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Mastering the mental game

Part 1: Pain perception

Are you one of those runners who wants to get mentally stronger? You probably should be, because – unless you’re already world-class – there’s a lot to win there. When you learn to master the mental game, you enable yourself to become the best version of yourself, and thus have a more satisfying running career.


When COVID hit in 2020, I lost my job as the head coach of the EDRP running team in India. This team was set up by Procam (an Indian company that organizes major running events like the Mumbai marathon), with the help of Global Sports Communication (probably better known as the NN running team). Being stuck in our compound in Iten, with not much work to do for the rest of the year, I made it my mission to get updated on the latest scientific research on anything running.


And since I have always had a special interest in the mental aspects of sports, I also read a total of 76 scientific articles related to this and a couple of books as well – and then made a summary of all that. Apart from that, I have trained my own mind successfully, with the help of sports psychologist Jan Huijbers, starting from the age of 21. This helped to boost my running career and I can honestly say that, from the age of 23 until the end of my career at age 37, I didn’t have a single bad race. Some days I performed better than other days, since I simply wasn’t always in top shape, but I was always able to get the best out of myself on race day. 


It would be a shame to keep all that knowledge and experience for myself. So I’ve been sharing some of this with our Kenya Camp guests and with the athletes that I coach. But to reach a bigger audience, I figured it would be good to share it here as well. So in the coming months, I plan to write columns related to improving your mental game.



Mental tools

I will discuss mental tools like self-talk, motivation, goal setting, visualization and meditation. Tools that are used by elite performers all over the world. Runners, cyclists, swimmers, but also musicians, public speakers and mountain climbers.  Basically all who perform at the top of their game. These tools are the key that separates decent performances, from truly great performances – among elite athletes, but also at the amateur level. We can all learn to use them and become the best we can be.


Learning to use the power of your mind, helps you to deal with the pain and increase our mental toughness. It can help you to get into a flow, in which you are completely in the moment, and pain or tiredness become irrelevant. It can enable you to perform better than you have ever done and find your true potential. It also helps you have a satisfying and successful running career in which you can continue to grow. And apart from that, there is a lot of ‘spill-over’ in daily life, since a powerful mind is a strong tool in many situations. 


Understanding the mind

First of all, we have to understand that body and mind are intertwined. They constantly work together. When you slow down in a race or workout, this is not directly a result of a high heart rate, or high lactate levels, but much more of HOW your brain interprets these signals.


For a start, we take a look at pain perception. There is a large difference between people in terms of how much pain they can handle. A very interesting research was done by Vivien Scott and Karel Gijsbers, who compared 30 swimmers of the Scottish national team with 30 club swimmers and 26 non-competitive athletes. All of them did an ischemic pain test, in which they had to open and close their fist, while the blood flow in their arm was restricted. This is something that is getting progressively more painful. All of the participants were asked to continue making fist contractions until they felt like they could not handle it anymore.


The results show that there was a huge difference in pain tolerance, with the national swimmers scoring much higher than the club swimmers, who scored higher than the non-competitive swimmers (131 versus 89 versus 70). The elite swimmers were masters in handling pain. 

                               

What makes this research interesting, is that the elite swimmers were tested during different parts of the season. It was found that during the part of the season when they trained the hardest and had many races, their level of pain tolerance went up: they scored an average of 198. However, after several weeks of rest they scored only 116 on average – still higher than the club swimmers but a lot lower than on their best days. In other words, these elite swimmers were mentally the strongest when they needed it most.


This shows us that there are differences between people in terms of pain tolerance, but also on an individual level. We may not always be able to tolerate the same amount of pain. Sometimes we are mentally stronger than on other occasions. Wouldn’t it be great if we can control that? Well, we actually can. Doing hard workouts probably helps to increase our pain tolerance – which is why hard workouts are also a form of mental training. But doing mental training also helps us to peak when we need to and it’s possible that the elite swimmers did more mental training during the racing season, such as practicing visualization and meditation.


There’s another paragraph in this study, that I found very interesting. ‘The national squad swimmers reported that the pain experienced during swimming was the worst that they had ever experienced [….] In comparison the club swimmers rated the ischemic pain as being higher than that normally experienced during training.’


So despite the elite swimmers being able to handle much more pain during the test, they still rated the pain during swimming as more intense than that – unlike the club swimmers who ‘admitted’ that they didn’t experience as much pain during swimming as during the test. The obvious conclusion is that the elite swimmers in comparison with the club swimmers, were able to push themselves through much more pain while swimming.


