A sports psychologist on...managing discomfort

The best athletes intentionally focus on the toughest parts of training.

Welcome to our fourth installment of A Sports Psychologist On...where we bring you insight from top sports psychologists on various psychological issues athletes face. Here, how to up your tolerance for feelings of discomfort during a race or event.

For an athlete to push boundaries and continuously improve, some level of discomfort is necessary. But there’s a difference between that and actually being injured. The more you work on your mental game, the more self-aware you'll become and, over time, be better able to differentiate between normal afflictions (side stitches, certain kinds of aches), fatigue, and actual alarming pain (when it’s sharp or sudden) that may signal something more serious. Mindfulness practices and self-analysis during and after your training will help you to become more in tune with these feelings and know when they’re something to be worried about. When it’s just plain old uncomfortableness, though, here’s how to power through.

Predict your pains.

A sophisticated athlete will sit down and think ahead to his or her training cycle: “I’m going to have these kinds of training days where I have a higher risk of feeling uneasy,” you might think. If you know on a 20-mile run, pain kicks in around mile 15, you can plan beforehand for how to deal with it. Then, on a long run day, when that feeling kicks in, you say, “Ah, I expected this. And now I focus on the deep breathing.” Anticipating uncomfortable emotions helps you be more prepared to deal with them and not have that automatic anxious response.

Visualize your body as a Ferrari.

When I have athletes talk about different parts of their sport that they “have to get through,” places where they feel most exhausted or uncomfortable (see above), I have them visualize that their tolerance is like an engine at a high speed. When pain is enough to disrupt performance, they’re going to shift down to a lower speed where the intensity of emotion or physical feeling is more acceptable. Fighting it at full speed will only make the discomfort worse. But once they push through it at a lower level (say, run at a slower pace), they can shift back into high gear and continue on.

Embrace the unpleasant feelings.

An associative strategy, where you really zero in on the uncomfortable feelings, is one effective way to cope. Elite athletes are very associative and pay attention to everything they feel so they can normalize the very painful part of their training. This strategy is worth a try, but you can also try dissociative strategies, which we'll get to next.

Get through one more song.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a dissociative strategy to take your mind off the pain can also help. Music, for example, is a great way to do that. The idea is that if you can get through one song and let yourself drift into that rhythm, you can dissociate and breathe through discomfort. Other helpful dissociative strategies include using cue words (strong, powerful, or fearless) to override the negative emotions with positive prompts, and visualization to imagine yourself pushing through the pain.

Try these breathing tricks.

If you’re having negative thoughts, you’re probably also becoming more anxious, increasing your heart rate, pulse, and muscular tension. Counteract this with active relaxation through breath work. Under anxiety, our blood vessels constrict. Deep breathing in your diaphragm oxygenates your blood, allowing for better flow, bringing oxygen into your systems. With each breath out, you release carbon monoxide, regulating and bringing your body back to homeostasis where it feels more in control to manage the discomfort. And by practicing it during training, you can use it more effectively during a race or event when you need it most.

Try it: Breathe deep in through your nose, using your diaphragm so your belly expands, for three to five seconds. Then, release through your mouth for the same amount of time. How many reps depends on what you need: sometimes two to three rounds can be enough for you to feel more engaged and comfortable, but other times you need to employ it again and again. Another trick that can be tied into breath is to visualize warmth filling your body and, with each breath out, visualize the negativity and tension leaving you.

Compare this event to past ones.

When you’re uncomfortable, think back to when you felt a similar level of discomfort that you managed to power through. First, doing so puts in perspective where this feeling falls on your own discomfort, pain, and injury scale. Second, on a subconscious level, it instills the belief that you can overcome the challenge you’re confronting right now because you have done so before.

Adapt your plan.

One of the basic tenets of effective goal-setting is adaptability. If two miles in to an eight-mile run, you develop ankle discomfort that’s atypical and doesn’t fade when you pause to stretch, you need to adjust that original plan. Your new goal could be to go home, do some icing and rehab and see if you feel better tomorrow.

Chris Carr, Ph.D., is a sports and performance psychologist at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis.