How To Suffer Skilfully for Better Performance
It’s a cliche to say ‘it could be worse’, but suffering is relative. Each time we move the needle further into hardship, it enters our frame of reference as something that, yes, was uncomfortable, but equally was possible for us.
The most important part of that sentence are the last two words: 'for us'. Your lizard brain doesn’t give a shit about someone else’s suffering. The story of another's suffering is in your conscious brain, it doesn’t inhabit the same frantic, slobbering, fight-to-the-death world as our unconscious lizard brain.
This is the deep inner part of the brain that is going to take over in a state of emergency or need. Whilst you can keep your conscious mind on top for some time, there’s going to come a point where a stimulus overrides that; whether it’s intensity, time, fatigue, weight on the bar, or stimuli equally familiar, to the CrossFitter, but rarely acknowledged: fear, emotional strain or vulnerability to name just a few.
It makes sense then to go on a course of Intensity Inoculation. To take the smallest of steps into intensity before falling back behind the safety barrier of familiarity where your subconscious will process your prior experience of discomfort. All with the perspective of hindsight.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting a kamikaze-like voyage to pain and a devotion to sadism. I’m suggesting merely dipping your toes in the freezing water for as long as you can last. Only returning in the absence of an association with harm.
To make it practical to the functional athlete, consider this:
Right now, intensity throughout a long, technical or important WOD could be too much. So let us do everything we can to remove those barriers: make it short, simple and devoid of significance. Something where the goal is NOT performance is what we’re looking for. The goal should be a willingness to find your Golden Zone (fully in the unknown yet within touching distance of familiarity).
What’s more, discomfort carries. Ever noticed many of those who have willingly encountered situations fraught with hardship are generally good at handling it in the box. From a personal point of view, the hardship encountered in my time in the military (not just physical) acts as a constant reference point. The ‘it could be worse’ phrase has a real meaning along with relivable memories. Memories which seemed beyond me when they were only dreams, yet were attained by regular yet controlled ventures beyond comfort and into the unknown.
If I could get the athletes I work with sleep deprived, borderline malnourished, dehydrated, wet, cold and miserable in a safe way, I guarantee their performance would improve when it matters competitively.
As most of us aren’t willing to enter the military for this kind of training, I suggest some alternative sources of hardship:
1. Get cold. Cold showers, ice baths. Grit it out and breathe (whilst the methodology is the same as the likes of the wonderful Kasper Van Der Meulen talk about, the intent isn’t. We aren’t looking to learn to control your nervous system here, we’re looking to increase your intensity tolerance.
2. Slum it. You and the wildnerness. Explore. Put your phone away. Maybe take some friends. Be hungry. Be cold. Be wet. Be smelly. (And for the love of God, be safe).
3. Carry heavy shit. Nothing builds an iron will like hauling weight over shitty ground for hours on end. You are permitted a break 1 hour after you first think you need it Until then, keep pace.
4. Martial Arts. Nothing is going to teach you to accept discomfort quicker than getting your arse handed to you over and over again combined with pain.
Success in functional fitness is essentially a test of your ability to endure, and hopefully embrace hardship in both the immediate future and the years of training prior to testing. This can only be done if it's a regular part of our lives.
"The antidote to suffering is knowledge" - Eduardo Carriello
P.s. the use of the word 'suffering' here is to create imagery. I still stand by the belief that you should eliminate suffering from training and competition. Hence 'hardship' at the end of this piece