Pain Tolerance

Every endurance athlete is familiar with the idea that certain physiological tests can be used to predict endurance performance. For example, the classic VO2max test is a very reliable way to assess how well an athlete is likely to do in a race or time trial. Other examples are the Wingate test and a simple maximal velocity test.

Increasingly, though, scientists are recognizing that certain psychological tests are also strong predictors of endurance performance potential. Collectively, recent studies in this hot area of research are showing that the mind is not merely a passenger in races and tough workouts but an active contributor to performance. Among the mental attributes that have been positively linked to endurance performance are pain tolerance, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy and inhibitory control. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Mental Attributes

Pain Tolerance

Scientific evidence that a high tolerance for physical pain aids endurance performance goes all the way back to 1981. That year, in the British Medical Journal, Stirling University psychologists Karel Gisbers and Vivien Scott reported finding that pain tolerance was higher in elite swimmers than in club swimmers and higher in club swimmers than in noncompetitive swimmers.

Fortunately, pain tolerance is trainable. Gisbers and Scott found that pain tolerance increased in their subjects over the course of a season. And in a 2017 study, British researchers found that whereas a high-intensity training program and a moderate-intensity training program increase aerobic fitness equally in a population of healthy nonathletes, the high-intensity program increased cycling time trial performance by a greater amount, an advantage that was linked to a larger increase in pain tolerance.

Emotional Intelligence

According to Psychology Today, “emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” Like all human traits, this one exists on a spectrum. Some people have low emotional intelligence, others high, while most fall somewhere in the middle. Psychologists use standardized tests to assess the emotional intelligence, and the results are highly correlated with real-life outcomes. Studies have shown, for example, that men and women who test high for EI tend to be more successful in their careers and are less likely to get divorced.

And guess what? A recent study by Italian researchers found that emotional intelligence was highly predictive of half-marathon performance in a group of 237 recreational runners. In fact, EI scores were more closely correlated with finish times than training variables were. It makes sense, right? Endurance racing presents an intense emotional challenge. It’s only to be expected that athletes who are well able to identify and manage their emotions will race more successfully.


Self-efficacy is a general belief in one’s ability to achieve goals. Whereas all of us tend to have a high degree of task-specific self-efficacy for things we’re good at, some people have an above-average belief in their capacity to achieve all kinds of goals, and according to a new study by French researchers, these individuals make better endurance athletes.

The subjects were 221 participants in an ultramarathon. Before the race, they all “completed a survey that included measures of: (a) motivational variables (self-determined motivation, basic needs satisfaction, achievement goals), (b) theory of planned behavior constructs (attitudes, subjective norms, self-efficacy and intention to finish the race), and (c) coping strategies in sport.” After the race, the researchers found that the runners who scored highest for self-efficacy were least like to drop out.

Inhibitory Control

Psychologists use the term inhibitory control to denote the ability to override impulses and stay focused on a goal. Inhibitory control comes into play anytime you want two or more contradictory things simultaneously and have to choose which one you want more. During races, athletes experience a conflict between the desire to reach the finish line as quickly as possible and the desire to spare themselves the discomfort that comes with pushing for maximum performance.

And guess who else scores well on these tests? High-performing endurance athletes. In a 2015 study, Italian researchers found that faster runners significantly outperformed slower runners in a standard test of inhibitory control, and the following year a different team of researchers reported a similar finding in cyclists.

Want to be a better endurance athlete? Work on your pain tolerance, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy, and inhibitory control. And, oh yeah, your VO2max.

It is a proven fact that individual pain tolerance predicts endurance performance. Given two athletes with identical physical traits, the one with a higher pain tolerance will likely outperform the other in competition. It is also a proven fact that pain tolerance is trainable. Exposure to pain tends to increase pain tolerance.

The practical implication of these facts is that, if you want to race to the best of your ability, you need to expose yourself to high levels of suffering in training. There is, in other words, a place for incredibly painful workouts in the endurance training process. But it’s important not to go overboard with this type of training, for three reasons. One is that incredibly painful workouts are very stressful, so if you do them too often you will become overtrained and your fitness will decrease. Also, pain tolerance is only one of many contributors to endurance fitness, and many of the other contributors are best developed through other types of workouts. And finally, it’s hard to get yourself up for intense suffering very often, and dipping into that well too frequently can lead to mental burnout.

This is the problem with programs like CrossFit. The ethos of these programs requires participants to give 100 percent in every single workout. This is impossible, and so what most people end up doing is giving about 93 percent in every single workout and forgetting what it’s really like to give 100 percent. If you truly want the benefit of giving a 100 percent effort, you need to do it sparingly.

Endurance athletes are more likely to completely avoid incredibly painful workouts than to overdo them. The typical recreational runner or triathlete is perfectly willing to do really long workouts that become sort of painful near the end in a slow-burn way, but they fear and dodge esophagus-searing intervals done at or near VO2max intensity, cutdown hill repetitions ending at maximum effort, and the like. And when I talk about incredibly painful workouts, that’sthe sort of workout I’m referring to.

To be clear, even most high-intensity workouts shouldn’t be incredibly painful—just moderately painful to painful. Incredibly painful workouts are a special subcategory within the category of high-intensity workouts. It’s also important to keep in mind that the purpose of these sessions is not to destroy your body but to toughen your mind. There’s an infinite variety of incredibly painful workouts you can do, but to serve their intended purpose they must entail a relatively modest amount of total work so that their intensity is not watered down and they don’t destroy your body.

The shortest incredibly painful workout format I know of is the original Tabata. It consists of 10 times 20 seconds at maximum effort with 10-second passive rests between intervals: 200 seconds of pure misery packed into five total minutes. This session is best done on a stationary bike, but if you’re coordinated and daring you can do it on a treadmill set at a steep incline, moving your feet to the edges of the machine for the rest periods and leaping back onto the belt for the sprints.

The single most excruciating incredibly painful workout I’ve ever heard of people actually doing is a session of descending time trials that was once a favorite of the late English manager/coach Kim McDonald. Here’s how to do it: Visit your local running track and warm up thoroughly with at least a mile of easy jogging, dynamic stretches, and accelerations. Then run four laps around the track (1600 meters) as fast as you can. I don’t mean start at a dead sprint and hang on; I mean treat it as a 1600-meter race, where you aim to achieve the lowest finishing time possible. Rest passively as long as necessary to feel ready for more hard running, but no longer. Then run three laps (1200 meters) all-out, rest, run two laps (800 meters) all out, rest, and finish yourself off with a one-lap (400m) time trial.

You wouldn’t believe how fast some of McDonald’s runners were able to run this workout back in the day. Former 5000m American record holder Bob Kennedy, for example, once completed the four time trials in 3:56, 2:55, 1:55, and 54, and his training partner Daniel Komen, who still holds world records at two miles and 3000 meters indoors and outdoors, ran them even faster.

Obviously, you need to be quite fit to attempt such a session. But again, no matter how fit you are, it’s inadvisable to do more than two or three workouts this agonizing in a single training cycle. In my view, the very best time to do an incredibly painful workout is a couple of weeks before your first race in a while, when you are fit enough to really suffer but may have forgotten what it’s like to really suffer.

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