Learn to suffer …. And then suffer some more! 

Tummy gurgling…  feeling green and wondering why and how it’s ended here? Why have I decided to do this? It seemed like a great idea at midnight, “why not race on New Year’s Day? It’ll be grand” A good way to run off the overindulgence of the night before. No, days like this are meant to be spent on the couch, self-pitying, watching television and satisfying cravings for sugar and greasy takeaways. But despite the celebrations the night before, I managed to put in a reasonable effort for me, running the Caragh 5km New Year’s Day run.

giving upHad the brain been tricked into allowing a tired, dehydrated and overfed body into running fast? Is this even possible, because General Patton during the Second World War suggested “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Fatigue during running is the feeling of pain, that makes you want to stop and give up.  The causes of  this exhaustion are multifaceted, both burning muscles and the mind contribute. Insufficient willpower may lead to the perception of fatigue and subsequent failure. The brain convinces the body that it is no longer possible to put one foot in front of the other (Tanaka et al., 2011). But the burning muscles are not completely innocent. They may, through feedback to the brain, reduce the will to keep going by limiting the central motor drive.  This may be a protective mechanism employed by the body to ensure that the fatigue does not exceed a level which exposes the body to potential tissue damage and injury or collapse (Amann & Dempsey, 2008).

But yes the brain can be tricked, and it happens all the time. Personal bests are broken and people push the edges of their ability, disregarding their perceived physiological limits. The ease with which the body’s protective mechanism can be fooled was shown in the University of Bermingham. They confirmed that it is possible to fool the mind and muscles into allowing the body to work harder. The research demonstrated that when cyclists swished carbohydrate drinks in their mouths it triggered areas of the brain connected to emotion, motivation and reward. The brain then sent a signal to the body indicating it would be getting more calories, and could work harder and the cyclists did cycle for longer. But the drink was not swallowed, so in fact no calories were actually consumed. This established that it is possible to deceive the brain allowing the body to go further and faster (Chambers et al., 2009).

So running and exercise performance may not only be limited by levels of will power but more importantly by the ability to tolerate discomfort – YOU HAVE TO SUFFER!! In testing the pain tolerance of athletes in 1981, researchers induced ischemic pain (the kind of oxygen-deprivation pain felt when running a race) using a highly pressurized blood pressure cuff around the upper arm. The elite athletes were capable of suffering for longer than the club athletes, who in turn lasted longer than the non-athletes. This showed that the best athletes were willing and able to suffer more and for longer (Scott & Gijsbers, 1981).

The ability to tolerate the pain and suffering of hard training isn’t inborn.  The same study in 1981 measured the pain tolerance of the athletes several times over the course of a competitive season. Their pain tolerance was modest early in the season, when the training load and level of competition was low; and it was highest in the peak season during hard training and racing. So an individual’s pain tolerance is clearly trainable to a certain degree, but only through familiarization and adaptation.

In order to resist the urge to give up and slow down when feeling miserable, the limits of suffering tolerance most be broken in training. Suffering is something you have to practice if you want to run longer, farther or faster because improvement lies at the blurred margins of pain and agony.  This is as true for the runner attempting to complete their first couch to 5km as it is for those hoping to compete in the Olympics. The internal struggle fought between running and mental will ultimately leads to redemption and liberation through achievement.



Amann M & Dempsey JA. (2008). Locomotor muscle fatigue modifies central motor drive in healthy humans and imposes a limitation to exercise performance. Journal of Physiology 586, 161-173.


Chambers ES, Bridge MW & Jones DA. (2009). Carbohydrate sensing in the human mouth: effects on exercise performance and brain activity. J Physiol 587, 1779-1794.


Scott V & Gijsbers K. (1981). Pain perception in competitive swimmers. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 283, 91-93.


Tanaka M, Shigihara Y & Watanabe Y. (2011). Central inhibition regulates motor output during physical fatigue. Brain Research 1412, 37-43.


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