Lesley Paterson is a professional mountain biker, 3-time world champion in off-road triathlon, and an Ironman triathlon champion. Despite her great success in sports, Lesley has had her share of injury and illness. She has lived with Lyme Disease, upper hamstring tendinopathy, piriformis syndrome, the pectineus pinch, medial tibial stress syndrome, and gut issues, to name a few.
Through the illnesses, injuries, and setbacks, Lesley has been able to overcome by learning to embrace the suck. She shares some of her story and offers practical mental tools to overcome obstacles with a brave spirit in her new book The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion, co-written with her husband, sport psychologist Dr. Simon Marshall.
Let’s pick Lesley’s brain on pain…
Q: You’re no stranger to pain. What do you think is the difference between pain from an injury and the suffering that’s a normal part of your day job when you’re a professional endurance athlete?
A: Yes, pain is my paycheck! We endurance athletes have so many words for pain and suffering that they are clearly integral parts of our sport! But the most important thing is that, as an athlete, I know the difference between the two. Pain is usually a sign of damage. Not good. Listen to it. It can be sharp, achy, dull, or throbby, but it usually doesn’t change the harder we go. The other kind -- suffering – is effort pain, which science tells us, our brains will not let us die from. It simply feels so bloody awful. Some beginners can’t tell the difference and you would be amazed at the questions we get asked: Will my heart burst? Will my lungs explode? Will my muscle cells die from the lactic acid? Yes, these are all things we’ve been asked by athletes. While injury pain needs to be listened to immediately, effort pain needs to be managed. Regardless of the type of pain, everyone has a different pain threshold and tolerance, and they also cope with it in different ways.
Q: Are athletes better at dealing with pain?
A: Absolutely, yes. Athletes tend to have a higher threshold and tolerance for pain compared to ‘normal’ people and there is evidence that it is the exercise training that makes them like this, rather than them simply being attracted to sport because they’re already tough. The good news is that you can get better at coping with effort pain by forcing yourself to experience lots of it. Yes, you can practice embracing the suck! Your ability to suffer is known to depend on your awareness of when it will come to an end. Your brain has special mechanism that helps you cope with it if you plan for it in advance and then try to accept it rather than fight it when it arrives.
Q: How do you plan for the pain? Is there a coping strategy?
A: When you know a "sufferfest" is in the cards, whether sport-related or not, do the exact opposite of trying not to think about it—I have a pre-suffer ritual that welcomes it. Think of this as putting on suffer armor. When the suffering does come --and it will-- I use mindfulness techniques (a form of meditation) to cope with it. Coping involves using thoughts, feelings, and behavior to reduce the perception of discomfort. You can actually train your brain to do this.
One strategy that has especially helped me is called “feedforward.” It is akin to mental time travel to think about the pain before it occurs. It helps build the expectation of suffering. This might sound counterintuitive. Why would you want to dwell on suffering? Unlike feedback, feedforward helps you improve future behavior by training the brain’s love of anticipation. It’s akin to bracing yourself by thinking about it. It helps you plan for all possible outcomes, rather than just hope everything turns out well.
In our book, The Brave Athlete, we provide a 5-minute feedforward exercise along with other strategies to deal with suffering. Give them a try!