A recent article in Bicycling Magazine calls to question what we think we know about pushing the body to its limit and what we think we know about ourselves. In the article, Bill Gifford addresses the often-ignored aspect of racing, the mental aspect, or more specifically, the suffering involved.
While other sports have dramatic, thrilling, discrete moments—upper-deck home runs in baseball, Hail Mary passes in football, game-winning three-pointers in basketball—fans of cycling and other endurance sports such as running revel in witnessing extended bouts of suffering. Bike racing, the veteran mountain-bike champion Ned Overend has said, “is about pain.”
Gifford delves into the research regarding the “art of suffering.” He finds that suffering isn’t just in the realm of pro racers. We, as cyclists, demand more from our bodies and from ourselves.
Suffering is essential to winning races, but it’s just as important to charity riders tackling their first 25-miler or the commuter frantic to make the 9 a.m. Monday meeting. The hard truth of the sport is that you can’t achieve much, or get any better, without going through some pain—the ragged breathing, the burning legs, the oh-my-God-where-is-the-top desperation of a rider struggling on a long climb. “Suffering,” in the words of NBC commentator and ex-pro Bob Roll, “is the coin of the realm in cycling.”
On a deeper level, suffering is essential to the beauty and mystery of the sport. It gives the ride meaning. In fact, the word used to mean the same thing as “passion,” which stems from the Latin pati, to suffer. There are similarities. Anyone who has ever been in love knows that suffering is part of the experience at some point, and the greatest bike racers seem to have a love of suffering that goes beyond any reasonable ratio of sacrifice and payoff. “We think of it as delaying gratification for some reward,” says Lim, “but it’s never really about the reward; it’s about the moment, when you’re performing at your limit. And when it’s over, the only thing you want to do is get back out there again.”
Many of us believe that our bodies are our limiting factor. We religiously test our boundaries and strive to push those limits farther through training. Whether we prefer the term FTP (Functional Threshold Power), AT (Anaerobic Threshold) or LT (Lactate Threshold), what we’re talking about is the same – mainly, where our physical limitations are now and how we can train to improve upon them.
As much as those numbers give us guidance in training, they don’t always hold up. There are people who can regularly perform outside of what their performance tests would indicate. There are people, it seems, who are better at suffering.
In the last decade or so, the field of endurance-sports science has been turned upside down and set on fire over the question of what, exactly, causes suffering, which scientists call “fatigue.” Some scientists are even questioning such bedrock concepts as VO2 max and lactate threshold, as well as the very notion that an individual’s physical performance has absolute, physiological limits. The lactate-threshold test? Meaningless, some experts say.
We’re not even sure anymore what suffering really represents, what causes it, and why some people seem to be so much better at enduring it than others. The old, purely physical view of suffering and fatigue—that your legs hurt because your legs hurt—is giving way to a much more complex model, where our performance, and our feelings of pain, and even what we think are our absolute physical limits, are all controlled by one fickle master: the brain.
Gillford goes on:
Tim Noakes, a runner and former rower at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, asked a simple question: If runners had to slow down and stop because their bodies ran out of oxygen, why didn’t more elite runners die from heart attacks? If runners at the top of the sport really were approaching the absolute limits of physiology, Noakes said, the extremely strong-willed athletes should be routinely killing themselves—literally running themselves to death. They weren’t, obviously. Moreover, he’d worked with heart patients and knew that even they could exercise safely (albeit slowly). So maybe, Noakes proposed in 1996, something forces us slow us down before bad things happen, in the same way that you cannot hold your breath until you die. Our bodies are engineered to maintain stability, or homeostasis, at all costs; when something threatens that stability, such as the effort involved in riding a bike up Mont Ventoux on a hot day, then some mechanism puts on the brakes. He called this mechanism the “central governor.”
Noakes initially thought that the governor would be part of the muscles themselves, or possibly in the heart. He soon realized that it had to reside in the brain, which is responsible for activating or “recruiting” muscle fibers. When we turn the pedals on a bike, the brain triggers some muscle fibers—but not all. The governor works, Noakes says, by deciding how much muscle it wants us to use. Without a signal from the brain, a muscle won’t work. In tests, Noakes found that athletes at VO2 max were only activating half of the number of muscle fibers they used in a full-out sprint. So even though we think we’re at our physical limit, we might not be; the muscles just aren’t being allowed to operate.
To Noakes and his adherents, this explains an oft-observed phenomenon in running: In nearly all world-record performances in the 10K run, the last kilometer is the fastest. “Athletes always speed up at the exact time when they should be slowing down” under the old model, says Ross Tucker, who edits the Science of Sport blog and was a graduate student of Noakes’s. “That means there’s a reserve.”
This reserve – and the ability to let our brains take us past where our bodies want to quit – could be what allows otherwise mediocre athletes to exceed.
But it’s also possible to trick the brain into letting you go faster. In a recent study from Northumbria University in England, scientists had cyclists ride as hard as they could for 4,000 meters, about a five-minute all-out effort. They did this two times, to establish a personal best. Then they raced against a computer-generated avatar that they were told represented their own best effort. In fact, the avatar was going 1 percent faster. And every rider caught his avatar.
