am sure that what make some people great athletes is their natural ability to endure pain. Imagine an Olympic triathlete. 

They train for hours a day. 

Putting themselves through more pain in a week than I probably endure in a year - and I am quite active! 

They have learned to recognize the pain (and distinguish the pain from "injury pain"), acknowledge it and then brush it aside to get on with things.

Some experts believe elite athletes' brains may ignore pain signals from their muscles, allowing them to push through and withstand that nasty buildup of lactic acid in their muscles. 

 If you increase the demands of your training over time, you will better understand your body's messages and learn to cope with pain with increased efficiency.

Pain Coping Strategies

How do you cope with pain during an athletic performance?

Personally, I think it's easier to cope with the pain in a sport like soccer or hockey. 

There are so many other things on your mind like not getting tackled or having your head taken off with a crushing body-check. 

In sports like running, it's just you. 

Alone with your thoughts. 

Once the feeling of pain sets in on a run, you've got a decision to make.

When I hit the point of pain, I try to tell myself that the pain means I'm getting fitter. 

Sometimes I'll tell myself to just get through the next minute...and when that minute is up, get through another!

How do Olympic Athletes Push Through Pain?

Pain demands attention. 

How athletes react to pain is what makes them great.

I asked two Canadian Olympians how they cope. 

Check out their thoughts below.

"I'm not honestly sure how I push through pain, I usually rely on my competitive instinct, either with training partners, race competitors or my goals for a specific workout. I see it as just another component of racing and training, and it's inevitable, so you get about driving yourself to get the most out of yourself." - Simon Whitfield, Four-time Olympian, Gold and Silver Medalist

"To be able to run through the pain I have to be highly motivated, in other words I have to "really want it."  Focusing on a goal which I have worked towards for some time keeps me motivated and hungry.  If I have fallen off of the pace for my main goal I will always have a plan B, and Plan C, D... anything to stop the bleeding." - Reid Coolsaet, Canadian Olympic Marathon Runner

Here are a couple of other quotes I found (click the links for sources) from Kara Goucher and Alberto Salazar.

"I try to think about positive things -- how great my form is, how my arms are swinging, my breathing, how loud people are cheering. My sports psychologist taught me there are a million things telling you you can't keep going, but if you find the things that say you can, you're golden." - Kara Goucher, American Olympic Marathon Runner

“The pain of running is like the pain of drowning, a kind of weariness sets in and you lose the will to fight. What I could do is simply push myself through that exhaustion.” - Alberto Salazar, Legendary American Marathon Runner

I also contacted Master Mental Game Coach, Dr. Patrick Cohn to get his thoughts. 

Dr. Cohn has consulted with high-profile teams such as the Miami Dolphins, NASCAR winners, NHL Players and PGA Tour professional golfers.

"Athletes  understand the pain is temporary and will not last forever.  High level athletes accept that they will feel pain in training, just like they accept the risk of injury. Some athletes, such as long distance runner, dissociate from the pain by focusing on other things such as cadence, which helps them "block out" the pain when training." - Dr. Patrick Cohn

What helps you push through the pain? 

Let's start a discussion below in the comments section.

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