Trail running phenom Ryan Sandes hurts better than you do. Pain is his friend and he knows exactly how to deal with pain. In fact, he’s not quite sure just how much tolerance he has. “I’d like to think I haven’t found my limit yet,” he says. “I think I can still push that much further and dig that much deeper. I suppose in some ways that’s what drives me – we all want to know how far we can go.” Talent, skill, courage, mental power… put it down to whatever you want, but knowing how to hurt well is an aptitude that’s helped him become one of the world’s greatest ultra trail athletes.
But not all pain is created equal.
On one of Sandes’ first acclimatising runs in Colorado ahead of the 2013 Leadville 100-miler (a race he won in 2011), he took a small tumble, landing awkwardly to avoid bashing into a rock. “I thought nothing of the fall and kept on running,” he says. But a few days later his back started tightening up. “I thought this must be due to the high altitude – running at between 3 000 and 4 000 metres above sea level. Then two days later, on a run, my back went into spasm and I thought I had slipped a disc or something.”
Sandes hobbled back to his car and went to see the local chiropractor in Leadville. “In hindsight I should’ve gone to Boulder for proper treatment. The local chiro could see my one vertebra was out as my whole spine had twisted, but he couldn’t get anything into alignment,” says Sandes. He spoke to his support team in South Africa, who gave him some stretches and mobility exercises to help deal with the pain, which, in the taper period leading up to race day, seemed to do the trick.
“Come race day, I could hardly feel my back,” he says. “However at 30 miles my hip flexors started getting really tight. This got worse and coming down Hope Pass at 45 miles my back was going into spasm again. I ran a bit, but was eventually reduced to a walk and had to bail at 50 miles.”
Post-race analysis showed Sandes’ back was severely out of alignment, with over 1.5 centimetre difference in his leg lengths and compression in his spine. If Sandes had pushed through the pain of that spasm and somehow forced himself to continue running, he would most certainly have done permanent damage… Even ended his career.
FACT: There are different forms of pain
“Pain varies and there are different reasons why (and what about) pain is warning us,” says Phillip Nel, a former elite-level athlete turned biokineticist specialising in sports injury rehabilitation. “Pain can be either acute (sudden onset as a result of a clearly defined cause) or chronic (persists for weeks or months). It can range from a side stitch in your stomach to a (potentially fatal) angina in the heart.”
The trick then, according to Nel, is to know why you’re hurting so you can deal with that pain. And, if at all in doubt, to cut out whatever you’re doing and to seek professional assistance for a diagnosis.
“There’s definitely ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pain,” agrees Sandes. “It’s important to be in tune with your body to know the difference. Good pain can be when you push hard in a training session or a race and basically you are just pushing your revs into the red… You breathe really deeply sucking for air, you can feel the lactic acid build-up in your legs, you might even feel slightly light-headed or a bit nauseous, but as soon as you reduce the pace you feel normal again.”
“The average Gym Joe looking to shed some weight and build a bit of muscle is going to feel a completely different type of discomfort during a gym session to that an athlete of Sandes’ class does after (or during) a session,” says Nel. “He’s conditioned his body to withstand huge amounts of physical and emotional stress. Pro athletes ‘listen’ to their bodies giving feedback and then adjust their training intensity accordingly.”
You may not be about to step onto the starting line of a 160-kilometre mountain race, but you can apply Sandes’ basic theory to your next training goal: “A large part of dealing with pain is emotional and how you approach it. It is important not to be scared of pain and to embrace it. It only hurts if you think it does. If you have an end goal that you really want to achieve, then it can be quite easy to override the pain and only focus on that goal. When you go into the pain cave you learn a lot about yourself and the deeper you go the more you realise it’s not that bad.”
What does Sandes think about when he’s in that “pain cave”? “I always try focus on the positives, the beautiful surroundings that I am running through, the race vibe and its history.”
MYTH: No pain, no gain
Pain is just weakness leaving the body, right? Not always, warns Nel. “Building muscle fibre requires a certain amount of micro muscle trauma,” he says. “This trauma leads to pain and discomfort. The degree of pain depends on how much the muscles were overloaded during the exercise session. For the average guy to achieve sufficient muscle building, the muscle only needs to be overloaded a little bit. Muscle soreness usually peaks after 48 hours (this is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS). However, too much strain could lead to the work becoming negative and the muscle or joint sustaining an injury,” says Nel.
If you are hurting so much during exercise that it affects your normal movement and function and if you’re still hurting from DOMS three days after a session, you need to re-evaluate your programme.
“It is also very important that people take their personal injury and medical history into consideration,” advises Nel. If you experience pain during exercise, particularly a gym workout, you may be performing the movement incorrectly. “It’s pretty shocking how many people get injured in the gym because of bad form. We see young guys weekly in the practice, who pushed “just too far” on a bench press and subsequently injured their shoulders. The rehab to such an injury is lengthy and sometimes even surgical.”
FACT: Pain equals strain
To the body, stress is stress, whether that’s work stress, family stress or exercise stress. “I think it’s good for recreational athletes to push through the pain barrier once a week, but only for a short period of time – an hour or so,” comments Sandes. “Just so that they become familiar with good pain and if they do start to feel bad pain, they’re able to tell the difference.”
Sandes believes people can mentally endure only so much pain, so it’s very important for the recreational athlete not to put their body through that pain stress in every training session. What you risk is burning out your body and you’ll stop responding to training.
Nel agrees and believes one way to deal with pain is by building it into your training regime so much so that you plan and mentally prepare for it. “Psychologists refer to it as association/disassociation,” he says. “Personally, I’m also a big believer in these cognitive strategies while training. By just giving the body a bit of a pep-talk – ‘I’m feeling great today, my legs are feeling strong, I’m winning’ – you can disassociate and be distracted from the pain and discomfort and achieve a higher goal.”
Of course, this applies to an event day as well, when you line up for that half-marathon you’ve spent three months training for.
“I think about all the people who’ve supported me out there and it makes me feel like I am running for more than just myself,” explains Sandes. “And when things go really bad,” he reflects on Leadville, “it’s never a nice thing, but it’s part of the learning experience and you’ve got to pick up the pieces.”
How To Deal With Pain
Here are some of Sandes’ philosophies on pain and how to deal with it:
Ryan Sandes has won ultra trail races all over the world, including the iconic Leadville 100-Miler (in 2011). He also holds the record for South Africa’s toughest mountain challenge, the 105km Salomon Skyrun. An unsupported 100km race through the alpine highlands of the north Eastern Cape might not be your idea of a bucket list event, but understanding pain and learning to deal with it better could help you reach new heights of fitness and endurance. Even if that is just a faster five-kay.
Set mini goals. Focus on just getting through one minute or one kilometre at a time; that way it’ll mentally feel more achievable.
Know that the lower the low (and the worse the pain) the higher the high of the victory (or satisfaction of finishing) will be.
Train to distinguish between good pain and bad. Never push through an injury as you could do permanent damage. I could feel when my back was spasming in Leadville that it was not a good pain and was not caused by fatigue but by something in my body being out of alignment.
Know how far you can push yourself without completely breaking down your body.
Don’t fear pain. Plan and prepare for it and then – when deep in that hurt locker – embrace it.
You learn the most about yourself when you’re experiencing that good pain.
Distract yourself from the pain through association/disassociation. Focus on the positives such as the beautiful surroundings, the supporters and the beer afterwards.
Don’t visit that pain cave too often. It translates to stress, and mentally and physically we can only take so much of that.