How Athletes can Learn how to Suffer

Guest writer Alexis Christodoulou gives us an insight to how athletes can start learning how to suffer building on historic examples and his own personal experiences.

Team athlete Elaine Garvican grits it out at the Allerthorpe Triathlon

Team athlete Elaine Garvican grits it out at the Allerthorpe Triathlon

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be given a sabbatical from work: it was five glorious months, paid leave to do whatever a pleased. I decided I was going to station myself in my house in France and train for Ironman Austria. At that point, I had raced four Ironman races (all average finishing times) and this time was an opportunity to train like a pro. No income to worry about, no emails and no work. No family commitments (my son was not born yet) and there were no excuses. I had enough experience and knew enough people who could advise me on training plans, nutrition and strength work. But what I wanted to work on was the ability to suffer and take my training and racing to the next level.

I had a little mantra at the time, what I called “…welcome to the dark side…” when I started to push into the anaerobic zone during hard training sessions. I wanted to examine two things.

First, what kind of psychology would enable me to suffer more and for longer, and how the body would respond. To my surprise, the body was the easiest to look after. I made sure I took great care of my daily nutrition and pre-workout fuelling (there is a difference). I had to cover all the bases with this aspect. So, I increased my calorific intake to an additional 2,000 calories per day for what was 3–4 hours of training a day on average. I ate quality slow release carbs and lean protein. This was a simple strategy, and it worked. What does this have to do with learning how to suffer, you ask? A lot. If I knew the body was well-rested and fuelled, I could let it do its thing in autopilot almost, and I could focus on my mind pushing the body harder. I wanted to produce better quality workouts and ensure I finished feeling strong, confident and with a smile.

The second aspect of my training which I examined was routine. Go to bed every night at the same time, read a book, fall asleep, get up at the same time. In the morning I did not watch tv, look at social media or email. I kept my mind free of distractions and excuses. Then came the more in-depth psychological mechanisms of learning how to suffer greatly and comfortably. Yes, it is possible to suffer comfortably.I was bestowed with this fantastic opportunity to train in south-central France, was being paid by my employer to do so, and my wife was pregnant at the time. I had a great bike, a race in June, and all the kit anyone could need. I could not be luckier. It is important to practise gratitude for all that you have in life. In doing so, I was engulfed in positivity, a constant smile, and a can-do attitude. I was embarking on an adventure of a lifetime, rather than placing myself under pressure. I could now get on with my training, learn how to suffer greatly, because I could.

When you think about it, “because we can” is not a satisfying answer. That was the reason George Mallory offered to the New York Times in 1923 before attempting his tragic third climb of Mount Everest. Mallory had good reasons though — being the first to reach the world’s highest peak, bragging rights, and enduring fame. Those who continue to follow him also have their goals. Sometimes these reasons can be complex such as experiencing bereavement, lack of fitness, and, existential crises. In these complex reasons lies a simple paradox though. Because we can, and all that stops us is perception not reality.

My knowledge of psychology suggests we are not wired to reduce effort and discomfort. This is what couch potatoes think psychology says, and to a degree, this is what we have been conditioned to believe by modern society. We relish such encounters precisely because they’re hard. If the task (in our mind) is incredibly hard, its perceived difficulty can add tremendous value to our life. Psychology calls the effort paradox.

Climbing a mountain may offer fresh air and a view, but arriving at the top is rarely the goal for cyclists these days. Instead, we seek out harder, popular routes. Runners may start motivated by the desire to get healthier, but by the time they progress to marathons their underlying goals have changed. The first marathon we run may be a desire to discover what’s on the other side. But the second one is probably fuelled by something else. In both cycling and running, beyond a certain level of experience, the effort and sacrifice seem to be part of the attraction. When one marathon is not enough, motivation changes. It may be to become faster but underlying this, what’s the significance of shaving a few minutes off our time? More bragging rights? But the reward does not balance with the sacrifice needed to achieve this.

A new possibility enters the equation: our love of suffering.

Because the ability to suffer is something athletes have used to reach their full potential. And it goes even further and creates existential life-defining possibilities too. Suffering is a part of endurance sport. Mastering and accepting discomfort, doubt and pain before race day can help us achieve our real potential. It isn’t notoriously challenging to get right. The mind is an incredible thing. Set it up for, and it will not only deliver, but it will also surprise you too.

I have to finish with an example from my training in France. I set out for a four-hour race pace bike ride. It was a hot day, and the terrain was hilly. I had taken care of my essential hydration, nutrition, fuelling, and, I was well rested. I looked around me and thanked my lucky stars for being out in this beautiful corner of the earth in the middle of the working week. As I was finishing my ride and nearing home, I took a sharp right, adding another hour of hard all out time-trialling to my ride. Why? Because I could. All the training basics were taken care of, and I was happy and grateful. My mind was empty and serene, and I was relaxed. Two months later I had recorded a personal best at Ironman Austria, over an hour quicker, and still smiling at the finish line.


Alexis Christodoulou works in the private sector industry and is also a writer on  upgrading our human operating system through self-improvement and applied psychology 

Alexis holds a BSc in engineering from Imperial College, London and an MA in psychology from the Open University. He has competed for Imperial College at Henley Royal Regatta in the Temple Challenge Cup. Before completing five Ironman races and numerous shorter courses, he was a Greek Army Ranger and platoon commander during the Balkans' crisis and the first Gulf war. He has coached cross country runners to national standards and rowing crews to Henley. Read more of his work