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How to Increase Pain Tolerance – Trick Your Brain

By Jiri Kaloc

When you understand the role of pain and you’ve had plenty of it in training, you can still benefit from learning strategies that will help you handle pain better in your head. There are many ways to approach pain and strategies to trick your brain so that it doesn’t go into the usual pattern of negative habits. Let’s take a look at the most effective ones.

Reframing makes a big difference

There’s a great study illustrating how the way you view pain can influence how intense the pain will be. Research in this study induced harmless pain by restricting blood flow to the volunteer’s arm. One group of volunteers was told the pain would cause damage and the other that the more pain, the stronger their muscles would get. The results were clear, the group who had a positive outlook on the same level of pain tolerated it significantly better than those who viewed the same pain negatively. Just imagine doing the same while cycling. Other studies confirm this by showing that untrained athletes increase their ability to withstand suffering through positive self-talk by 20 %.

If you want your body to get used to the race-day levels of pain, you simply have to do some practice races. © Xinhua / Eyevine / Profimedia

Learn to reframe your pain

No one way will work for everyone but learning and practising the ability to reframe a situation is an important skill for increasing pain tolerance. For example, you can think of pain in a positive way as a signal that you’re successfully pushing hard instead of negatively as a sign you will have to slow down. Some cyclists make pain while racing more manageable by imagining that other riders must be suffering at least as much or more. The key is to first learn to recognize your negative thoughts and then replace them with positive self-talk. Experiment with your own techniques in training and practice races and you will feel the difference.

Distract your brain

Some cyclists find distraction just as effective as reframing when dealing with a lot of pain. A great way to distract is to segment an effort into tiny chunks. If you make your brain focus on small parts of a ride, let’s say the next 10 miles or 5 minutes or even just the distance till the next turn on a hard climb, you will find that the pain becomes much more manageable compared to thinking about the total amount of pain to come. Another technique that helps to distract from negative thoughts is counting. Repetitive tasks can help quiet down the voices telling you to slow down. So, try counting your pedal strokes, breaths or anything that’s simple enough.

You can only increase your pain tolerance when you’re emotionally and physically rested enough. © Ron Sanford/Science Source / Photo researchers / Profimedia

Visualize the right way

Visualization can be a very powerful tool. Most elite athletes do it, they replay the upcoming race over and over in their head, which helps them to get comfortable with it and keeps them motivated. But there’s one thing that separates the very best from the average. The most successful athletes often visualize a race not only how they want it to go in an ideal scenario but also with all of the possible bad scenarios. This ability to imagine the worst possible race where you wake up feeling bad, mess up nutrition, get a flat tire, have to fight through the hard parts solo instead of with a group and so on is what allows riders to be ready even for the worst suffering. So, when something unexpected happens in the real race, they can handle the pain much better because it’s still easier than what they imagined. So, make sure to expose yourself to pain in training, visualize, distract your brain and reframe the pain, and you will see yourself pushing hard even when others are giving up to pain.

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