The Pain Pyramid

When I was younger I had a swim coach who used to give our team a talk a couple of times each year.  Before practice, he would bring out the white board and marker and draw a pyramid that looked a bit like the food pyramid that we’re all familiar with.  The base of the pyramid would contain a “C”.  This, my coach would explain, was the comfort zone.  Comfort was sitting on the couch, relaxed and watching TV.  Comfort had no place in his workout.  The next level of the pyramid would be marked with a “D”, for discomfort.  This was where we were supposed to be during warm ups and drill sets, preparing our bodies for what was to follow in the main set.  The next level up the pyramid was marked with a “P”, for pain.  Pain was what we were supposed to experience for the rest of the workout, if we didn’t push out of “discomfort” and into “pain” we weren’t really working out, we were just putting in junk yards.  But even if we were pushing ourselves to the point of pain, we still weren’t training like champions.  The final step, the top of the pyramid, was marked with an “A”, for agony.  This, my coach told us, was what it took to be a champion.  The average swimmers might feel discomfort or pain, but it we wanted to be winners, it was necessary to experience agony.  Every day.  Every workout.  Years later, I told another coach of mine this story and she said it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard.

Too many of us athletes are conditioned to associate training with pain.  I certainly had to go through a lot of injuries and illnesses before I realized the obvious fact that training isn’t suppose to be agonizing.  I ran through two stress fractures in college, all the while thinking that if it hurt that much, I must really be training hard, working out like a champion…  Think of how tough I would be if I could run on a broken leg!  In the end, I most likely slowed my improvement because of spending so much time dealing with injuries.  Training should be fun, not agonizing.  A healthy mind and body don’t want to constantly be punished, so if that’s your approach to training then eventually you’ll stop wanting to head out the door to work out, or you’ll be so injured that you can’t.

If you want to succeed as an athlete over the long term, and also to reach optimum health, I suggest a change of perspective.  Try working out to feel good.  Try exercising at a comfortable effort where you’re not straining or in pain; there is a comfort zone that you can find even while swimming, biking, and running!  Focus on enjoying the movement of your body through the water or the fresh air, find a place where you feel good and healthy.  This is a mental as well as a physical shift.  When you find this state, not only will you actually be training in a healthier manner, but you’ll also find yourself wanting to train more, and training consistently (and intelligently) is the best way to achieve long term positive results.

Slow down and enjoy the ride, you might actually surprise yourself and find that you’re healthier, and training and racing better than ever before.

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