Did you know that you can overcome pain? This might sound like something out of the realm of superheroes or shadowy ninjas, but the secrets to this ability are not out of this world.
They are in fact very accessible to anyone. These techniques are what elite performers use to create world records, but you can apply them as well in your everyday life. The key lies in modifying your mindset and changing some basic ways you do things.
Most people cannot handle pain. When the average person feels just a little inkling of discomfort, whether mental or physical, they will stop what they are doing. They might go out to exercise, but when they start feeling slightly tired, they quit.
However, the problem here isn’t physical. It’s mental. If the effort becomes just a little bit painful, the vast majority of individuals have a weak mind that forces them to end whatever they are doing.
Elite performers don’t have this problem. When the going gets tough, they continue. The secret? They view pain differently.
Your Mind Can Surpass Pain
The thing is that your mind has the wonderful ability to surpass pain. In fact, it can even modify pain. This is because oftentimes, the intensity of the pain you feel is highly dependent on your mental processes.
Research has shown that “the perception of pain is sensitive to various mental processes such as the feelings and beliefs that someone has about pain. It is therefore not exclusively driven by the noxious input.”
The way to think about pain is as a warning mechanism. Like when a control light on a car starts blinking to tell you that at a certain point in the future you will run out of gas.
Pain is just your body telling you that if you continue with your activity into a certain time in the future, you could cause yourself some damage. That doesn’t mean that your body will break down at that instant.
Your body still has a large hidden reserve left. If you push through the pain, you gain the ability to access this hidden reserve.
This tapping of energy is sometimes called “catching your second wind”. William James described this phenomenon back in 1907 in a classic text of psychology called “The Energies of Man”. James outlined how people usually stop when they hit a point of fatigue, which is the first layer of pain. This fatigue then continues to get worse.
However, beyond that, a person who for some reason is forced to continue until they hit a critical point, discovers something awesome.
In that magical moment, the fatigue passes and the person gets a “second wind”. There you tap a new level of energy, which was masked deep underneath in your subconscious.
James described the experience in this way:
“In exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.”
When you decide to push through the pain, you can access a hidden store of power that you never thought you had. This potential allows you to surpass the limits that your mind had previously thought were impossible to breach.
Techniques to Manage Pain
There are actually some techniques that you can apply to help you handle physical pain. While it is true that the initial pain perception is different for each individual person, almost everyone has the ability change it.
According to one Stanford University study, patients were able to retrain their brain to lessen the pain they felt. In the experiment, the study participants received heat pulses on their legs. The intensity of the pain would vary, but they were to report any pain that they felt was above a 7 on a scale from 0 to 10.
After this, a small group of the volunteers was given a series of brain trainings. Using brain scans, they were able to see the amount of activity going on in their mind. A flame on a screen would flare up and diminish according to the level of the activity.
The remarkable thing is that after only a short period of time, the people in this small group were able to lessen the size of the imaginary flame and hence reduce the real pain that they were feeling. All of this just through the power of their mind!
This type of mind-body connection can even be used in order to perform extraordinary feats of endurance and willpower. The key here, according to another study, is to be in the moment and pay attention to what you are feeling.
Dr. Martin Paulus, who was in charge of the study, highlighted how this simple act can pay great dividends:
“You’re just paying attention to it. And that paying attention has a profound effect on how the brain naturally adjusts itself to down-regulate emotions.”
One way to to train to be in the moment is through mindfulness. This method is exactly what Dr. Paulus prescribed to the Marines that were participating in his study. According to him, “mindfulness can help Marines recover from stress and return to baseline functioning more quickly.”
Another study looked at professional athletes and how they handle pain. It found that two techniques helped them to tolerate it. Namely, association, and disassociation.
With association you are concentrating on the act itself. For example, when I am climbing mountains, one technique that I use is just focusing on putting one leg in front of the other. This is a good way to stay in the moment when you are doing hard activities.
With disassociation, you are instead thinking of something positive to distract you. My version of this technique is that I try to think of the great feeling that I will have once I successfully complete the task.
You don’t need to be a soldier or a professional athlete to benefit from these types of techniques. I am neither, and have managed to successfully apply them in my day to day training (for example when I do hill sprints), or when I undertake challenges like climbing Mt. Blanc.
Breathing the right way can also have great benefits. Not just in controlling pain, but also in helping you to accomplish great feats. A big proponent of breathing as a way to control the automatic responses of the body is a Dutchman named Wim Hof.
Nicknamed the “Ice Man”, Hof holds several world records in the ability to withstand cold. He claims that this is due to a special breathing technique that he implemented, one that is in many ways similar to the “tummo” breathing technique that is practiced in the high altitudes of Tibet.
