Like many cyclists who enjoy pushing the limits of their abilities and who approach the sport from an angle of competitiveness, I have learned to enjoy my time in the proverbial pain cave. I’m not sure why that is, really, and the whole concept of being drawn toward voluntary discomfort in such a way has always kind of fascinated me.
I have been thinking a lot about that over the past few weeks, as I try to reclaim some semblance of fitness after being injured and completely off the bike for more than three months (my longest break from riding in more than 20 years). What I have found is that I am struggling to regain the cordial relationship that I have had with pain in the past. Where I have previously embraced it and even sought it out – perhaps even felt a certain level of comfort and peace in it – I now find myself more mentally unsettled and tempted to turn away from it. If nothing else, I am more mindful of it.
What is it that has attracted me to the pain in the past, and why am I struggling more with it now? I have always considered myself to have a pretty non-addictive personality, but perhaps the pain itself had become an addiction of sorts without me even realizing it. (After all, isn’t that how many addictions come about anyway – they sneak up on us?)
I’m sure that a component of it is purely physiological. That is certainly what my medical training would have me believe. Strenuous and painful exercise prompts the release of endorphins – hormones that bind to opioid receptors in the brain (the very same receptors that are utilized by drugs like morphine) – and carry out their intended effect of reducing our perception of pain and even triggering a sensation of euphoria. Though these hormones do not lead to the same physical addiction and dependence so commonly seen with exogenous opiates, the psychological effects of endorphins, as well as serotonin and dopamine that are also released with strenuous exercise, cannot be denied. While I imagine that these effects are, indeed, part of the equation, I also believe there is more to it than that.
At least for me, here is what I have come up with:
- Entering the pain cave is a meditation of sorts. In the process of smashing my body, I am clearing my mind. I am in my own world and have a tunnel-visioned focused on nothing more than the task at hand. All other stressors in my life tend to fall away – at least in that moment.
- There is a sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing through the pain, as if doing so somehow equates to a badge of honor – real or imagined. Perhaps on some level I feel that I have to prove to myself that I have the mental toughness to endure, and I will therefore be able to tap into this bank of “deposits” when I need to during a race or when I am otherwise pushing my limits in the future.
- I cannot deny the peace of mind that comes with the feeling that my hard and painful work has gotten me one step closer to whatever goal I was presumably working toward.
What is my point with this rambling? I really don’t have one. I have just found my recent journeys to the pain cave very interesting in how they are different from before. As the weeks continue to progress, however, I find myself becoming more at ease and less tempted to turn around and run for safety (and comfort) whenever I reach the mouth of the cave.
I am glad… I guess.
Trent Newcomer is a veterinarian and the franchise owner of Velofix Colorado, a mobile bike shop operation that serves the Front Range, from Fort Collins to the entire Denver metro area. Book a bike service appointment and have them roll up to your home or business at velofix.com