Enduring Pain to Hurt Less
It is an absolute that pain will be endured in the pursuit of athletic prowess, but since victory is never certain why do we choose to inflict such suffering upon ourselves? Is it simply the possibility of victory that compels us? I believe there is a meaning in pain and suffering and to endure them in one’s athletic training provides the opportunity to better understand our own experience of pain as well as others.
Over the span of two years, I have chosen to explore many of the facets of pain in sport by participating in some of the hardest bicycling races in the world. Endurance sports always involve pain. They require a voluntary infliction of discomfort. This is what I refer to as the privilege of voluntary suffering. With this privilege, I believe, comes an obligation to learn from it. The cycling races that I am participating in will serve as my lessons on pain. As an athlete, it is my hope that by racing in these events, I will come to better understand my physical limits, but it is as a physician that I hope to better understand the pain and suffering of my patients.
I could not foresee the benefits of this better understanding at the outset of my cycling, but it was my premonition that one’s ability to endure pain would improve as a result of athletic training. Rather serendipitously, this was recently demonstrated in a study that showed endurance athletes are better able to tolerate pain. The study showed that aerobic exercise training increased subject’s pain threshold. However, it wasn’t the study that solidified my premonition, but rather an experience I had with one of my patients in the hospital.
Ordinarily, if there is any decoration at all in a patient’s room it is cards and flowers. Walking into Karen’s hospital room the sight of dozens of Nike advertisements stuck to the walls, made the room appear to belong to an athletic teenager. Karen was in the hospital because of complications from her metastatic pancreatic cancer. It had spread to areas of her stomach and small intestine so that she had developed severe, intractable nausea and vomiting, and was no longer able to eat.
I asked Karen if she was an athlete.
“Not really, but I’ve done a lot of 5 and 10Ks though”
“Well, I think that constitutes as being an athlete,” I said smiling
She was clearly drawing inspiration from the Nike advertisements and their sponsored athletes, but I wondered how her running and training affected how she dealt with her cancer.
“Do you feel your athletic endeavors have affected how you have handled dealing with cancer?” I asked simply
“Most definitely. All my exercising: the training, the running, definitely made chemo more tolerable. I even did a few 5Ks while I was going through my first rounds.”
Karen was exhausted. I didn’t want to push her for the sake of my interest, but I knew she longed to hit the pavement one more time. She still donned neon-orange Nike running shoes for the possibility of one last run.
I slipped out the door as she fell asleep again.
We often think that pushing ourselves in physical activity is healthy solely in that moment: eking out one more rep, or running just a little quicker. These exhaustive and painful efforts give us an immediate sense of accomplishment, but what we don’t realize is that they also prepare us for hardships later in life.
Karen showed me that to endure in one aspect of your life, means the ability to endure through them all. I can only hope that my cycling will allow for such a fate. My bike riding offers me the privilege of voluntary suffering. If this results in even a modicum of improvement in my ability to understand my patient’s pain, then it will all have been worth it.
Mark Stephany hosts the The Agon Project whose aim is to explore the cultural, psychological, and philosophical components of pain and suffeirng in sport. You can read more about Mark, his riding, and his project here.