Friday, February 22, 2019

Pain Part Two: Exertion

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Having explored the first of three pains (fatigue, exertion, hurt) in my last blog, this week it's time to look at exertion. Again, there is a massive caveat that I am no expert, just a layman. But if any of the following strikes a chord or gives you pause to think (even to disagree) then all good.

What do I mean by the pain of "exertion"? Well, on a personal level, this is the feeling that you just can't maintain your current effort level or pace, and thus you either back off to recover composure, or you push on through and deal with the pain.

I guess the first lesson I've learned in the last six months or so is that sometimes training needs to hurt. It's by pushing yourself in training that you gain the confidence and knowledge that you can do it in a race. I'm paraphrasing here, but Chrissie Wellington often refers to training as her way of teaching her body and mind to deal with, and overcome, pain.

But - and here's where I learned an important lesson - not ALL training sessions should hurt! There is a time and place for pushing the body, and equally a time when you either need to focus on recovery or maybe zone 2 efforts designed to improve the aerobic system without a significant build up of lactic.

Coming out of base training and starting my speed work ahead of this year's Tri season, it's something of a rude awakening to leave the "comfort" of zone 2 and start pushing myself again. Personally I usually find that exertion manifests itself in two ways - the feeling the my lungs just can't process enough air and/or my legs just not wanting to turn over fast enough. I don't know about you, but sometimes every brain cell in my head is screaming "slow down!" yet I know from experience I can push on through. I know, for example, that I can maintain an HR of 175ish for 20 minutes because I've done it in many races. So when it's hurting after five minutes, tough luck!

Which leads me loosely to the discussion about what causes athletes to slow down or blow up in the latter stages of a race. We're all familiar with what happened to Ali Brownlee at Hyde Park last year. Some commentators say he pushed his body beyond its limits and thus it effectively shut down. Some say it was all a mental thing and that effectively his mind gave up. I've read both arguments and am, frankly, still undecided.

But it's an interesting debate. Have I ever pushed my body to the extent that he did last year? Probably not. Have I failed to deliver my optimum performance because I was "hurting too much"? Almost certainly.

So how do i give myself the best chance of avoiding that in the future? Well, we come back to Chrissie Wellington and the importance of teaching your body - and mind - to deal with pain. To know that yes it hurts, but you're familiar with the pain and you know you can cope with it. And that's why pain in training is a good thing.

Another coping strategy I have explored is NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) coaching with Kim Ingleby ( Working with NLP you can learn to recognise situations - including the overwhelming desire to slow down! - and use 'anchors' (recalled times from past when you have felt great / positive / fast / strong) to quieten the negative thoughts and focus on positives.

For me, training with exertion as a pain requires a balance of discipline and intelligence. When I have a hard session to do (normally set by my coach, Mark Shepherd - Twitter @gobi_one) I look at each stage of the workout and follow it as closely as possible. If I have a 20-minute interval on the bike or a 10-minute interval on the run that demands 160-170HR I force myself to do it; no matter how tough if feels. This is partly because I want the outcome (to race faster) and partly because I trust Mark to know how hard to push me. He won't blow me up physically, but he will push the envelope as he feels I can cope with it.

The intelligence comes in the form of knowing when to go hard and when to take it easy. Last year I got into the mindset that as the season got underway, every session had to push a little harder. With a coach, I am now realising that doesn't make the most sense (see my previous blog on fatigue). This is even more important for us triathletes, as we juggle the demands of three sports - it requires forethought and planning to build a training schedule that enables you to go hard in each discipline as required, while still building the aerobic system and avoiding burn out.

So what advice can I pass on? Well, don't avoid pain. In some cases it really is your friend! When you're pushing hard and it hurts, just remember that it's also enabling you to perform better on race day! When you finish a hard session, take a moment to remember the feeling of exertion and then acknowledge how good it feels to have successfully completed the session.

If you're unsure about exertion, set yourself achievable goals. Try fartlek runs or intervals with shorter blasts and then build on them over time. Once you know you can hold a significant effort for 60 seconds, you can push yourself to 75 and so on. Be strict with yourself as well - don't whimp out!

But (and it's a big but) don't make the mistake of thinking every session needs to be hard. Perhaps start with just one hard session per discipline per week (some coaches may even suggest to only do a hard swim less often) and make sure you give yourself a recovery session before going hard again.

Finally - and this ties in to the third pain - don't force yourself to do a hard session when you're really not up to it! No feeble excuses, but if you're coming back from illness or have a potential "hurt" pain, doing a hard session could cause more bad than good.

Triathletes are, by and large, an intelligent bunch. Use your head and you will both learn to use pain to your advantage and avoid pushing too hard at the wrong time!

As always, would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to disagree or express a different point of view!

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Matt Fisher runs - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a two-times qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs