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The Psychology of Suffering

July 01, 2015
The Psychology of Suffering

Suffering and professional cycling go hand in hand.

Day in and day out, riders test their limits with the desire to win a stage or help a teammate do the same. Countless kilometres are ticked off in all kinds of weather across all kinds of terrain. Riders will cover more kilometres in a year on their bikes then most people would do in the car.

Riders in a breakaway will toil away only with a very slim chance of holding off the peloton.

Domestiques will ride on the front of a group setting tempo for hours and sacrifice their own chances in support of a teammate. Lead out riders will bury themselves in the final few hundred metres to give the glory to their sprinter. And Classic riders are another level altogether, riding close to 300 kilometres over rough terrain and above threshold for an entire normal working day.

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So what drives these athletes to push themselves to their breaking point on such a regular basis?

We posed some questions to the Orica Green-EDGE’s Sports Science and Coaching group to try and unlock the psychology of suffering.

Does an elite athlete have to learn to suffer, or want to suffer, or both?

No normal person wants to suffer. Elite cyclists want to perform at the highest level to win bike races or to help teammates to win bike races. Often suffering is a part of this but it is done with a highly sought after prize at the end.

Interestingly, the fact that their profession involves suffering makes them very sensitive to suffering, so they are usually very smart in avoiding any unnecessary suffering.

What stand-out riders come to mind when you think of athletes able to really transcend pain and get through?

Possibly, the cyclists that have to suffer the most are the ones who are not competing for the victory. For example, during Grand Tours, several domestiques and/or sprinters suffer efforts of similar intensity to the ones of their respective leaders, however these occur at different moments of the race and with different goals.

Domestiques help the GC riders before the finish line, while sprinters simply need to survive all the mountains in order to be able to compete in the next sprint stage. It is these riders that have to push at their limit without personal glory that may suffer the most.

Is it ultimately an ability to suffer that separates riders of equal or similar physical ability?

Recent research has begun to highlight the significant contribution of the brain in endurance performances. However, sport is a multifaceted activity in which many physiological and many psychological characteristics, together with technical and tactical factors all combine to influence the performance.

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It is overly simplistic to say that any one component is the ultimate differentiator between athletes.

What are some motivating factors for people to suffer day in and day out on the bike?

Psychologists have used various models to try and understand motivation. A simple view is that athletes can be motivated by either intrinsic factors (for example a desire to learn and improve, or to be the ‘best’) or extrinsic factors (money, fame and glory). Like anyone who enjoys riding their bike, the motivation that drives the best athletes in this sport are numerous and varied.

How can the mind overcome the body?

The mind and body are one. While it is intuitively appealing to try and separate out there effects, the mind and body work together.

There are historical reports of the human body producing feats of superhuman strength, but these often occur in extreme circumstances.

A leading sport scientist, Samuele Marcora has recently described a Psychobiological model of endurance performance that deals with this interesting interplay.

What are some ways to improve the level to which you can suffer?

Research has shown that one of the best predictors of exhaustion during exercise is your perception of effort. Irrespective of an individual’s fitness level; when your perception of effort reaches 10 (on a 0 to 10 scale) you will stop exercising. This will be at different intensities for different people, but we all stop when we reach our maximal perception of effort.

Interestingly there are methods that can be used to lower the perception of effort, a common and effective method to increase pain tolerance is swearing! (at least according to the research).

Are there any specific stories you recall of next-level suffering?

Suffering will always be a part of elite athletic competition as described by the famous Greg Lemond quote “It never gets easier, you just go faster”.

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