There is a famous line in the movie Platoon where Tom Berenger plays a tough character named Sergeant Barnes. In this particular scene, Sergeant Barnes’s platoon has been just finished a fire fight and one of his men is screaming from the pain of hot shrapnel in his body. Sergeant Barnes dives on the man and covers the wounded soldier’s mouth, getting nose to nose with the man who is writhing in agony. “Take the pain! Take. The. Pain!”
Now, in no way am I saying that cycling pain is equivalent to being injured in combat. What I am attempting to convey is how to take pain in the general sense of the word. Of course it goes without saying that every one has a different level of pain threshold; what might be excruciating to one person will be nothing to another. Let me begin by have a thesis statement: You cannot get better in cycling if you do not understand how to accept pain. Pain is inevitable. If you stop or slow, when feeling the least bit of discomfort, you will never get stronger or faster or have much endurance. Completing a century doesn’t prove anything, if it takes you 12 hours to do it. So, onto the HOW . . .
First of all, your brain is a self-preservation organ. It will tell you to stop what you are doing that is causing you distress of any kind. Understand that this function kicks in rather quickly. What are doing? Why are you doing this? Slow down just for a minute. These are the message we ALL hear in our heads, no matter what level of cyclist you are. The ability to command your body to ignore messages and continue to push yourself is KEY. So . . . how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. This means that if this is all new to you (or you want to progress to the next level) it is almost impossible for you to jump on a bike, no matter your fitness level, and pedal up Alpe d’Huez. You must condition your body to accept pain in small bites. You do this by setting goals.
As you start your next ride, purpose in your mind that you will accomplish X in this ride. Whether it is hill repeats or sprint intervals, set a number before the ride and come hell or high water you WILL complete the number. Pain will come. Demand that your body do what you tell it to do. Yep, you will hurt. You will see stars. You will tingle from oxygen deprivation. You may even talk to yourself out loud, but KEEP MOVING. Gradually, your body will learn to accept more and more pain. Believe it or not, but your brain will re-wire what it calls pain. THAT is taking the pain. Absorb it. Push it deep down. I’ve quoted Greg LeMond before, and I must do it again:
“It never gets easier, you just go faster.”