This discussion is continued from Part 1…
The Aging Dilemma
For those chasing medals and records and recognition – a reward now – it is acceptable, even required it seems, to take some risks with injury. The risks are much higher when there is a confusion in reading pain signals and responding appropriately. If the athlete is going to error on one side, would he choose to go harder, too hard and get injured, or go softer, too soft, and not perform as high as he might? The error on either side comes from not being able to tell the difference between signals.
For those seeking longevity – a reward later – injuries should be avoided, and if not, certainly learned from, because injuries often signify faster wear and tear on the body which needs to last many more years. Yet even a long-and-well-functioning body needs to be properly stressed in order to maintain strength and grow. So one cannot simply avoid discomfort to play it safe.
The dilemma is this: the older we get the longer it takes to recover from strenuous efforts, while the aged brain may be even more reluctant to let us deplete scarce and slowly-replenished resources.
But, if we do not stress and stretch the body, it declines faster. So the aging athletic goal is to continually seek out that that sweet spot between training too hard and training too soft, and if we error at all, err on the side that aligns with our higher value.
Improving The Experience Of Pain
To review, there is pain that signifies threat of injury and pain that signifies proper fitness stress in the body.
There is pain we should not tolerate, which we can do something to reduce, by responding to the threat of injury and changing what we’re doing.
Then there is pain that we don’t want to avoid because it is associated with strength and growth. This is the increasing discomfort as resources are depleted and the body undergoes changes to adapt to more challenging conditions.
Since we can’t or do not want to reduce them, we need mental training to help us improve our relationship with positive pain signals, so we can still get the necessary kind and amount of fitness work done.
Mental training isn’t about reducing pain (directly), it is about transforming our perception, our interpretation and therefore our experience of it. It may mean there is still the same level of pain but we learn how to interact with it in such a way that discomfort does not convert as much into suffering.
Consider two competitors in a very difficult event: with all other factors being equal between them, could both have as much pain, yet one have lower experience of suffering while still performing as high? I suspect so, though this comparative subjective experience is nearly impossible to measure between two different people.
In a very intense effort, we might be in as much pain as others working around us, but mental training could enable us to reduce the experience of suffering a great deal.
Training The Mind
Of the first kind of pain, the warning of a threat of injury, we can improve perception to pick up even more subtle signals, pick up on them sooner. We can train the mind to stay better attuned in order to make early adjustments and avoid injury.
That improved perception of subtle signals, combined with rigorous technique training gives you a toolbox and a sense of empowerment to do something about it. Psychologically, concern about the signals does not turn into fear, which does not turn into panic or paralysis. Instead, you stay moving, you stay positive and fix things as you go, and end up feeling more confident because of it.
From the book Endure, Alex Hutchinson quotes Samuele Marcora, to define effort as “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.”
Of the second kind of pain, the necessary discomfort, we can train the mind to increase its resilience, its strength for sticking with the task- the effort to keeping going when signals are shouting at you. Those sensations can be reinterpreted as something good and positive, something to be embraced because they mean you are doing the necessary work, rather than held with aversion and avoided because they mean you are suffering for no good cause.
A motivated person will focus on positive and productive things more than the pain. ‘Pain without meaning’ might be a good definition of suffering. But when a person finds meaning or purpose for undergoing this (voluntary) hardship, when the pain is interpreted as necessary to the goal, then there is not so much suffering in the experience, although it is extremely difficult.
In order to cultivate a stronger motivation to pay a high price in discomfort we combine:
- a strong desire to achieve a performance goal
- a vision for how we can actually achieve that goal
- an understanding that certain uncomfortable signals indicate we are on the right path to that achievement
For this we must have trained attention, the ability to keep the mind occupied with positive and productive technical actions in the midst of increasing discomfort, actions which can influence the perception of pain and sustain performance. This is how medical, emergency and military personnel can get work done and handle otherwise overwhelming levels of distress.
By assessing and improving these features of our motivation we can increase our resilience to difficulties and discomforts of training.
Continued once more in Part 3…
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