Even stranger, cyclists who merely taste a sweet energy drink, but don’t swallow it, will ride faster because the brain expects a shot of carbohydrate fuel.
So, if we’re able to push beyond what our brain wants us to believe are our physical limitations, we can keep pushing. But that pushing comes at a cost, suffering. As Greg LeMond famously stated, “It never gets easier. You just go faster.”
For Emmerman [PsyD, a Boulder–based psychotherapist who has raced mountain bikes and road bikes professionally and specializes in training athletes—cyclists in particular], it starts with labeling: “You keep saying ‘suffering,’” she chides me by phone from New Mexico, where she is racing the Tour of the Gila. “I call it ‘physical discomfort.’”
Like Emmerman, other professional riders all seem to have their own strategies for coping with the sensation. Jens Voigt, often seen on the front of the peloton with the face of a man whose toenails are being plucked out with hot pliers, relies on a Teutonic mantra: “Shut up, legs!” [Craig] Lewis [27-year-old American pro cyclist] feels his greatest enemy isn’t the pain in his legs, but his brain and its expectations. “If you get to the limit where you thought you would give up, your body shuts down,” he says. “You’ve already convinced yourself, that’s it.”
Lewis’s approach to managing his suffering is to imagine folding it up then sticking it into one of the pockets on the back of his jersey. “If you keep going,”he says, “it can be almost not a big deal to go through it. Then keep going up the next switchback, then worry about the next kilometer. The pain kind of subsides after a certain point.”
Other riders devise more elaborate scenarios. At the Tour of California one year, I rode in a team car behind Garmin rider Dave Zabriskie during the Solvang time trial. Zabriskie is one of the best time-trialists precisely because he has an inhuman ability to force himself to suffer. But his coaches said not one word to him throughout the 30-minute effort; there was no yelling, no “Venga! Venga!” Just radio silence.
“Dave doesn’t want any information,” explained Allen Lim, who was then Garmin’s team physiologist. Zabriskie’s suffering all takes place internally, measured to his own feedback, although he’s not exactly alone in there. “When he’s in a time trial,” Lim said, “he thinks of himself as a superhero.”
The common factor in all the approaches is focus: If you’re asking grand existential questions, you’re in trouble, which might be why poets don’t make good bike racers, and vice versa.
But there are also rare times when suffering—sorry, “physical discomfort”—just seems to vanish entirely: when you’re perfectly trained, and you’re on top of the gear and far from thoughts of surrender and defeat. Emmerman says her patients describe it as a zone of total detachment, where the body’s feelings of pain barely even register in the consciousness. “That’s the zone you want to be in,” says Zabriskie’s teammate Christian Vande Velde. “You drain out all the fans, everything, even the director; and it’s everything that you’ve trained yourself to do for the last 20 years of your life, and you’re just pretty much on autopilot.”
Vande Velde is legendary for mediocre performances in fitness tests—and killing it in races. “The physiologists would look at his numbers and say, ‘I don’t know how this guy finishes top 20 in the Tour,’” says Jonathan Vaughters, his team director. Yet there he was in the 2008 Tour de France, in third place after two weeks, right behind Cadel Evans and ahead of both Schleck brothers. Then came the crucial first day in the Alps, which finished on a sharp climb. When the pack hit the base of the climb, 100 guys suddenly became 12, then eight. Vande Velde was right there. He followed the wheels, swinging across the road to cover everything. “You had to follow the attacks all the way, pushing yourself so far,” he says. “When somebody attacks, you just jump.”
When he got to the top, the finish, he sat there for 15 minutes, straddling his bike and digesting what had happened. It took a while before he felt ready to ride back down to the base, where the team buses waited. He’d slipped a spot in the overall standings, to fourth, but he had dropped Evans and he knew now that he could hold his position all the way to Paris. It was the best racing day of his life, and he barely felt—or saw—a thing.
BUT IF SUFFERING can simply disappear like that, like it did for Christian Vande Velde, then what is it, really? An experience like that seems to imply that suffering is more complex than either physical limits or a central governor.
The answers seem to be far more complex than we thought. While studies have come far, we still don’t have a complete understanding of what is going on in the body during exercises – at the muscular level or in the brain.
Among scientists… San Millán [is] a kind of connoisseur of high-level suffering. One thing he’s discovered is that even at the most rarefied level of cycling, quantum leaps in physical performance still exist between midpack pros and race winners—and it’s not the winners who suffer most but the sprinters trying to haul themselves over the Alps, the climbers struggling through time trials. That’s where pain reaches its peak, he thinks—far from the podium, deep in the trenches of the sport. Those are the athletes who are pushing the limits the hardest.
And where do those limits originate? He acknowledges a role for the brain. But, he says, “What happens in the cell governs everything upstream. Mental toughness can only take you so far. You can be the toughest driver in the world, and if you only have a Citroen”—he shoots me a look—“you cannot beat a Ferrari.”
MAYBE SAN MILLÁN is right. But maybe that doesn’t mean Noakes is wrong, either. In fact, they agree on one major point: “The person who does the best is the one who suffers the least, not the most,” Noakes says.
Even with all the tests and insight modern science can provide, it seems the truth was spoken centuries ago. There is a Buddhist saying, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
For the complete article written by Bill Gifford, please visit Bicycling Magazine.