Buddhist wisdom tells us that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Try telling your body that.
Oh my god, this hurts so bad… Why does this hurt so bad?? Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. Uggggggghhhhhh, this burns so much!
Aaarrrrgh. I HATE this… Why am I doing this??
I don’t think I can do this anymore…
I can’t do this. I’m done.
Oh, “The Burn.” That evildoer that brings searing heat to our muscles. It’s all consuming, always waiting, and often accompanied by a noxious fire in our lungs.
If you have ever challenged your body to go faster, push harder, or endure longer, you are intimately familiar with the red-hot, combustible sensation that results from high-intensity exercise. Most of us look at The Burn in our legs or arms as a weakness: a limitation, a place of failure. After all, once we feel the first familiar sensations of fatigue creeping in—just at the moment we want to bid our bodies to do more—we must accept that the beginning of the end has arrived.
Or must we?
The Burn, aka acidosis, is that fateful moment when the intensity cranks up, the pH in our hard-working muscles drops, and the acidity rises faster than it can be processed. Although there is a persistent belief that lactic acid is the evil creator of acidosis, it’s actually the buildup of hydrogen ions (or protons) that stimulates our nerve endings and sends our brain those fiery sensations we love to hate so much. Lactate is really the good guy here, created by our brilliant bodies to buffer acidosis and remove those excessive hydrogen ions so they can be converted into fuel in other areas of the body. Go, lactate, go!
But in those crux moments, when we are faced with the painful reality of being human and the threat of losing our coveted Strava crown, most of us don’t really care about the source of our suffering. Who among us could possibly think beyond the unbearable burn in our muscles and the desperation of wanting to quit in order to make it stop, anyway?
Anyone who wants to override that old habit and challenge their body to adapt and grow stronger could, that’s who.
“Every cell in your body is eavesdropping on your thoughts.”
Every day I work with athletes who craft, train, and practise skills and techniques that help them use the power of their minds to move beyond their perceived physical limits. These mind games are simple but effective practices that can transform pain into purpose and limits into targets. They let us get out of our own way and allow an amazing natural process to occur.
The human body is designed to adapt and grow stronger when faced with a stimulus that overloads the system slightly: not too much, not too little. When we spend just a little more time in the places that test us, week after week and month after month, we grow.
With an optimal balance of stress and rest, the body adapts to handle our demands. Systems re-organize, pathways specialize, tissues re-synthesize, and, in the end, we find ourselves going harder, faster, or further before finding the edge of The Burn.
Through my own years of endurance training and racing, I have developed a passion for mind games. I’ve come up with some creative strategies for enduring so-called “discomfort,” so I can push beyond the edge and hold on just a little longer. Sometimes I celebrate the pain (“It’s a party in my legs!!”); sometimes I ignore my limbs and pretend I’m just a torso, floating out in the wild.
Most often, however, I simply shift my focus toward gratitude, redefining these “painful” experiences as chances to feel my body moving in ways that fill me with joy, when one day I will no longer be able to—and when at this moment many people would absolutely love to be able to do what I’m doing, but can’t.
With this perspective, which is accessible to every one of us at any moment, “suffering and pain” during exercise transform into some of the greatest gifts of all.
They say that performance is 90 per cent mental, and our relationship with The Burn is a perfect place to test this theory. Very rarely do we humans reach the true physical limitations of our magnificent bodies, because the power of the mind far outweighs that of muscles and mitochondria. After all, it is in our mind that we first decide when to begin… and also when we decide to quit.
Sometimes, we catch glimpses of our greatness, just like seeing the fleeting view of mountains behind the clouds. And in those moments of awe, once we realize it exists, we may find ourselves searching, seeking, and wanting to know that beautiful place between perceived pleasure and pain.
In the end, the goal is the same. Relax and soften just a little, move away from fear, move towards presence, decrease muscle tension just a little, notice the heart rate and the breathing rate slow just enough, so that we may continue just a moment longer…
Okay… Here we go… Just a little more…
There it is… This is why I’m doing this…
Just breathe it out… Soften and keep going…
I’ve got this.