7 Ways to Push Through Pain in the Outdoors and Life
So last April, we tried to climb Snowmass Mountain (14,092’) in the snow. Wow, talk about having to push through pain.
To give you an idea, we ended up hiking 22 miles with over 5,000 feet elevation gain in 48 hours. All on about one hour of sleep. With 50-pound packs
Usually when I hike, I have music in my head and cheeseball joy in my heart. But as we descended (slowly) toward the car, I got stuck in a black place. I felt nothing but my sore toes and tired legs and burning hatred of the monster on my back.
As endurance athletes, we’ve all probably experienced these moments (or hours) of suffering. It comes with the territory. There’s not much you can do during a tough race, climb, or hike, but push through pain.
Or is there? Here are seven tricks to help you tap your reserves of resilience and mental fortitude when the going gets tough. Come to think of it, some of these work off the trail, too.
1. Stop Torturing Yourself
It’s true that life hurts sometimes. But we totally exacerbate that pain with our negative reactions and thoughts. Here are a few I had during our Snowmass climb (multiple f-bombs removed):
- Shit, why am I so slow? Everyone is probably so sick of waiting for me.
- Man, being poor sucks so hard. If I just had a better job, I could buy me some ultralight gear.
- I shouldn’t feel this freaking tired. I’m such a wuss. Why didn’t I train harder?
- Oh, crap, what if Mount Rainier feels this bad? What if it’s worse?
Note that no one forced me to think about this stuff. I could have been appreciating the miracle of nature or thinking about Benedict Cumberbatch in a sexy sweater. At the very least, I could have done some quick mindfulness tricks to shut my brain up.
Yeah, I’d still have to push through pain. But I wouldn’t have made it hurt more by torturing myself.
2. Have a burning desire
And on the flip side, the right mindset can help you push through pain — even the craziest shit. People do things they’re not remotely trained for all the time. And it’s just because they just want it bad enough.
Hell, people do things that should be physiologically impossible. Think about the guy on Everest who got up and walked back to camp after he was left for dead. That guy did not give up.
When you need to push through pain on a hike or climb, it’s time to remember why you’re doing this. Personally, I’ve wanted to climb Mt. Rainier since I saw all that ice on a topo map in Geology 101. (Yeah, your burning desire can be weird. It only needs to make sense to you.)
Obviously, even with a great mindset, there are practical limits to how long you can push through pain. At some point, you’ll exhaust your glycogen stores and collapse. But that’s not very likely on your typical marathon or mountain climb. So go gitchu’ some.
3. Feel transformed
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think every language I’ve ever studied has a version of that. (In Mandarin, it’s “Tempering Makes Strong Steel,” which I’ve always thought was kind of awesome.)
One of the fundamentals of training is that in order to strengthen your body, you first have to stress it.
And then on your rest days, your torn muscle fibers grow back stronger, and your heart gets more efficient, and you grow new capillaries in your muscles, and all kinds of cool stuff happens.
But this growth can’t happen without pain. Think about that as you’re pushing through to the finish line.
It’s true for your mind, too. Some endurance training experts believe that you should “train to the pain” at least once before the big event. They say it’s how you build mental toughness.
And if it’s the main event you’re suffering through — the big race, the high peak — think of it as transformation for life. You’ve put in so much crazy effort to get there. And after you Do The Thing, you will be stronger forever. You will always be able to look back and say, “I killed it.”
OK, it probably sounds funny, but crying is my secret weapon when I need to push through pain. When I really feel like I can’t go on another step, I make myself cry. And it always gives me a little burst of energy and adrenaline.
Why does it work? Who the hell knows. The science is pretty weak on this one, because it would be really inhumane to bring people into the lab and torment them until they shed tears.
Current theories about crying are that it releases stress hormones, stimulates our bodies to produce natural pain killers, and triggers empathy in others. And it does seem that people who cry feel better afterward than those who don’t.
