We have no effective metric for suffering

“Suffering is central to the epic and heroic nature of cycling and every rider can explore his or her own worth in this respect.”


In cycling ‘the numbers’ are now all-pervasive in training, coaching and performance. We seem to have numbers to measure everything and if we aren’t talking about W/Kg, CdA or TSS then we are not at the races. I started making a list of relatively  commonly-used ‘metrics’ to illustrate this, but the list quickly became much too long to use.

These have their place of course, up to a point, but we have no really effective way to measure one of the most important aspects of cycling – the ability to suffer. This seems significant because suffering is synonymous with cycling and especially with success in competition.

Some will quickly disagree. Certainly, we do have computer-based scales such as ‘Intensity Factor’ in Training Peaks and ‘Suffer Score’ in Strava. These, however, are calculated by computer using algorithms, or mathematical formulas, written by developers. I think most will agree that these scales don’t really capture the nature or extent of suffering on any given day.

We also have subjective scales, such as ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion’ (RPE). But, is my rating of 10 really the same as somebody else’s? And what about uber-epic, hors catégorie suffering – that worst (or best) day you ever had on the bike? We definitely don’t have any numbers for that.

This is one of the intriguing things about pain and suffering in sport. At the end of the day, everybody’s suffering is their own – we have nothing else to compare it to, like speed or watts. We can only speculate how ours stacks up against another’s.

Because of our inability to measure suffering, its effective management in training and performance doesn’t seem to get mentioned much. This is a mistake because it really matters.

So, in thinking about this, I turned to the descriptive writings of others to see if really good writers might compensate for lack of numbers with their descriptions. As I delved into the subject I decided on three main themes:

  1. Suffering is synonymous with cycling and it matters
  2. Descriptions of suffering
  3. The management of suffering for performance

Suffering is synonymous with cycling and it matters

Fausto Coppi, who many consider was the greatest of them all, simply said: “Cycling is suffering”.

While Coppi may be regarded as the greatest, Eddy Merckx was the most successful and he was equally succinct: “Cyclists live with pain. If you can’t handle it you will win nothing  … The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most”.

The American ex-professional, Bob Roll said that “suffering is the coin of the realm in cycling” and his fellow countryman and Olympian, Scott Martin added: “To be a cyclist is to be a student of pain….at cycling’s core lies pain … If you never confront pain, you’re missing the essence of the sport.”

In the same vein, Amy Snyder, an ultra-endurance racer, wrote in ‘Hell on Two Wheels’: “Suffering is a hallowed cultural value in the world of competitive cycling, probably more so than in any other sport. Cyclists equate suffering with excellence, and it’s widely believed that those who can endure the most punishment will rise to the top of the heap”.

Others have written about an aesthetic or transcendental element to suffering. Bill Gifford, writing about ‘transcendent pain’ said: “Suffering is essential to the beauty and mystery of the sport. It gives the ride meaning. The greatest racers have a love of suffering that goes beyond any ratio of sacrifice to payoff”.

Sam Marye Lewis, writing about ‘the Zone’ in the Journal of Sport Psychology said that this pain “…has been described as a spiritual experience, a transcendent state, going beyond the self, a mystical experience with exceptional feats of strength and endurance. Some refer to the zone as an exhilarating, uplifting event, with a sense of mastery and control, or a sense of invincibility”.

Conrad Amenta, a non-competitive cyclist writing about ‘The Please and Pain of Cycling’, wrote: “Cycling for me, has been of the same significance as a spiritual or political epiphany. Cycling represents feelings and ideas beyond my control, forces and industries preceding and greater than me”.

I don’t think anyone will disagree that these writings illustrate well that suffering is synonymous with cycling and that it does matter, quite a lot.

Descriptions of suffering

As I mentioned at the outset, I began looking for good written descriptions about suffering on the bike to compensate for the lack of a way to measure it in numbers. However, I was disappointed as I could find almost no good written descriptions of actual pain and suffering. This was intriguing.

