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The Men's Fitness Guide to Suffering

Our behavioral science expert explains how to power through the good kind of pain.

Do you love to push yourself to the edge? To consistently test your boundaries? Do you consider lifting until you vomit, or running ungodly distances -- perhaps with obstacles along the way -- inviting “growth experiences”? 

If so, you are not alone. The recent proliferation of extreme sports is palpable.  From circuit training to CrossFit, marathons to ultras, and even from what started as participatory Tough Mudders to more demanding Spartan “Beast” races, an increasing number of athletes are flocking to fringe challenges. “I just want to test myself and see what is possible,” Says Ezra Becker, a San Francisco native signed up to run a 100 mile race at the end of January. “Plus, it should be fun.”

While fun is a subjective term, and one that we are not comfortable guaranteeing, the following tips should at least help you finish your next sufferfest. 

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Author’s Note: As someone who works in health care, I don’t like to use the word “suffering” lightly. While competing in extreme athletic events is HARD (trust me, I know this firsthand), it pales in comparison to the true suffering that very sick individuals are forced to endure. Keeping this in mind serves as a good perspective check as you take on athletic endeavors. 

Strong Mind, Strong Body

Professor Timothy Noakes, the exercise scientist known for the Central Govorner of fatigue theory, once said, “The brain is the ultimate determinant of performance.”  Noakes’ premise is that fatigue occurs in the mind (i.e., the central govorner) before the body. Even if your heart and muscular system may have more to give, the brain shuts the body down as a protective mechanism when stress levels get too high.  Although the Central Govorner can be an unruly performance limiter, it also prevents an athlete from pushing themselves into organ failure, which is a good thing. 

Fortunately, and in a paradoxical twist, you can train your brain to tolerate more stress by better training your body. Since the brain is constantly receiving feedback from the body, the stronger your body, the further your brain will allow it to push. In revisiting the Central Governor analogy: think about the governor of a small territory and his or her confidence in waging war with a poorly trained and meager army, versus waging war with a well-prepared and forceful one. Turn your body into the latter! 

A slightly different model of brain-based fatigue is that of Dr. Samuele Marcora, who thinks “there is a constant battle between motivation and effort.” Fatigue represents an athlete easing back to bring effort into alignment with motivation. Thus, “increasing fatigue tolerance is at least partially about increasing motivation,” explains Marcora.  While possessing the “search deep-down inside yourself” type of motivation is a must-have for extreme events , tactics like positive self-talk and facial feedback (i.e., smiling) are simple tactics that can increase motivation in real-time.

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Don't Fear Failure

If you are scared to fail, you’ll never push yourself out of your comfort zone, and if you never push yourself out of your comfort zone, you’ll never grow. That, in a nutshell, is the concept underlying world-renowned sports psychologist Stan Beecham’s book, Elite Minds. Most effective when used in combination, the following two approaches are especially helpful for overcoming fears of failure. 

1) Prepare yourself for the task at hand so that there is less of a chance that you’ll fail in the first place. Don’t just tell yourself that you’ll succeed, but actually show yourself that you’ll succeed by completing a few grueling workouts that closely mimic your event. In the words of mindfulness teacher Brandon Rennels, this type of deliberate practice should result in increased faith, which he defines as “confidence born from observing the fruits of practice.” 

2) Quit taking yourself so seriously! Once you realize that there is more to your identity than your result in a specific event, you’ll be a lot more likely to take constructive risks. (Not to mention, you’ll also feel like a 50lb brick has been removed from your shoulders and you’ll have a lot more fun.)

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Drop the Ego

“I’ve gotten my ass handed to me too many times by the 'oh, he looks better suited for the buffet line guy,' so now, I leave those thoughts at the gate and just focus on running my race as best as possible,” says Ezra Becker, one of San Francisco’s best trail runners. “Plus, if those people do hand it to me, that is just motivation for the next go-round, or possibly a cue to spend more time at the buffet!” 

While not comparing yourself to others is sage advice, perhaps even better is to forget about your “self” entirely. 

According to Dr. Vic Strecher, a University of Michigan behavioral scientist who studies the role of “purpose” in our lives, “once we direct our thoughts beyond ourselves –- when we stop thinking about ourselves –- that is when we tend to accomplish things that we once thought were impossible.” Not only is it inspirational to compete for a cause greater than yourself (like running for charity), but when we stop focusing on ourselves, “we become less worried that we’ll fail and less stressed out,” Strecher says. Not only does shedding stress feel good, but it is also physiologically good: we can apply those extra heartbeats toward our performance goal rather than toward worrying about ourselves. 

So, at your next event, be sure not to compare yourself to others, and ideally, stop thinking about your “self” altogether. You’ll have an easier time getting into the coveted “zone” where time stops and pain disappears. And that, my friends, is a state of mind every athlete wants to be in. 

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Form and Technique Matter

“In the new world of extreme athletic challenges, we are intending to push ourselves to physical limits well beyond our normal comfort zones,” says personal trainer Kevin Jack, who is also one of the California Bay Area’s top obstacle racers. “And when pushing our bodies to the edge, form & technique is actually more critical than ever.”  

Not only does maintaining good form help with injury prevention, but it also enhances performance. Jack puts it simply: “The better the technique, the better the output. No doubt, it’s hard to keep it together when you are massively fatigued and adrenaline is running high, but by paying attention to your body and thinking about technique –- be it your foot-strike, rope climbing technique, proper breathing, etc. –- you will actually end up with a better performance output.”  

When I asked Jack how an athlete can hone their form, he quoted Vince Lombardi. “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”  Jack says that hard as it may be, it is critical to resist the urge to just jump right in to extreme events. Rather, do your homework and find a gym or coach with a reputation for focusing on technique. For example, before joining a CrossFit gym, it’s OK to ask how many of their athletes get injured. Nail the basics first, and then progress to worrying about adding speed, distance, and duration.  

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Plan Ahead

In longer and more intense events, factors beyond your fitness become increasingly important. “You definitely want to map out your nutrition ahead of time,” says Erin Beresini, author of Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing. Advance planning is particularly crucial for events that expose you to an array of elements. Beresini points out that, in a Spartan Race, for example, “Your nutrition needs to be able to go through water, get muddy, and stay on you. You’ll want to test different things in training ahead of time to figure out what works.”  And of course, don’t forget to check and monitor the weather! “The worst thing is being miserable on race day because you are wearing the wrong stuff,” Beresini says. “It sucks when that happens.”

Unfortunately, as the famous saying goes, oftentimes “we plan and God laughs.” If things go awry (and at some point, they inevitably will), it is important to stay collected and problem-solve in the moment.  Rather than freak out or become upset, take a deep breath, and ask yourself: What can I do to get out of this mess as simply and effectively as possible? Even better, if you really want to bulletproof your armor, think of everything that could go wrong ahead of time and develop a pre-made strategy for dealing with these unfortunate but very real possibilities. Rather than needing to do your finest thinking in the heat of a stressful moment, you’ll have already figured out what to do in advance, and you’ll only need to act, which is a lot easier than thinking –- especially when your heart is beating 170 times a minute.

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