What’s in a Game: reframing pain

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Sophomore economics major Joe Rolwes works out in the Maher Athletic Center gym. Photo by Emanuel Rame.

The 10k is a grueling race. The longest race on the track, competitors must complete 25 laps —  6.2 miles — at fierce speeds.

 At the first mile, your calves and quads start to hurt. At the third mile, your body starts begging for rest, and you realize that you are only halfway there.

At mile five it feels like there is a fire inside your legs. Finally, when there are just two laps left to go, you taste blood as your lungs squeeze hemoglobin up to your mouth. Everything in you begs to stop. 

Your coach catches you as you cross the finish line so you don’t collapse. You gasp for breath as pain is replaced by euphoric relief. 

In order to master distance running — or really any high intensity sport — one must reframe the feeling of pain. 

In my 11 years of racing competitively, I have noticed two strategies of reframing that reconceptualize pain in running, as well as other human sufferings, either physical, emotional or spiritual. 

Physiologically, pain is a signal of a threat. To reframe pain in sports, one must recognize that the pain experienced in training or performance is not a threat to you. 

Olympic runner Alexi Pappas says that pain is like “an expected dinner guest.” You know it will come, and regardless of whether you want its company, you must welcome it as a temporary invitee.”

Of course, pain that comes from an injury or another abnormal occurrence should be attended to immediately and not ignored. But for the good, legs-on-fire pain, it is essential to recognize it with a sense of curiosity and safety. 

Instead of feeling threatened by pain, neutralize the sensation of pain as simply information coming to your brain by way of your body. Repeating words such as “safe” and “stay” are good ways to consciously make this shift. 

Another way to reframe pain in sports is to break the experience of pain into parts. If I were to think about the pain left to endure in the whole race at mile two of the 10k, I would be overwhelmed.

Instead, I choose to focus on simply one lap, or even one 200 meters, at a time. This helps me feel confident that I can achieve my goals for that lap alone, and then when I am done with that lap, I can shift my attention to the next lap. 

Without using this strategy, I would always find myself slowing down on the second to last mile, since I was distracted by the fact that I still had one more mile to go afterwards. But by focusing all of my attention on the present moment of the race, I was able to remain much more consistent. 

Both of these strategies are deeply applicable to life outside athletics. When I studied abroad in Perú in high school, for example, I calmed my fears about going to a new school and country in the same way that I conceptualized my track races: one moment at a time.

Also, being able to notice and observe one’s emotions is a tremendously valuable life skill. Instead of the feeling of anxiety or sadness being all-consuming, recognize that those emotions are indicating something important, and attend to them with a sense of holy curiosity. 

In one’s athletic and nonathletic endeavors, it is always essential to not seek to suffer out of self-degradation. Suffering, when united to a purpose beyond oneself, holds incredible power to elevate one’s actions into a new realm of meaning. 

In a sport, that realm of meaning is immediately obvious in one’s team, since a player is physically situated in a network that gives his pain larger meaning than himself. But our faith opens up a whole new possibility of the meaning of pain. When united to the cross, our sufferings as athletes — and also as humans — acquires the character of being a sacrifice for the body of Christ. 

As I endure and even embrace the pain of the 10k, I often make the conscious effort to offer my race up for a specific intention. Mere human suffering is suddenly super naturalized; my pain becomes prayer.

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