Digging Deep: How Low can you Go?
I recently did my first official threshold test, which can be described as an all-out effort to determine the average power (wattage) that you can sustain over a 20 minute period. It can also be described as fun-filled 20 minute trip into the bowels of hell.
When I mentioned my intention to do the test to my friend Brian, he asked if it was a “fail test”. Funny Brian. Who does a test with a dumb name like that? Why take a test if the desired outcome is failure? Apparently at some point he had (by choice or by force, I’m not sure which) done such a test, which is reserved for athletes of a very high calibre. It entailed a full throttle swim of some ridiculous duration, followed by an equally gruelling run, all while hooked up to various breathing and monitoring devices to make sure he was really, truly suffering and not just passing out for the attention. The crazy thing about the fail test is that there was a specific time at which you were expected to fail, or rather be completely unable to continue. To fail before that time meant you were a pussy. To fail after meant you weren’t working hard enough and you had to take the test again. Thankfully, a fail test and a threshold test are not the same thing.
Knowing full well I would fall into the pussy category, it made me wonder… when brought to the ultimate limit, which would fail first: my body or my will.
Hitting your physical limit means different things to different people. For example, when I was a kid I had a figure skating coach who would conduct “power skate” sessions during which we would be forced to skate as hard as we could for fifteen minutes. Needless to say it felt like an eternity. I remember as some of the girls (likely myself included) would start to slow down and whine about being tired, the coach would yell,”YOU ARE NOT TIRED UNTIL YOU ARE PUKING BLOOD!!!”. His measure of a person’s physical limit meant they would literally turn inside out. Apparently this particular coach was also under the delusion he was coaching an Irish rugby team or a battalion of Navy Seals, rather than a group of 12 year-old figure skating girls.
Psychotic coaching methods aside, there is a certain street credibility given to athletes who push themselves to the point of vomiting. Puking is hard core, plain and simple. While it’s easy to bring yourself to the brink of pukedom, it is considerably harder to cross that line. I have ridden that line, maybe even dry heaved on occasion. But I have not reached that level of athletic excellence where my desire to win overshadows my girlish vanity.
The most common advice I’ve come across for overcoming the body’s desire to quit during high intensity efforts is incorporating high intensity interval workouts (ie. pain) into your training. There is a lot of biology and science behind this, but the long and the short of it is that if you repeatedly subject your body to pain (in the form of lactic acid), it eventually just gets used to it. Which I’m sure is true, in spite of the contrary logic that no matter how many times you hit your thumb with a hammer, it still hurts just as much every time. And of course there is the bitter truth that training is never really supposed to stop hurting. The old adage is that “it doesn’t get easier, you just go faster”.
As for strategies to develop mental toughness, I am at a bit of a loss. Lance Armstrong’s coach Chris Carmichael suggests concentrating on one thing, like your pedal mechanics or cadence. Considering he is usually saying this to me while I am doing one of his painful workout videos, I prefer to focus on how much I hate and would like to kill him with my bare hands.
In the Victorian era, to cope with the sexual demands of their eager new husbands, young brides were advised to “lie back and think of England”. To cope with the demands of intense efforts of bike training and racing, I would be more inclined to think of Belgium, which I consider the Motherland of cycling. I have always dreamed of a lengthy and tipsy retirement in France, until I considered that Belgium offers the best in not only cycling culture, but in beer, diamonds and chocolate as well. A friend pointed out that although that is true, the weather in Belgium is crap. I had to reminded her that we live in Winnipeg for God’s sake. Can it really be any worse?
To put pain in perspective, I always use childbirth as my benchmark. When I arrived at the hospital to give birth to my first son, the nurse asked me what my pain tolerance was like. Coming from sturdy Ukrainian stock, I told her I figured my tolerance was quite high. Half an hour later I was begging for an epidural.
In terms of my own personal pain-o-meter, on a scale of one to ten, where 0 is sleeping and 10 is childbirth, I would put a 20 minute threshold test at a solid 12. However, a birthday party at Chuckie Cheese scores a 27, and let me tell you, THAT won’t make you one bit faster.