“The life of an elite athlete is, in the end, the art of knowing how to suffer”
So says Killian Jornet.
If you don’t know who Killian is, he’s probably the best ultra runner in the world.
And if you want to run ultra distances, knowing how to suffer is the difference between finishing and getting a DNF.
So it’s safe to say Killian is a man who has honed his ability to suffer.
But what is the “ability to suffer” and is it something you can train?
In some respects you can.
Let’s think of the ability to suffer as an override button.
One that allows you to take “manual control” of your body.
We, obviously, have a well developed system for self preservation. One that lets you know when what you are doing is jeopardising your ability to function properly.
There are times when you will automatically override this, such as if you injure yourself when running away from a tiger.
At this point getting away from the tiger is much more important than your sore knee.
But what if there is no tiger?
If there’s no tiger, then it comes down to you deciding what you are doing is more important than your sore knee.
You have to consciously tell yourself to “man up” and ignore the danger signals.
And it is exactly what Struan did.
Struan is a soldier and an ultra runner.
He was training for the Hardian’s Wall coast to coast ultra and had popped in a few times to keep the niggles at bay.
Race day came and I messaged him the day after to see how he got on.
“Hurt my hip at mile 15. Told myself to “man up” and get on with it. Finished in a disappointing 14hours”
It was a perfect example that you can develop a manual override that works just like your automatic one.
As a soldier, especially an infantry soldier like Struan, this is part and parcel of your training.
Every single soldier I’ve worked with is able to do it.
They all have a place they can go so they can keep on trucking.
And it highlights that it is a very trainable ability.
It’s not that they don’t feel the pain, it’s that they can ignore it.
Now let me say this ignoring pain just so you can finish a race will always come with consequences.
There are lessons to be learned from what squaddies go through in their training.
You can take the general principles of their training and apply them to your own.
That is to say you make your training progressive.
The squaddies are exposed to increasing demands in ever more challenging environments.
As the demands increase so does their mental toughness and ability to switch the pain off.
For you as an everyday athlete, this still applies.
You might not want to tackle the Hadrian’s Wall Ultra or go into battle but developing the ability to block out the pain is an asset.
One that you develop through gradually increasing the demands of your training.
It’s like the idea of boiling a frog.
If you drop a frog into boiling water it’ll jump out.
But put it in a pan of cold water and slowly heat it up…
It’ll happily sit there until it dies.
It’s why you start any programme well within your capabilities.
If you jump straight into a heavy duty programme of crazy, hard sessions you won’t last long.
Very shortly you’ll either quit because it’s way too hard or you’ll get injured.
But start off slowly and gradually build up the volume and intensity.
Until you get to the point where you’re sitting in the metaphorical pan of boiling water.
That is how you build your ability to suffer…
To tolerate long, intense runs…
To not say fxxx that to near max loads in a back squat.
And to not only tolerate them but benefit from them.
Now I’m off to do an easy session as I blasted myself with some intervals yesterday.