Is Pain Tolerance the Key to Performance?


‘It never gets easier, you just go faster’
Greg LeMond, Tour Cyclist

The above quote perfectly captures the fact that in endurance sport, pain and performance are intrinsically linked. If you want to get better, you have to continually push against your pain barrier.

Logically, if you were to pit two athletes against each other who have similar physical attributes and technical abilities, the one with the higher tolerance will win every time.

The reason being that no athlete ever achieves 100% of their performance potential. Our brain is hardwired to prevent us doing ourselves any damage, and pain is its defence mechanism. The greater your ability to handle suffering, the closer you will be able to get to your maximum ability.

Or simply put, increased tolerance = being able to push harder = faster times. Simples.

The clever people in white coats stumbled across this relationship, and did some tests to see if it stacks up in the lab.

In one of the studies they pulled together a selection of swimmers of different abilities. They then made each of them make a fist once every second while wearing a highly pressurised cuff around their upper arms, with each clench of the fist progressively more painful than the last.

What they found was that in spite of a near identical onset of pain, the elite swimmers were able to do more fists than the club level swimmers, who in turn were able to do more than your average Joe.

These findings have gone on to be replicated in numerous other studies since, supporting the idea that the higher your tolerance the better your results.

So while the majority of us think that the pros must have some sort of genetic advantage over mere mortals, it may well be that one of the key differences is not the make up of our cells, but the composition of our grey matter.

So what does that mean for you and I?

Well, some of the very same studies found that pain tolerance isn’t fixed. Instead, when the elite swimmers were tested over the course of a season, they had a greater threshold during peak training periods.

So by constantly testing your limits in training and continually pushing your pain barrier, you are exercising your mental muscle and making yourself a better (and faster) athlete.

So, in short, as Chris McCormack once said, ‘embrace the suck’.


Highlight of the week: This is more the highlight of last week, but spent the first week of January participating in my first ever tri camp, organised by the BRAT crew.

We were based out of Jindabyne, which in the colder months of the year is more famous for snowboards than bikes.

The camp was a perfect opportunity to push my pain barrier, with 17+ hours of training over 3.5 days, nearly 7000 meters of climbing on the bike, and a 19km run to the highest point in Australia in some pretty hectic winds.

It was great fun and I can’t wait to get involved again next year.

Top of 'Straya

Top of ‘Straya

Lowlight of the week: Realising that the Ironman is now only 7 weeks away and there is still so much I feel like I don’t know. Most pressing of which being my nutrition. I have literally not the slightest idea about how I am going to fuel myself through 12 hours of exercise.

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