Conquer the Pain Cave: 3 Strategies for Taking Control
The workout of the day is set. You look on the whiteboard and see suffering written all over it. If you’ve been around CrossFit long enough or have done any kind of serious strength and conditioning work, you’re pretty familiar with the pain cave, or as some athletes like to call it, “The Dark Place.”
The moment you start doubting whether you’ll able to finish marks the cave’s entrance. Congratulations - you have just arrived at a crucial point in your workout. The bad news is, this is only beginning.
The Worst Feeling in the World
Let’s examine the 2000m row. You start out and your pacing is great, so you think, “Wow, this is easy. I could maintain this pace all day.” Then after the first 500m, you start to feel a little tired. Your heart beats faster, you can’t pace your breathing any longer, and the voices start creeping in. At that point you start to doubt whether you can actually finish or not. You’ve entered the cave.
You keep going, trying to maintain your starting pace. But by the end of the second 500m, you’re absolutely miserable. Your legs and arms are sore and your breathing is completely off. And the worst part is when you look up at the erg and realise you’re only halfway.
Now the tone of the voices changes. They scream that you’re only half way. They tell you this is the worst feeling in the world and you’ve endured nothing like it before. You should just stop, right now. Your body just can’t take any more of this.
The next 500m will make you or break you. If you manage to survive, then you’re in the clear. If you quit, you’ll stay stuck in that cave and it will haunt you for a long time. You’ll always be scared of it, and every single time you start hearing the voices, they will take control.
The 3 Phases of Pain
The pain cave is not a pretty place. But if you’re serious about performance, it has to become familiar territory that you can dominate, not simply navigate. You have to be willing to throw yourself in the fire and suffer in order to get it done.
Through training myself and other athletes, I’ve found three distinct phases of the pain cave. Each phase has different action steps that can lead to domination.
Phase 1: The Entrance
When you leave the house in the morning and get in your car, you have to know where you’re going. Otherwise, you’ll drive nowhere. The same principle applies to the pain cave. If know you’re going to have a hard time, then you better have a really good reason for it.
"Before you get started, know this: you have to decide you will keep going, no matter what."
Remind yourself of that reason before you begin. Write it down, visualise it - it doesn’t really matter, as long as the reason is in front of your eyes. The stronger the reason, the more you’ll be able to push yourself.
Before you get started, know this: you have to decide you will keep going, no matter what. As Mark Twight so eloquently put it, “Keep going. It’s not as hard as your muscle or your lungs are telling you it is.”
Phase 2: The Encounter
Once you are way in the pain cave and rapidly closing in on your threshold, the voices will start talking and your muscles will start aching. This is the part that will make you or break you, and this is the part that will finally define you.
You won’t be able to ignore the doubting voices, but what you can do is talk over them. If you just listen to the voices, they will eventually put you down. That’s why every athlete should develop his or her own power phrase.
The power phrase is a statement you tell yourself when you feel like the voices in your head are getting too loud and the pain in your lungs is becoming unbearable. It’s something you and only you can develop. The power phrase is your beacon in the darkness. It’s what will pick you up when your mind and body are telling you to stay down.
I’ve seen phrases as simple as, “I’m strong, I’m relaxed, I’m confident,” to ones as extreme as, “I’m a lion. Lions feel no pain. A lion keeps going.” As I said, the powerful words will be your beacon when you’re in the middle of the darkness, so choose wisely.
The second element you need to develop is the poker face. The best poker players have a strong poker face with absolutely no facial expression. Their opponents can’t tell if they truly have the winning cards or if they are bluffing.
The same thing applies to the pain cave. No matter how you’re hurting on the inside, you can’t let anyone see your pain. You must always stand up proud, keep your shoulders and head high, maintain no facial expression, and control your breathing. If the voices are your opponents, you can’t show weakness. Otherwise, they will crush you.
Phase 3: The Exit
As you approach the end of the workout, you’ll be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Oddly enough, you’ll start pushing yourself harder because you know the end is near. Finally, you finish. You are proud of yourself, and you celebrate that victory by falling on the ground flat on your back or your stomach.
The truth is, you should never lose control, even when you’re out of the pain cave. You don’t know what’s going to hit you next. Practice walking with your head up high - victorious and proud even after you’re done.
"If you’re willing to put in the work every single day you walk in the gym, you will undoubtedly come out on top."
A workout, or “the cave” should never beat you to the ground. I know your heart and body will be aching for you to fall, but you should never listen. Walk away and keep your head high, even though your lungs are screaming on the inside. Always stay in control. The more you practice being in control, the closer you’ll get to dominating the cave each and every time you enter it.
Practice Staying in Control
The cave is a horrible place because we hand over control. The moment you start screaming, shaking your head in doubt, and giving in to the pain is the moment you surrender. If you practice staying in control, the game completely changes. Managing the pain will be easier and you will feel more calm. As a result, you will be a more efficient machine.
When you give in to the pain, you tense all your muscles, which causes movement inefficiency. This causes you to lose control of your breathing, and finally the pain kicks in and takes you down. Practice staying in control. It will be your salvation.
The pain cave is a dark place, and successfully navigating it is no easy mission. It takes a lot patience and suffering. However, if you’re willing to put in the work every single day you walk in the gym, you will undoubtedly come out on top.
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Photos courtesy of Mohamed Ashour.