Memory of pain is bizarre. For a brief while after a hard workout you can easily recall the nauseating discomfort, the deeply aching body, and the entire utterly exhausted orchestra of muscles. However, before too long the pain morphs into an unpleasant abstract concept. To a large degree we forget the details of the pain; we can no longer summon the experience to relive it in our minds (for whatever reason we may want to do that…for the purpose of writing a blog post, perhaps?). Left behind where the painful details used to roam is a broad negative association with the circumstances that brought on the pain. A story centering around some primates comes to mind:
With four apes in a cage, a (rather mean) keeper places a banana on top of a box. Whenever any one ape makes a move to grab it, all the apes are doused with cold water. The lesson is learned quickly, and the banana has ceased to become a banana, but has transformed into some forgotten trophy, stranded across a dark, vast chasm of suffering and misery. Next, the apes are switched out of the cage and are replaced with new apes, one by one. The newcomer notices the banana lying innocently on the box, and advances. Immediately the other apes go crazy and forcibly prevent this newest ape from approaching the banana. The situation is repeated with each replacement of an original ape, until the cage is full of newcomers. Curiously, despite the fact that not a single one of these new apes has been sprayed for approaching the banana, they do not approach it. They don’t know why the banana must be avoided, yet they continue to avoid it.
After a tough workout, we’re like the original apes. We went for the banana, and faced an unpleasant grievance. At this point in time we strongly dislike the world in general, and track and field in particular, extremely disappointed in ourselves for willingly bringing this distress upon ourselves. However, given a little bit of time, we experience a perspective shift. The world is not such a bad place, and once our bodies have recovered significantly, we feel a great sense of accomplishment and we are pleased to be another notch closer to achieving our athletic dreams. Yet there remains a dark cloud hanging over future “special endurance” workouts. Although we managed to shed the excruciating details justifying the subjective cloud, like the new apes we want to avoid the banana, even though we don’t really know why.
I’ve been experiencing a LOT of lactic pain recently. As a heptathlete I have come to expect tough running workouts at least twice a week – special endurance on Wednesdays and speed endurance on Saturdays. A tough workout used to mean getting the heart pounding and lungs burning, and while the legs would experience some fatigue, they would certainly be able to function 15 minutes later, at the very latest. Until this season, “tough” didn’t unfailingly and distressingly mean “lactic saturated legs”. To this end, some of my latest workouts have been doozies (to the amusement of my tapering comrades finishing up their university seasons). Last week I did my best to hammer out a half dozen 200m runs with a target time of 28 seconds (my target 800m pace is 32 seconds, to give you an idea of the degree of difficulty). A few days later I attacked a speed endurance workout consisting of all out efforts over 300m, 200m, and 100m with several minutes rest between runs. After these workouts I felt like I was trapped in a bad dream: my eyes rolling, legs feeling HUGE and just about giving out on every step, brain and mouth unable to facilitate communication with the external world…
As elite athletes, and indeed elite performers in any field, we must go for the banana every time. Let’s make it a point to never give in to a little (or a lot) of resistance that we encounter. Much of the time it is self-imposed resistance, like the dark cloud I’ve slung over special endurance workouts. The goodness that lies inside that banana is easily worth facing the vague unpleasant feeling that we associate with it, as well as the acute painstorm at its root!