Training To Tolerate Discomfort
The title of this post prompts the question: why would you want to do that? Discomfort occurs in life whether we want to or not, and we can expect at least some chronic aches and pains with aging. Training to handle discomfort during exercise is a way to become more able to “grin and bear it”.
This was discussed in a fascinating article “You Can Teach Yourself to Suffer Better” in Alex Hutchinson’s Sweat Science column for Outside Magazine. It discuss research on participants in the several ultramarathon challenges, taking place in remote places like the Atacama, Gobi, and Namibian deserts . Lead author Kevin Alschuler, a psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and his colleagues interviewed the runners, searching for effective vs. “malaptive” coping strategies. Things that work well include reframing the pain as a challenge, refusing to let it bother them, or simply ignoring it, Unhelpful mental attitudes included being frightened or defeated by pain, or interpreting it as a signal to stop. I can relate to that. I am much more bothered by pain if I don’t know if it is harmful, like an injury or illness. What is interesting about the study is that the athletes who had better coping strategies were much more likely to finish. I love the phrase “Pain Is Inevitable But Suffering Is Optional” in the title of the research publication.
Dr, !! and colleagues also studied Bryce Carlson, who rowed across the Atlantic unassisted. When faces with physical stress, Carlson used active problem-solving. If that didn’t fix work, he used acceptance. As an example of physical stress during this ordeal, Alex describes when Carlson had to turn south, directly into a massive headwind, and row hard for 3 days to avoid an approaching storm which would have swamped his little boat. Imagine this situation- he was working your butt off, muscles aching, and was not even making progress towards his goal of crossing the ocean, because he had to turn sideways to the desired route.
Problem-solving is useful if you can actually do something about the pain, like take a rock out of your shoe when hiking or adjust your position riding a bike. Otherwise, acceptance works well for me. I’ve had times of unavoidable discomfort during surgical recoup and rehab. But surprisingly, probably the worst of all was when I had severe road rash after a bike crash. For several nights a ridiculous amount of itching, feeling like I was being stabbed by little pins constantly, kept me awake. I used the mindfulness technique of accepting the discomfort, and actually concentrating on it. This would paradoxically make it feel less severe. This is taught in mindfulness-based pain reduction clinics.
I don’t consider myself a masochist, so I don’t intentionally cultivate pain. The main reason I exercise is the pleasant relaxing feeling it can lead to, especially outdoors). But sometimes your have to pay some dues to get to the bliss. Learning to cope with pain or discomfort in a controlled situation where you know it is not harmful is helpful for dealing with challenges of daily life.