Managing Discomfort

I knew I should have switched to my smaller radial sail. The breeze was right on the cusp of where I needed the radial to allow me to keep my Laser flat without a heroic struggle, but the competitive crowd was using full standards, of course. Lots of other guys, and they were all guys, who were heavier or younger were not about to sail the “old man’s” and women’s sail unless it became absolutely necessary. The few of my friends who had choosen radials were actually laughing at my plight.

Before I began rigging my Laser for the regatta I had walked out to the end of a long dock and watched and listened and felt the range of wind-strength oscillations we sailors call puffs and lulls. My eyes said radial. My bare neck and face felt standard. My ears voted present.

The shore trees kept lifting the puffs up over my head. I knew I was sheltered from the reality that I would have to deal with out on the water. My eyes could see the occasional white caps and tree limbs signaling the pressure, but I couldn’t precisely integrate what I was seeing with what I was feeling.

I weigh less than most of the other guys, but I can hike off my toes longer than most of them also. I hesitatingly went with the standard rig so I could play with the upper echelon of the fleet. And now I was paying for my arrogance with pain; pain in my quads and pain in my abs.

I’m getting better at dealing with the discomfort of sports-induced pain. Pain is an attention getting sensation that helps protect us from injury but pain can also be mainly a creation of our minds. Endurance athletes learn that feeling pain doesn’t mean you have to stop your effort. Pain is often an early warning signal that your energy tank is below half full. You will feel pain long before your muscles are really done in. Pushing through it is a winning strategy.

The goal for Laser sailors who are hanging out on their toes longer than they have trained for, and few of us train anywhere near long enough, is to corral the pain, brand it as discomfort and lock it away. When we use strong words to describe or label our pain we give it a credibility and intensity that we don’t want it to have. In particular, words that suggest injury should be avoided – tearing, searing or burning.

If your goal is to avoid pain I’d suggest that you not take up rowing, endurance biking, marathon running or sailing Lasers. In these sports and many others the goal is to learn to manage pain, to compete through it, to let your pain make you stronger. Yes, that’s right; use your pain to make you stronger.

Every time you feel pain you are challenging (notice I didn’t say tearing) your muscles so that they will grow back stronger. Every time you feel pain and still persevere (notice I didn’t say survive) you are learning how you can live and thrive in the company of pain. And every time you feel pain and outlast it you are learning to manage it.

Try talking to yourself about a new reality of what is happening:

- “My brain is just telling me that I’m a bit low on reserves.”

- “An early alarm has gone off but I can push further into this discomfort.”

- “The pain is a container of energy that I can use to drive my muscles longer.”

- “The pain is tempering my legs into titanium rods.”

- “The pain is charging my competitive battery.”

- “This is not the kind of pain you die from.”

- “Every time I ease my legs for a second I allow new strength to flow in.”

Practice using steady breathing to recharge your legs

- Each time you breathe in feel the energy and oxygen flowing into your quads and abs. Every time you breathe out feel the pain and waste materials flowing out with your breath. Use your breathing to recharge your leg muscles, to eliminate the pain.

- Try thinking of the feeling in your legs as a color. The pain is red, breathe in pure white to cool it and feel it turn from red to yellow to green as the energy comes back.

Use your pain as a cue to remind yourself to sail fast

- “Stay flat and fast!”

- “Using every ounce of wind to move up the course”

Focus your mind away from the pain

- Have a routine pattern where you move your focus from sails to fleet to boat balance to wind angle. Practice the pattern so that you do it and never let your mind come back to the pain.

- Rivet your attention on a single thought and block any contemplation of pain. “Strong and Steady! Steady and Strong!”

Celebrate your toughness

- “I’m tougher than anyone else when it comes to pain!”

- “If this is hurting me it’s killing everyone else!’

- “I will prevail!”

- “Very few people can manage pain like I can.”

When you begin to doubt your ability to go on, remind yourself that your mind can be a powerful anesthetic. People regularly undergo surgery without anesthesia by self-hypnotizing themselves. If your mind is capable of ignoring a scalpel, it is surely capable of ignoring some unnecessary and premature warnings that your legs are getting tired.

I know I’m tough when it comes to hiking and so I vowed to show my friends I would have the last laugh. Reinvigorated, I hung in and finished the race in a strong position. The next few races were easier. My pain was under better control. At the end of the day I swaggered a bit as I packed things away, or was it just the sway of exhausted leg muscles? And then I welcomed the chance to sink into the front seat of my car and celebrate my toughness.

Of course when I got home I did ask my wife to take care of me just a bit. That’s another way to manage pain that’s pretty nice.

Jay Livingston