The Beating Heart of Suffering

“I don’t know how to live good, I only know how to suffer.” – Bob Marley.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

When you train long enough over time, you develop an intimate relationship with suffering, and it becomes a loving companionship that grows with respect and acceptance each year. This is something I realized when talking to a development team member at the Rundle Mountain Road Festival this year. While discussing the results and events of the criterium that just passed, fellow team members were talking about getting stronger through training, and the eternal question of suffering came up. And like a young padawan in training, she broached the topic that we all eventually come face to face with in this constant strive towards improvement in anything: “I just don’t understand how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable when I’m suffering on the bike”, and then to postulate “when does it not feel like suffering anymore, and how do I get past this?” I chuckled to myself because the wise old philosopher inside of me already knew the answer, because I’d already formulated, and live by, this answer to this day: “Suffering is always the same; it’s your relationship to it that must change.” I responded. If you want to improve in anything, you must accept suffering into your heart, because nobody tells you the truth about growth; it’s actually a painful and uncomfortable experience, and it’s never mutually exclusive to each other.

I have mused about the complex relationship I’ve sustained with suffering too many times to even count, and every time I notice my strength and capabilities on the bike grow and develop, I find my love for my endurance gets stronger. Anybody who has accepted the truth about suffering, and how it’s never easy to get better at anything, you develop your own way of visualizing your approach to it. I like to use the box technique when thinking of the comfort/discomfort relationship. It goes like this: I visualize a two dimensional box as my comfort zone, and when I’m training, everything inside that box is what I’m already capable of doing. Going an easy pace, talking while riding, lift weights that aren’t a struggle, workouts that don’t feel hard because I don’t feel discomfort. It’s easy street inside that box, it’s also nothing new, and it’s all familiar to me. As I work harder though, I begin to approach the lines that differentiate from comfort zone, to the discomfort zone, meaning the area outside of the box. And it’s in this outside visualization, that’s where the magic happens. You’re in pain, you’re uncomfortable, and your brain does everything it can to make it stop.

Once I start having the discouraging thoughts, that’s when I know I’m in a place where I haven’t been before, a place where growth begins to happen in the body, and a place where people fear to go because it temporarily feels uncomfortable. The thoughts can range from “I can’t do this”, “I want to stop”, “I’m falling behind”, and “I’m not improving”. It’s all negative, and it’s meant to make the pain go away, because in the grand scheme of things, to your brain, discomfort should stop at all cost, and rightly so. In the natural world, pain means you may not survive, but in training, it can mean you’re making gains in an arena you weren’t in before.

That’s how you grapple with this place; you accept the fact that improvement requires you to be uncomfortable, whether it’s for a brief moment, a few minutes, an hour, or for even some people, a day (think 24 hour races; I see you athletes, and I appreciate you). And one of my favourite moments throughout this process is when I’m in so much pain that I look down at my timer, and when I’m just suppose to do 90 seconds of an interval of max power, it surprises me how long 5 seconds can actually feel. It’s a great place to be, and I don’t ever want it to change.

Suffering is never easy, suffering is never comfortable, and the sooner you develop a twisted love for it, that’s the start of your relationship to growth in sports. And that’s the only truth you need to accept. So, as the old saying goes among all cyclists “it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster”, and to that I respond, “now bring on the suffering”.

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