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When Pain Helps Us to Be Better Athletes

By Adam Marsal

What if the proverbial pain in the butt becomes literal? We’re all familiar with those leg muscle burns that we experience when lactic acid builds up in them during exercise or a ride. We have to put up with pain in our nether regions, ankles, knees, neck, and even wrists. Is all this pain just bad for us or may it have some other hidden reason we can benefit from? Scientists from the University of Wisconsin and McGill University in Montreal carried out some tests to find out.

Despite advanced scientific research, suffering is still an inevitable part of cycling. We see faces grimacing in pain when riders attempt a solo break-away or while climbing mountain passes. The question is, would riders show better performance if this pain was less intense or even non-existent?

There was an interesting experiment carried out with anaesthetics applied directly to the spine, resulting in suppressing of any pain from the waist down using the drug fentanyl. Surprisingly, cyclists involved in the test didn’t show better results when compared to the ones that were only “sedated” by a placebo. Scientists offered an explanation: riders which didn’t feel any pain wasted their power too fast and got significantly slower in the second part of the given route. This indicates that pain works as a guideline that helps our bodies manage our energy economically.

Warren Barguil climbs the Col d’Izoard in a breakaway during the eighteenth stage of the Tour de France on July 20, 2017.

Quite different results were gained in another experiment when scientists gave painkillers to some of the cyclists in the group. Even without knowing, the performance of those who used them was much more efficient than by those who took just the placebo. These two tests show that pain is limiting our performance in both good and a bad way. While perceiving reduced levels of pain result in improving our outputs, without any feedback our body systems are confused. We can regard pain as an important signal announcing that tired legs might need to change breathing and circulation rates, so more oxygen is delivered to the muscles for better work. However, if the pain reached the individually unbearable threshold, performance would drop remarkably.

The other thing is that people seem to be trainable in terms of withstanding pain. The scientific findings clarified that athletes are likely to put up with suffering not because they’re tough but because they got accustomed to it after hundreds of hours in the saddle. Same way as the physiological fitness improves, also the ability to handle the pain can be improved over time.