The Art and Purpose of Suffering

By Ian Hainsworth

Endurance Sport is something that we all love (after all that is why you took up this sport, right?).

Let’s face the reality – there is an element of suffering and struggle that goes with the territory.

Much has been written about suffering over the years, and I don’t want to bore you with a topic that others have covered in greater detail than I could hope to.

Instead I want to talk about that  poor cousin to suffering  – struggle.

Suffering is somehow heroic (chest burning, quads screaming at you, shoulders on fire in the pool) and we can talk about it as a physical element.

Struggle often doesn’t have a physical expression that can be observed and recognised by others, but is those times when your expectations of just how that race or even training session would turn out,  is just NOT what reality is right now.

It can be accumulated fatigue of training load, not keeping your body fuelled with the nutrition it needs, mental fatigue of long hours at work.  Who knows, just what is causing it on the day.

But what your race or training session should be looking like is not what your Garmin is saying right now.

I would like to suggest that instead you celebrate those times, because making it out the other side of struggle is what really makes for a great performance.   The timing chip or Garmin may not say this, but deep down you KNOW that you made it out the other side of struggle-town and you still put in the required effort.

You see, struggle is all about focussing on the things you CAN control.  Yes, our human minds swiftly move to the negative side of the coin and look at what isn’t working, what isn’t happening and it tends to fuel further negative thoughts.

Struggle time is the time of choice.  The choice of working with what you CAN do to your absolute best and most excellent effort, or just “make it through”.   Nobody will know that you haven’t put in your best effort – except that person that you look at in the mirror every morning. They know the truth.

Listening to other athletes experiences and reflecting on my own, I suspect there are some real truths that we can apply at the time of struggle.  Effort.  And Focus. And Technique.

By listening to our bodies and knowing just where we are at in our training, we know just what outcome (speed, pace, power) occurs with certain efforts.   Yes, we can say on our Strava comments that our run was an “easy run” but for many of us it was actually moderate to hard effort and we wanted the numbers to look a certain way.

Effort

Honestly, far better to only glance at your Garmin occasionally,  and go from true effort assessment on the inside.  Become the true expert in listening to your body and knowing just what easy feels like, what moderate feels like and what hard feels like.  Then on struggle time, you can apply a correct effort with confidence, knowing that this consistent effort will get you to the end of that race or session with the best outcome.

Focus

Focus is (at least in my head) the application of your resources – your senses, willpower, knowledge, your intellect, your thoughts – on a single matter.  There is no such thing as success when we multi task, and there is no room for negative thoughts when desiring success.

When struggling, that is the perfect time to develop the mental muscles to choose to think only what you can do and choose to block out that voice of the devil on your shoulder whispering seductively that you can’t do it.  To block out external sensory input that minimises the pain and struggle. Honestly, better to embrace and accept the pain and struggle and learn to not only cohabit with those bedfellows, but respect that whilst they have a significant impact on you they are NOT your master unless you allow them to.

Much practice is required to achieve this (more practice than you may first think is possible), which is why those days of struggle in training are a wonderful opportunity to practice focus and positivity at the very time when you feel like crap.

Technique

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum.  So, if you CANT rely on Garmin or external sensory input, what can you do?

The answer is rely on technique and in fact choose to develop and refine technique at those times when you are struggling.

I don’t mean “perfect” technique (because that is not at all practical and will add to your frustration) but rather a technique of excellence that fits what you CAN do.

For example, choose to push circles on those bike pedals, choose to run tall and land lightly on your feet, choose to focus on stroke rate or pull through length with your swim.   These are all choices that allow your mind to focus on a positive. Without the availability of positive focus, it is even easier to succumb to going slower in the face of struggle than otherwise may be achieved.

Is dealing with struggle easy?  No, of course not.  It is frustrating, often unexpected and frankly it sucks.

However, the gift of struggle is that the same mental muscles that you implement and practice in your training session and raceday are the very muscles you use when life itself is a struggle also.