FEEL the fear and do it anyway. The mental side of triathlon (and life).
Heights have never been a strong point of mine. I’ve never climbed to the very top of a (large) mountain. The closest I’ve got to it is walking up cradle mountain in Tasmania, peak at 1500m. I reaaallly wanted to go to the peak. You know, to prove I could to myself – that old story. I told the tour guide this, and all was going to plan, until around half way up, when the guide decided we were all going to stop and receive instructions for a safe ascent to the base of the summit. All except me, I was nowhere to be seen…”Janine?”
He poked his head around a rock to find me lying as low as humanly possible to the ground and gripping onto rocks for dear life – on a relatively flat and very well covered path. My travel blog that day reported: “But due to a tour guide not willing to be accompanied by a potential quivering mess, I made it to the top of the base of the summit instead.”
You can’t block out the pain. You have to embrace it.” – Tyler Hamilton
Lying down on big hills and small mountains is a common theme with me, and so, on the whole I simply avoid mountains and large hills. And that’s all fine and good, until it gets in the way of enjoying very normal circumstances with friends. In August I went to Devon for a friends birthday, and we went for a walk together along the coastal path, to a peak of a hill. I’d had a stressful few weeks as it was, I’d decided to change my job and was also looking for somewhere new to live, so my nerves were a little frayed. I already new that walking up the path was going to be a challenge for me, but I simply wasn’t expecting the gripping fear that ensued. (There’s a clue there) I lay agaist the verge on the coast path, trying to grasp blades of grass pretty unsuccessfully between my fingers. A couple of minutes later a friend was walking back down the hill will a shaken and tearful me. Oh dear. Time to sort this one out.
I am no stranger to doing things that scare me though. When I say I had a steep learning curve this summer on my road bike I mean it literally. I have been terrified on many an ascent, I’ve broken 40MPH and got a few QOM’s along the way. And now, as long as I get on my road bike regularly, I’m able to enjoy a good descent and even cycle in the rain with confidence. Heights was just my threshold for my willingness to proceed through something that scares me, probably in part because I don’t think it’s something I ‘should’ do or maybe I’m just not that bothered about it. But this Devon trip was the last straw, and I decided to visit a CBT ACT (cognitive behavioural acceptance and commitment therapy) expert to help me sort this one out. What I hadn’t banked on, was interestingly how linked the way approaching hills is to loads of other stuff in life, and also, approaching other sporting activities and especially the ones that are a bit scary.
What I’d been doing was largely ignoring that I was scared of it, trying to push those unwelcome feelings of anxiety away. It seems that feeling and accepting those feelings may help to succeed. It’s a new skill to learn but I’m on it.
To back up this idea, my therapist gave me an illustrative study to think upon. Two groups of participants watched a most uncomfortable scene in a film. The Deer Hunter. Group one were asked to suppress their feelings of discomfort, and given reasons as to why this would be a useful strategy, and group two were asked to accept the feelings, and also told why this would be useful. Results. The fighting the feeling group had higher heart rates and slower recovery, whilst the acceptance group had lower heart rates and speedier recovery. It’s useful to note that both groups reported similar levels of perceived anxiety. Interesting!
Learning to ride my road bike and signing up for this Iron Man has had me thinking for a little while about how best to approach the discomfort associated with endurance sport to come. What I find hugely interesting is that the new skills that I am learning to climb hills are similar to proven successful approaches used by endurance athletes. In the Layman Psychology blog, it says: “Kress and Statler concluded that top cyclists utilize an array of tactics and techniques to address the
pain associated with their sport. The key point is not that they are
able to handle the pain better, it’s that they actually seek to embrace
and deal with the pain, rather than ignore it as much of the population
does during exercise. Simply put, top athletes approach the pain in a
unique way by paying attention to it, rather than ignoring it.”I found this here.
I think there is a lot in this for approaching day to day life too, and indeed those pesky phobias, not just within endurance sport. As a seasoned runner, I am no stranger to pounding out the miles with varying degrees of discomfort. I know that the flip side of pain in running is a great feeling of achievement, satisfaction and personal and physical growth. It’s part of the reason us runner’s run. Conversely It’s in the every day stuff that we often think we shouldn’t feel discomfort, and in the phobias we have that we avoid – and that’s where this approach might come in really handy.
What’s also interesting though is that it seems it’s also likely that pain tolerance can be increased over time with regular activity, which may be a good reason to do such sports in the first place. The Layman blog says: individuals can actually alter their perceptions and tolerance to pain
over time through regular physical activity. Much like the act of
strengthening the legs and the lungs, prolonged cycling seems to build
towards a higher tolerance to pain.
Here’s also a little quote from Dean Karnazes to think upon. A little extreme maybe, but it illustrates a point.
“People think I’m crazy to put myself through such torture, though I
would argue otherwise. Somewhere along the line we seem to have
confused comfort with happiness. Dostoyevsky had it right: ‘Suffering
is the sole origin of consciousness.’ Never are my senses more engaged
than when the pain sets in. There is a magic in misery. Just ask any
In conclusion, I think that it’s important and most probably useful to consider the mental approach to training as much as the physical. It’s an area that I am really interested in, not only because it’s a huge aspect of endurance sport and therefore not to be ignored ironically or otherwise, but also because of how it relates to other things in life, such as phobias or our day-to-day experience of life.
So feel the fear and do it anyway. Don’t ignore the fear and do it anyway.