This one works so well for me, I actually plan on crying if I’m prepping for a distance race or a big climb. I’ll try to come up with some sort of trigger — a song, a memory, a visualization — that I can use to make myself cry at the right moment. Cheesy country songs always do the trick:
5. Visualize awesome stuff
OK, I know that everyone totally hates this one, because it’s the kind of advice overpaid life coaches spout. But don’t let hate keep you from trying it, because it really can help you push through pain. I promise.
For example, I had a running coach who ran lots of marathons. And she went through this phase where she would routinely bonk at 22 miles and barely finish the race.
It got to the point where she was so stressed out about mile 22, she would actually feel sick by the time she got there.
So her trick was to picture the number 22, and then the 2’s splitting apart to reveal this wide, sun-dappled, empty road to the finish line. A road with beautiful views and no one on it to psych her out. And you know, she says it worked.
I’ve used this too in distance races, and I agree that the right imaginings provide a little kick of adrenaline. For me, the best visuals are a little bizarre (they’re easier to focus on) and have some emotion attached.
Back in 2011, I ran a half-marathon right after the Tohuku tsunami in Japan. And the night before, I saw a story on the news about a 83-year-old grandma who escaped the wave by riding away on her bike. And I thought, “When I need a second wind, or a push up the hill, I’m totally gonna think of her.” And I did.
6. Carb up
Have you ever felt suddenly exhausted and lost all enthusiasm on trail? Then you know what it’s like to bonk.
Bonking, or hitting the wall, is that body-wide fatigue that hits you when your glycogen stores are running low. It’s a sign that you’re behind on your nutrition and that you need to get some sugar into your system, stat. Goo, jelly beans, electrolyte drink, Clif Bloks, Pop Tarts — just find something with a high glycemic index and shove it in your face.
One thing to keep in mind: it’s sometimes surprisingly hard to recognize when you’re bonking. Part of the problem is that your mind is the first thing to go. Also, when you’re already super fatigued, the slow down of hitting the wall doesn’t feel so sudden.
“I think my arms and legs might fall off,” I told a friend this weekend. “But at least I’m not bonked.”
And then I ate a Fudge Graham Zone Perfect bar and felt dramatically better. Yeah, I was totally bonkin’ like Donkey Kong and didn’t notice.
Lesson learned: when you’re tired on trail, the answer is always sugar.
7. Practice self compassion
So it’s kind of rare that you read something life-changing on the Internet these days, but today I did. I really did.
It was a blog post by a woman named Meg who was solo climbing Mount Wilson (14,252’) in the snow. (If you’re not from Colorado, that’s a pretty burly climb. It would freakin’ scare the crap outta me.)
And as it so happens, Meg has MS, and one of her legs is weak. So she has to take her time, start super early, and use two ice tools. But yeah, she’s clearly a freakin’ badass, so off she goes.
So she’s climbing the snow field on the East Face of Wilson, and halfway up, her weak leg starts to hurt and shake. Not good news in the no fall zone, right? She tries mindfulness and focusing on her breath and decides it’s not doing crap.
Here’s what she does next:
So, I tried another technique aimed at a little self-compassion. I started talking to my leg inside my head, telling it that it was strong, that I was proud of it for carrying me up all of the mountains it had, and that I knew it could get me up this one. If I had been in a little less pain I may have thought about how hokey this sounds (or that my hippy university may be finally rubbing off on me!), but golly gee it worked. The throbbing stopped, and it felt more stable as I kicked it into the snow. Turns out my knee has just been fishing for compliments this whole time.
OK, so I read this, and it was like someone shining a light.
Because do you know what I’ve been practicing on my body for the past few months? Constant and absolute self-loathing.
I’m constantly berating myself for not being fast enough or strong enough or thin enough or whatever. And my body’s response has pretty much been, “F*ck you.”
Well you know, that all ends this minute. So thank you, Meg, for reminding me to give my body the credit it deserves.
Ready to push through pain?
Ready or not, suffering tends to find us. And unless we’re willing to push through pain, there’s no growth and no glory.
So don’t fear suffering. Accept it when it comes along. If you must suffer, do it like a champ.
What’s the worst you’ve ever suffered in the outdoors? How do you get yourself to push through pain? Comment to share.
Originally published April 24, 2017.