Can You Improve Your Pain Tolerance?

Pikes Peak 2013

Suffering through the final mile of the 2013 Pikes Peak Ascent

I am in a daily plank competition, and it’s really starting to hurt.  It started at 4 minutes and now it’s up to 22, and it just keeps hurting more every week.  I’m not even sure how I’m doing it frankly, as there have been so many days I wanted to quit. I won’t go into the details of the competition, because that’s not the point of this blog.  What I’ve been wondering is if all this painful planking is making me mentally stronger (I know it is physically!)  To be a successful athlete, you have to be able to deal with a certain amount of pain.  I know that I’ve had experiences that taught me just what level of pain I can really handle.  For instance, when I went to France and rode my bike around the French Alps on some of the classic Tour de France climbs.  There were hills that were so steep that, by looking at them, I didn’t think I could physically pedal up them without tipping over.  But I dug deep and I did it, and in the process I learned just how much my body could hurt and still not blow up- literally.  I also think that I made some breakthroughs in my ability to handle pain during races this past summer.  It was mostly mental adjustments that I made- accepting it would hurt, and finding a way to deal with it such as reminding myself of my goal or why I was doing the race.  You’ve probably heard that when it comes to exercise your mind will give out long before your muscles.  It’s so true…but what to do about that?!

I’ve read that athletes have a higher pain tolerance than the general population, and that elite athletes have higher pain tolerances than their recreational counterparts, but this is one of those “which came first, the chicken or the egg” situations.  Do elite athletes develop a higher pain tolerance because of their training? Or do they get to the elite level because they can naturally better deal with the pain of training?  I’m not sure that can be answered, just like I still don’t know if the chicken or the egg came first!

But, even more importantly, can you train to improve your pain tolerance?  I think that you can, both mentally and physically.

I once read an interesting article in Outside magazine (see link at bottom) about pain tolerance.  The article stated that researchers found people who had experienced more physical pain in their lives (like from injuries or childbirth) had a higher pain tolerance than those who didn’t.  One of the ways they discovered this was by having study participants stick their hand in freezing cold water for as long as possible. Those who had more past physical pain tended to be able to keep their hand submerged longer.   To me, that means that training your pain tolerance for exercise is quite possible.  So aside from sticking your hand in frozen water, how can you increase your pain tolerance for exercise?

I did some online sleuthing and also spoke to my sister Kim, who regularly sticks her feet in a bath of freezing cold water after training runs, and here’s what I found out.

*Side note: it’s important to clarify that we are talking about mental pain during exercise and the pain from exhaustion/pushing yourself hard and NOT about the pain from injury, which you should not push through!

Physical Training:

  • Do interval workouts close to VO2 max.   They hurt.
  • Try “trick yourself workouts”, such as going for your planned 8 mile run, then making yourself go a mile or two more.  Having to manage more than you originally planned helps teach your mind to deal with painful changes.  For these it helps to have a coach or running partner spring the change on you, since it’s harder to trick yourself!
  • Practice negative splits- where you run the last miles of your training run faster than the first ones.
  • During challenging workouts don’t stop just because it starts to hurt and your brain tells you to (which it will).  Instead, tell yourself you’ll go another 5 minutes and then reassess if you can slow down. After those 5 minutes are up, tell yourself the same thing.
  • Ice bath!  There is conflicting data on whether or not ice baths help with recovery, but man do they hurt.  A cold Colorado stream works well. Be sure not to give yourself frostbite though.

Mental Training:

  • Practice positive self talk: such as “I don’t feel this pain” or as Jens Voigt says “Shut up legs!”.  Think about how much you have accomplished so far, not how much you have left to go.  Try reciting a positive mantra such as “I feel fast, efficient, and strong”.
  • Have a purpose/goal for the pain and remind yourself of that goal.  Remind yourself the pain is temporary. For instance, the most helpful sign I saw during my last half marathon was one that read “Pain is temporary, but Facebook is forever”.  It’s lame, but I really wanted to post that I had PR’d on my Facebook page, and that little reminder helped me to pick up the pace during my roughest miles.
  • Don’t think too much about how tired you are or how long you have to go.  If those thoughts arise, try to let them go and instead focus on the things you can control, like breathing and good form.
  • Commit to hurting. You have to accept it to deal with it.  Visualize yourself doing it anyway, successfully, and tell yourself that you can do it despite the pain.  As one of my favorite quotes goes “ You aren’t gonna get out of this pain free so pick your pain- the pain of the race or the pain of regret!”

