The best mental strategies to power through pain
YOUR QUADS SCREAM as you power uphill during a Tough Mudder. Your traps quiver in the last minute of today’s AMRAP. You deadlift to the point of passing out. And, let’s face it: If you’re not at least mildly uncomfortable during your workout, well, why’d you bother showing up?
Pain is impossible to ignore—as soon as we feel something hurt we’re wired to start thinking about it to prevent future injuries, explains performance psychologist Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., the director of mental conditioning for the New York Giants. And, sometimes, discomfort is indeed a sign you need to back off. But most of the time, with proper form and the appropriate exertion, exercise-induced pain is really just a sign of cardiovascular conditioning or muscle breaking down and building back stronger, he adds.
Discomfort can signal “time to slow down,” “time to panic,” or “time to push on even harder”—and which your body is trying to communicate is almost entirely dependent on what you want to hear.
“In any kind of athletic performance, it’s inevitable you’re going to face discomfort, physical or emotional. But it’s your perception of and reaction to it that will determine how much power it has over your performance,” says Greg Chertok, a sport psychologist at Telos Sport Psychology Coaching in New York.
Powering through that healthy discomfort isn’t just the avenue to becoming fitter and faster—it also helps you understand your physical limits more accurately so it hurts a little less next time.
But how do you tune out the whining and tune into the winning? Here, we’ve found eight proven strategies to focus less on the pain and more on learning your actual limits.
1. Develop a mindfulness practice
“Doing any of these strategies (let alone all of them) requires a level of expertise and familiarity with the body, so you can distinguish true discomfort from actual pain, which could be signaling an injury,” says Mark Aoyagi, Ph.D., research and practice division head for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
The most effective and efficient way to do this is mindfulness training. Mindfulness requires effort outside the gym, but putting in the time comes with serious payoffs, including better pain control, also improved sleep, improved motivation, and less stress. Check out the mindfulness app Headspace, which Aoyagi recommends, or our athlete’s guide to mindful meditation.
2. Plan for and embrace discomfort
“Any sort of personal best performance will involve discomfort because you’re pushing yourself past what you’ve done before,” Aoyagi says. “Expecting discomfort allows us to accept and even embrace it as a sign that things are going right rather than things are going wrong.”
Going into a workout or race, think about the moves ahead of you and how your body has reacted in the past. If you always get side stitches sprinting uphill, expect the cramping as soon as you start your ascent. If today’s WOD involves burpee box jumps, anticipate wanting to throw up and cry simultaneously.
Aoyagi explains that when we accept the discomfort, two really important things happen: First, we can dedicate our brainpower to accomplishing the physical task at hand—setting the pace and breathing, rather than fighting the uncomfortable feelings. Second, we avoid piling extra pain on top by judgment (“If I were fit, I wouldn’t be feeling this.”), worrying about it (“If I feel like this already, there is no way I’m going to be able to finish.”), or catastrophizing it (“If I feel like this now I might as well quit because I’m not going to get the results I want.”).
3. Think of pain as power
Pain is unarguably a negative sensation, right? Actually, it’s really thinking of it as negative that makes it so.
“Every feeling that comes into your body on the field, during a race, in the gym is completely neutral until we affix a positive or negative label to them,” says Chertok. Rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, and racing thoughts could be either excitement or anxiety—but which you choose to believe you’re feeling will directly affect your performance. “When we’re in a positive emotional framework, we’re likely to perform better,” Chertok adds.
Get your mind right: As fatigue or pain starts to flood your body, think of this new sensation as a flood of strength and energy instead. Feel the vigor coursing through your blood stream, and send the sensation where you need it most—focus on a stream of strength and power moving through your muscles, energizing your quads for the miles left, or powering your shoulders for one more press. “Thinking of discomfort this way makes you more likely to embrace the feeling as opposed to avoid it,” Chertok adds.
4. Set small goals
Take a race mile by mile, and take each WOD exercise by exercise. “Sometimes, when [the activity] gets really tough, we just need to make it to the next light pole or even the next breath. When we split up the workout or competition to the next little piece, the whole picture isn’t staring us down,” says Angela M. Fifer, Ph.D., an Ironman, ultramarathoner, and scientific program division head-elect for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
The strategy of setting small goals is part distraction, part reassurance from small wins: When you feel like you’re ready to drop but push yourself to churn out just one more rep, it instills the confidence that maybe you in fact have a little more energy left despite your crying muscles. Breaking the workout into chunks effectively teaches your brain that pain isn’t the real indicator that you’re done. Plus, breaking down the race or workout into small goals helps the time move faster—and, therefore, helps dissipate the sensation of pain. “Usually this tough time passes, and you will be back at it in a few minutes,” Fifer adds.
5. Queue up a cue word
Think about what you need most when you feel tired or uncomfortable—power, energy, focus, motivation—and make a list of words that evoke that feeling strongest to you. They can be as straight-forward as action words or phrases like “explode,” “cruise,” “get after it,” or something personally motivating to only you. “I’ve had athletes use the name of their childhood practice field or their youth coach to elicit feelings of fun or enjoyment,” Chertok adds. When your workout becomes wearisome, reach for your cue word and put it on repeat until the meaning sinks in.
“Just by simply focusing on your breath and controlling your respiratory rate, you can alter your heartrate, clear your mind, and achieve an optimal level of arousal,” Fader says. Not only will controling your physiological response help dissipate the pain, but mental clarity will help you make smarter decisions on what you may need to adjust in order to avoid discomfort. Plus, “it takes your mind off of the painful sensations your body is experiencing and places it on another physical sensation that you can control,” Fader adds.
Whether you want to control or observe is up to you. “Being with your breathe, not trying to control, judge, or change it is one strategy. But feeling the coolness of air coming in and warmth of it going out, noticing rise and fall of the stomach can also be effective. There’s no one right way,” Chertok adds.
7. Distract yourself
Find a spot on the ground, sing a song in your head, count the number of colors around you—the mind can only focus in on so much at any given time, so offer it something other than pain to obsess over, Chertok says. Another option: Shift your focus to a part of your body that is not in pain, like having loose and relaxed hands while running up a hill, Fifer offers. Chertok adds that pretty much any distraction works, except focusing on things that are beyond your control, like another runner’s time or weather conditions.
8. Observe the sensations
These techniques all work well to blunt low to moderate levels of pain—but we all have a threshold. “When the pain of something becomes so great, you have no choice but to tune into the feelings it elicits,” Chertok says. If you pass the point of pacification, your best bet is acceptance rather than resistance. “Research shows that elite performers are more comfortable confronting discomfort, while amateur athletes use avoidance more,” he adds.
Instead of freaking out, control what you can—breathing rate, running pace, muscle tension—and think about “bringing intention” to your aching muscles.
“Physiologically, this gives more oxygen to those areas—energy flows where attention goes. But even if you can’t mitigate the pain, bringing awareness to a body part shines a flashlight to it—brings it to life in a certain way,” Chertok adds.