Hof has won many adherents to his method. Tom Stijven declared that it helped him get rid of years of chronic pain: “How could a little breathing and cold showers be so much more effective than 6 years of visits to all these ‘experts’?”
There is actually some serious science behind this method. According to one study, the body can be adapted to tolerate extreme cold by creating an artificial stress response.
The authors of the Wayne University study strapped Wim Hof into a magnetic resonance machine, while at the same time exposing him to cold water. What they found is that Hof’s brain started releasing opioids and cannabinoids into the body.
These substances occur naturally and help in modulating your body’s reaction to pain. What the study showed is that this process can be triggered just by the simple process of breathing slowly and deliberately.
This method was also tested in the outdoors. Wim Hof and a group of trekkers who got training in his method were able to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in 48 hours. None of them got Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), and 92% of the group were able to complete the climb.
There are different breathing techniques. Each one works better in different situations. Brian MacKenzie, a long-distance running coach, started experimenting with the Wim Hof method in order to improve the performance of his athletes.
What he found is that while Hof’s quick breathing technique was good for sprinting and short bursts, another method was needed in order to improve long-distance performance.
MacKenzie explained how this works: “When we induce nasal breathing, it causes the vasodilation of blood vessels, which increases blood flow to the heart and brain, allowing the body to use oxygen at a better rate.”
A slow nasal breathing technique improves your body’s tolerance of CO2, and in the process also gives you a higher pain threshold. This then allows you to run more and for longer.
Training Means Doing it Again
“When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly develops in ways more than physical. Is it raining? That doesn’t matter. Am I tired? That doesn’t matter either. Willpower becomes no longer a problem.” — Emil Zatopek
Tolerance to pain is something that a person can build up over time. Emil Zatopek, a triple Olympic gold medal winner from Czechoslovakia, is widely considered as one of the greatest long-distance runners ever.
At the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics, he won the 5,000-meter and 10000-meter long-distance run gold medals. At the last moment, he decided to enter the marathon race as well. Despite never having run such a distance before, he managed to win the gold medal there too.
He was able to do this because of his hard training regime. He wasn’t going for style or technique. In fact, when he was racing, Zatopek always looked like he was about to die. Instead what he was training for was grit.
The running legend was a pioneer of interval training. He would perform a high volume of 5×200m, 20×400m, and 5×200m runs, which were all interspaced with 200m jogs between them.
In this way, he dulled himself to pain. Since he was so used to painful practices, everything else was easy in comparison. He could step it up whenever he wanted to. Zatopek is quoted as saying: “Pain is a merciful thing. If it lasts without interruption, it dulls itself.”
Richard Askwirth, the British journalist who wrote a book about Zatopek titled “Today We Die A Little”, outlined the great runner’s philosophy towards pain:
“Zatopek’s training philosophy wasn’t just about pushing himself hard physically. It was about teaching his mind to shrug off pain and discomfort.”
How I Train to Get Through Pain
My own training philosophy is inspired by these greats. Whenever I am training, doing martial arts, or climbing a mountain, and I feel like giving up, I have a little motivational saying: “What would a special forces soldier or an MMA fighter do in this situation?”
Just by repeating this in my head, I will myself to push on. However, this is just something to get me over the bump. I still put in the work by training before.
During the corona crisis lockdown, I couldn’t go to the gym. Instead, one of the things that I started doing is running outside. There is a series of incline hills close to my house that follow each other. Together, they total 300 meters uphill. They are perfect for practicing hill sprints.
While occasionally having to dodge cars, I have started doing these sprints regularly. The first time I went, I could barely run up one time. I was breathing heavily, and it felt extremely painful.
However, I persisted. Day after day, I kept on running. After a short while, that one hill sprint got easier and easier. So I added two, then three. Despite a two week break because of a calf strain at one point, I am now up to 5 hill sprints.
From all of this, I have learned that the two most painful things are:
* Starting running in the first place and being regular about it.
* Starting that first sprint each day.
When I started, I hurt real bad. Yet, I kept on pushing. The amount of pain I now feel when doing the hill sprints is much less. This despite the fact that I do more of them.
Also on my running days, the first hill sprint is usually the worst. However, when I power through the pain of that one, all the rest of them get easier. This is my secret. I found out that by powering through initial bouts of pain and fatigue, things get easier in the long-run.
You just have to have the willpower to do it. The thing is, I wasn’t born with this mindset. I was a quitter and used to quit at the first inkling of pain. However, at one point I said enough is enough and decided not to be a quitter anymore.
The greats don’t quit when the going gets tough. Even when feeling pain, their mind wills them through. That is the main takeaway that you should remember: It’s all in your mind.
This story was originally published on “Medium” here.