To read the Outside article:


Mental Toughness

Most of us are racing against ourselves.  We are not going to win the race.  We may not even place in our age group.  Most of us are somewhere in the middle of the pack, and therefore the race is probably about meeting a personal time goal, or sometimes just finishing.  This can create a problem, as if you are only racing  against yourself you are the only one who can push you.  I sometimes wonder if the top 3 runners have it easier, because they have the win to motivate them.  Maybe even a prize purse.  But even those top 3 runners have to race against themselves. Regardless of where you fall in the pack, a good race often comes down to mental toughness.  You’ve probably heard the quote that your toughest competitor is the little voice inside your head telling you to quit.  Oh so true.  So how do you train yourself to be mentally tougher?

I had a not so stellar trail race recently in Vail.  I went into it telling myself it was just a training run, but I  guess I still expected to do better than I did. My legs felt like lead as soon as the trail started heading up.  I can make a million excuses: my epic workouts earlier in the week meant that my legs were already tired.  I started the race too fast. The 3 glasses of Sangria on the 4th of July didn’t exactly fit in to my usual pre-race hydration routine.  But ultimately it came down to my mind.  It was telling me to give up.  To slow down.  To stop altogether.  To stop making my body hurt so bad.  On that day I was not as mentally tough as I wanted to be.  I gave in to my mind, and I slowed down.  But on the other hand,  in a way I did win that race against myself, because I didn’t let my brain stop my body.  I kept going.  I finished.  And the view from the top was pretty sweet.  In the end, I think that race helped build my mental toughness, because slow or not I pushed past the mental wall and kept going.

Mental toughness is a popular and important concept in all sports. To help me address this crucial topic, I asked one of the most mentally tough athletes I know, my sister Kim Dobson, who just so happens to be the Pikes Peak Ascent female course record holder as well as the family record holder for longest time standing in a freezing river,  for her advice on training and racing tough.  [Side note: standing in a cold river or lake is also a great way to build mental toughness!] Below are her tips, interspersed with some quotes I find motivational, and hopefully you will too.

Tips for staying mentally tough during training and racing:


Me suffering during the La Sportiva Vail Hill Climb

– Have a specific goal for your event and a plan to achieve your goal.  Keep your goal in mind during hard workouts.  Each workout you conquer puts you one step closer to your goal.

“In the midst of an ordinary training day, I try to remind myself that I am preparing for the extraordinary.”- Shalane Flanagan

“Somewhere in the world, someone’s training when you aren’t. When you race him he’ll win.”    -Tom Fleming

-Accept that it is going to hurt.  Great accomplishments do not come without a price.  Be willing to endure the pain.  After all, it was you who set your goal!

“You ain’t gonna get out of the race pain free, so you gotta pick your pain- the pain of the race or the pain of regret!”- Greg McMillan

“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great!”  -Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own

-It seems obvious, but when the going gets tough remind yourself that the suffering will end.  The satisfaction of knowing you ran as smart and as strong as possible will far outweigh the temporary pain of a race or a workout.

“Some people hit walls, others crush them”- Nike ad

“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever”- Lance Armstrong

-Break the workout/race into thirds or fourths.  Have a goal for each portion, which might include hitting a certain time, distance, or effort level.  Set high, yet realistic targets.  Gradually step up the intensity and effort level as you work through each portion.

“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”  -William Faulkner

Training specific tips:

-Practice staying mentally tough during hard workouts.  Train your mind to keep pushing your body beyond what you think is your limit.

“Your legs will give out long before your muscles

-Before a workout, remind yourself of your goal and how this particular run will put you closer to that goal.

“The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare”- Juma Ikangaa, 1989 NYC Marathon winner


Kim giving it her all to maintain her third place position at the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland

Tips for staying mentally tough during your race:

-Remember all of the hard work you have put towards your goal.  The hours you spent training, mornings you woke up early to squeeze in workouts, the sacrifices you made, and the challenges you endured while training.  Don’t give up now and waste all of your efforts.  Now is the time to dig deeper than you have before to accomplish your goal.

“Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in the muscles”- Alex Karras

-Stay relaxed and confident before and during your event.  It’s normal to feel excited and nervous, but feeling overly anxious will likely hinder your performance.

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” –Steve Prefontaine

-Recite a mantra that will keep you relaxed and engaged.  Make it simple, three or four words that have meaning to you.

Recently my mom has joked that hers is “Not bad for an old lady”, which was kindly reworded to “Damn good for an old lady!”

Sometimes I will recite a line from the movie What About Bob- “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful!”

Kim sometimes uses the mantra “relaxed, efficient, strong”

-Have a plan, but also be ready to adapt to and push through unexpected challenges during your race.   A lot can go wrong in a race.  Set your sights on running excellence rather than running perfection.

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will”- Mahatma Gandhi

Train hard. Stay strong. Remember: you are capable of more than you know!