Sure, you can find some descriptions of pain, but the more significant the athlete (i.e. the ability to suffer more?) the less they seem to even attempt to describe it. Certainly, they talk about the significance of suffering, but they seem to balk at actually trying to describe it.

This suggests that description would not do justice to what they endured, especially when even really good writers do not attempt it. Michael Hutchinson, for example, who attempted the hour record twice and is an excellent writer, made no real attempt to describe the pain in his book ‘The Hour’, even though the pain did defeat him. He did suggest, however, that attempting the hour record was “like pushing a nail through your hand.

Similarly, Chris Boardman just hinted at it after his hour attempt: “If I’d known how hard it would be I would never have attempted it … the last 15 minutes were terrible”.

I even re-visited a book of poetry devoted to poems about sport – ‘Everything to Play For’. None of the 99 poems tackled the theme. Apparently the topic of love, equally abstract and impossible to measure, is much more appealing to poets than pain.

Victor Copeland, American track rider who held four World Masters track records at various times, did make some attempt: “The pain is incredible. It really is, it gets brutal .. you get so much pain in your legs at that time and you’re gasping for air … it’s almost like suffocating.”

Nevertheless, some good descriptions of this kind of suffering have to be out there and if any readers have any perhaps they would share them with us

The management of suffering for performance

Writing on the management of pain and suffering is much more prolific and this is obviously important in competition – the more successful riders can manage pain well. Graeme Fife, in his essay ‘Ex Duris Gloria’ (Glory through Suffering) emphasised that “suffering is one thing; knowing how to suffer is quite another”.

Some coaches specialise in ‘mental training’ and sports psychology is now a big business. For example, Carrie Cheadle who is a ‘mental skills coach’ said: “If you want to be a competitive cyclist, you have to know how to go deep into the pain cave. A cyclist’s ability to suffer often determines who steps onto the podium and who is standing off to the side.”

Similarly, you can find plenty of training articles along the lines of ‘How to Develop Mental Toughness’. Much of these use ‘distraction or dissociation’ techniques. Others call them ‘diversion and avoidance’ strategies.

In other words, these techniques help you to ignore the pain. As Carrie Cheadle said, “your brain automatically sends a message to your body to slow down”, and Victor Copeland similarly added: “your body is trying to get your mind to back out of this commitment”. Therefore, some of these techniques work on distracting you from your brain urging you to slow down.

Carrie Cheadle summarized on such strategy: “Having a visual trigger can help bring your focus outside of yourself and back into the moment versus feeling consumed with how hard the effort is.”

Felicity Wardlaw described how she figured these out for herself en route to becoming Australian national time trial champion: “I didn’t have a sports psychologist guiding me, but …I learnt a great technique to manage pain during the race. I developed a series of power thoughts, power words and power images. I visualised I was a panther. I could then see myself looking through the eyes of this panther, in that I was fast, relaxed, smooth, powerful and lean. I practiced this during several training sessions and during Nationals I really used this to overcome the pain and transfer it away from the legs.

Most of us utilize tricks like these from time to time and everybody has their own favourite ‘diversion and avoidance’ strategy. For example, picking a wheel to hang on to, when we are on the verge of cracking on a big climb, is a basic one that most of us default to – focusing on the wheel distracts from the discomfort.

However, there is also another coping approach – quite different – which the really great competitors seem to master. Rather than avoiding the pain, they welcome it, embrace it, study it and practice it. As Olympian, Scott Martin said: “To be a cyclist is to be a student of pain.”

At a basic level, this seems to make sense. To pace yourself properly on a solo effort, for example, you have to monitor the discomfort – pay attention to it – so that you stay at your maximum sustainable speed.