Elite-, amateur- and non-athletes

Several studies have confirmed this difference in pain tolerance between elite athletes, amateur athletes and non-athletes. Runners in general seem to be better in handling pain than non-runners. Eleven male ultra-runners were compared with a control group who did some sport for 2.5 hours a week. All of them were asked to put their hand in ice cold water for a maximum of three minutes. They were allowed to remove their hand when the pain became unbearable. Every ten seconds they were asked to rate the level of pain they had. The men in the control group (those who did some sport) were able to hold their hand in the water for an average of 96 seconds, at which point they rated the pain as a 10 on a scale of 1-10 (maximum pain), while all of the ultra-runners were able to keep their hand the entire three minutes in the ice water and rated the pain as only a 5, so half-way the scale.


Finally, Malcolm Johnson compared 26 amateur marathon runners with 26 people who were not training. All of them were given a pain stimulus in the form of a voltage gradient on the skin, which gradually increased. They were asked to mention the first moment they considered the stimulus to be painful. We call this the pain threshold (the first moment you experience pain, though you can still handle it well). They were also asked to press a button when they had enough of it, indicating their pain tolerance (the highest level of pain they could tolerate).


Not surprisingly, the runners in this experiment had both a higher pain threshold (10 mA versus 6 mA) and a higher pain tolerance than the non-runners (19 mA versus 13 mA). In other words, the non-runners considered a level of 6-9 mA as painful, whereas the runners did not. The non-runners gave up at 13 mA, whereas the runners went up to 19mA, a significant difference.


It makes sense that athletes become better in handling pain than non-athletes because of the (physical and mental) training they do. Pushing yourself in training and races, enduring while experiencing pain, makes you better in dealing with pain. However, it’s also entirely possible that those who are naturally better in handling pain are more likely to become endurance athletes, since the pain of running doesn’t scare them.


Mental tools

Apart from training hard, there are some techniques that can help you deal with pain. Dealing with pain is not only about learning to persevere – to not give in to that burning, painful feeling. It may be more about teaching yourself ways to block the pain, so that you’re not even aware of it. We’ll get back to that in another column. Next time, we will discuss the Central Governor Theory, and how even world class athletes are not able to override the signals of their brain, that tells them to slow down.  


If you find this interesting and want to learn more, why not consider signing up for Kenya Camp? Expert seminars are part of our itinerary. Check out kenya-camp.com for more info.



Some of the literature/studies I used when writing this column:


Vivien Scott and Karel Gijsbers (1981); Pain perception in competitive swimmers. British Medical Journal, Volume 283, July 1981, page 91-93.

 

Wolfgang Freund, Frank Weber, Christian Billich, Frank Birklein, Markus Breimhorst and Uwe H. Schuetz,  (2013) Ultra-Marathon Runners Are Different: Investigations into Pain Tolerance and Personality Traits of Participants of the TransEurope FootRace 2009. Pain Practice, Volume 13, Issue 7, 2013 524–532

 

M.H. Johnson, J. Stewart, S.A. Humphries and A.S. Chamove (2012) Marathon runners’ reaction to potassium iontophoretic experimental pain: Pain tolerance, pain threshold, coping and self-efficacy. European Journal of Pain 16, 767–774.

 

Timothy David Noakes (2012): Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion that regulates the exercise behavior to ensure the protection of whole body homeostasis”. Frontiers in Physiology, volume 3, article 82.


Alex Hutchinson, “Endure. Mind, body and the curiously elastic limits of human performance”. William Morrow, New York, 2018.

 

Paul C. Castle, Neil Maxwell, Alan Allchorn, Alexis R. Mauger, Danny K. White (2012) Deception of ambient and body core temperature improves self paced cycling in hot, humid conditions. European Journal of Applied Physiology 112: 377 – 385.

 

Samuele Maria Marcora, Walter (2010). The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle? European Journal of Applied Physiology, 109: page 763 - 770

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Interesting article Hugo. Would be great to see a more in depth article on pain. There are two types of pain. One which athletes experience when training extremely hard and positively add stress to their bodies for performance enhancement while the other pain is the body’s warning system that all is not well. As you mention athletes train their minds to override the good pain but they then also lose the ability to recognize the bad pain with disaterous consequences. Some guidance on this dilemma would be appreciated. 🙏

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