Over the last few weeks, I have been conversing with a friend (also a professional triathlete) about the difficulties he has been experiencing in his training. He had stagnated. His solution: train even harder. The daily floggings coupled with poor nutrition took its toll not only in performance, but in health. His new coach recognized this and set about undoing the damage. Doctors were consulted and the results revealed some significant issues that would need time and patience to overcome. His reaction was one of relief. Not the relief you would expect, though. His relief was not that there was a solution to his issues. His relief was that what he feeling was not in his head and he could justify his training lull to himself and those around him.
In my own career I have struggled time and again with my own feelings that something is “all in my head”. And, I am certain that onlookers to my racing probably uttered the same words when I dropped out of races when dealing with my back injury and even last year when I failed to complete many races due to dizziness.
Every time an issue has emerged threatening to derail my training, my answer has always been the same. Go harder. When I was struggling with back issues, I often felt that maybe the pain wasn’t truly there, that it was a figment of my imagination. I would go to the track and run workouts that I could nail when I was healthy. In my mind, if I could achieve that workout, then I wasn’t really injured. And how many times have I tried to beat the asthma and keep running when I was wheezing loudly enough to startle strangers running by?
Despite my years of experience, this past weekend I succumbed to the feeling that my pain was all in my head. Since the crash in November, my ribs have not fully healed, causing occasional flare ups. This weekend was an epic resurgence of rib pain. I tried to run, but could not even hold an easy pace. I had trouble breathing. My immediate reaction was that I must be out of shape. It wasn’t until a few hours later that my ribs started throbbing. The next day I set out to ride. The discomfort was immediate, but I shook it off. I told myself to be tougher. I imagined that the pain wasn’t there. I had an inner banter about whether to turn around. Finally, I came to my senses and realized that if I had to spend 20 minutes debating whether to go home, I should go home.
It comes down to this simple fact. If a workout is cut short, a race uncompleted, time taken off, it is not for psychological reasons. A deeper look will reveal an injury (or inconvenience) or an illness. We, as athletes, thrive on our workouts. Do we really want to sit on the sidelines or come home early or miss those last two intervals?
The rationale for these irrational thoughts is complex. Is it denial? Refuse to believe there is an injury it might go away. Is it fear of ridicule from others? Perhaps it is easier to accept a psychological reason for poor performance than another injury. Is it stubbornness? Deny there is a physical problem than training can continue. Is it a sense of infallibility? Our bodies cannot break down, but our mind can.
And here is the real difficulty. You finally admit there is physical problem and in the search for answers you are confronted with medical professionals, coaches, friends, co-workers, family, who may tell you that what you are experiencing, is a psychological problem. I myself had this predicament when investigating the cause of my dizziness. I also work with athletes that have had doctors tell them their fatigue was due to psychological issues. I refer you back to this statement: Do we really want to sit on the sidelines or come home early or miss those last two intervals? The answer is unequivocally, no. Because, if the answer was yes, we would just retire and not bother searching for answers.
Have you ever had any experiences with thinking something is psychological or someone telling you that it was all in your head?