Others, strangely to me, seem to welcome pain. Richard Virenque was one: “You can say that climbers suffer the same as the other riders, but they suffer in a different way. You feel the pain, but you’re glad to be there”.  British professional, Mark McNally put it slightly differently: “That’s the beauty of bike riding – that it can be so cruel and so beautiful at the same time … the contrast between the pain and the euphoria it brings is what makes it seem all that more beautiful”.

Michael Hutchinson, while disappointing in his description of suffering, was excellent in his discussion of the approach to it and management of it – through paying attention to it rather than avoiding it: “That it ‘hurts’ is almost neither here nor there. You try to tolerate it, embrace it, put it in a box, luxuriate in it, turn your back and go to your happy place, deal with it in whatever other way you can. You have to go back again and again, and while you get better at it, it never gets easy.”

Common in this line of thinking is the ability to relax in pain – Victor Copeland again:  You have to relax ‘into’ the pain… If you tighten up, it’s a lot worse.” And Hutchinson on the same theme: “What distinguishes a hard (training) session done well from a hard session done badly is the degree of control. When you’ve grown good at it, you can push to the limits of what you can do while staying so relaxed that you can wiggle your toes … and judge the effort level, even while your heart is at its maximum and your blood-lactate levels are heading for the roof. There is a detachment.”

This aspect of ‘detachment’ is another strong theme from those who work with pain rather than try to be distracted from it – they observe the pain, but almost as an outsider. At the extreme end of this spectrum we are back to the theme of transcendence which Julie Emmerman described as “a zone of total detachment, where the body’s feeling of pain barely even registers in consciousness”.

What does all of this tell us?

While there is a whole area of psychology devoted to this, I think the main message is that the proactive management of pain and suffering is something that the more successful competitors work at – they practice with it, whether consciously or sub-consciously.

All good coaches and top-end performers try to identify ‘the limiters’ to performance and work on them – aspects of physiology, technique or psychology which prevent that marginal gain. The main focus is usually the physiological or ‘fitness’ elements, especially in a sport like cycling where technique is less import in most of its disciplines.

However, in recent times a theory has been put forward, mainly attributed to sports psychologist Tim Noakes, that the final limiter to effort is a form of ‘central governor’ in the brain. This, it is proposed, shuts down effort at a certain point in order to protect the body. That extra marginal gain which separates the winner from the rest, the argument goes, is the ability to manipulate that governor. However, even Noakes said: “How athletes and coaches achieve this winning mental attitude is the great unknown” (of course some kinds of dope will have the same effect, such as the amphetamines used by Tom Simpson before dying on Mont Ventoux).

Nevertheless, from reading the various accounts of suffering and it’s management it does seem that some of the most successful competitors have found their own ways of manipulating that central governor and gaining that vital marginal delay in the mind controlling the body. They work at it.

In the era of ‘numbers’, it’s probably just as well that a measurement of suffering eludes us. It remains mysterious and allows some mystery and romance to still exist in the sport. Whether racing a stage of the Tour de France, trying to get a personal best time in our favourite sportive of the year, or doing a gruesome turbo session in the garage, the pain is still unique to the rider and there are no comparisons.

For fans and competitors alike, cycling had an epic and heroic element like no other sport and the worth of a rider is measured by more than results. Suffering is a major aspect of this and every cyclist can explore his or her own worth in this respect, which we commonly do as cycling writer, Dave Nash, observed: “I’ve seen cycling mates looking so dazed and traumatised after a 60-mile club run that you would think they had just collapsed in the Roubaix velodrome.”

Bill Gifford put it this way: “The ‘stronger’ rider, in terms of pure physical ability, is not always the best. The bicycle allows you to ride as far into the dark realms of pain as you dare, which is where greatness is found”.

Therefore, the club rider in the local Sunday race, or the sportive cyclist, riding for a medal time in the  Étape du Tour, may or may not experience the level of endeavour and suffering as the yellow jersey wearer in the Tour de France. Who knows – we have no measurement – thankfully!

Thanks for reading and get in touch please if you have any queries.

Tom.

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