Pushing the pain barrier
Mile eighteen, one hundred and eighty-five obstacles down, just two miles and fifteen obstacles to go.
It’s a searing day in the English Countryside, I’m exhausted, and my left knee is in excruciating pain.
I continue but the pace duly slows.
Another few obstacles down, another half a mile done, knee still in agony.
The pace drops into a mere amble.
More obstacles completed and more distance covered, I start to approach the final half-mile of the course.
The colourful wave of banners and eager buzz of the crowd enter my awareness. I sense completion!
The pace picks up as my Stallone-like stagger quickly transforms to a Bambi-like bounce – You’ve all seen the Rocky movies; well this was a Rocky moment!
I climb up the final tower and reach the finish line with no knee pain, no exhaustion and no particular misery!
How could that happen?
Ten minutes ago I felt like I’d been 15 rounds with Apollo Creed, now I feel like I’m standing at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, waving my hands above my head in joyous victory!
Our survival mechanism
All of the cells in our body have one common goal – to survive!
The queen bee of our body, our brain, cannot survive without all the other cells, organs and systems working in perfect harmony; therefore, any slight threat is quashed quickly and effectively.
As soon as our brain detects any form of pain, suffering, energy consumption or challenge to our livelihood, alarm bells start to ring.
It’s all hands on deck as our senses intensify, our heart beats faster and pain signals tell us to slow down.
But is this premature?
Can we do much more than we think if we learn to control our mind and become more self-aware – just like Rocky.
There is one perspective that, former US Navy SEAL, David Goggins, offers called “the 40% rule.”
The 40% rule proposes that once you get to 40% of your capacity, be it physical or mental, your brain starts to say, “whoa… slow down there maestro,” when, in fact, we can endure so much more!
So is this true?
Can your body do so much more when you learn to switch off or control your brain and, if so, how is it possible?
Switching your brain off
This is often the tactic that people rely on to get through tough times because it’s easy and instantly attainable.
Drugs give you the ability to switch off parts of your brain so your body can go for longer.
Without your brain puling at the reins, your body is free to complete the task in hand.
Tens, maybe even hundreds, of thousands of untrained people flock to party destinations around the world every year and party for days on end without any sleep!
The only reason this is possible is because of the mind-numbing drugs they consume whilst on such kooky adventures. Their minds switch off and their bodies just go… and go… and go!
The same goes with professional athletes… It’s common to hear a professional football player blame pain-relieving injections for their problems, past and present.
Such injections and pain-relieving drugs, stop pain signals getting to the brain, effectively switching it off so you can go for longer.
Depending on who you ask, there may be a place for such practices, but what about if there were more naturally attainable solutions that you could use to go that extra mile, without chemical intervention?
Controlling your brain
Controlling your brain is a much more difficult challenge and requires years, if not decades, of practice.
This is quite often why people revert to chemical interventions like drugs, alcohol and junk food to “numb the pain.”
You see, the benefits of practice are not instantaneous.
Like breathing, meditation and exercise, you need to practice (a lot!) before the fact – before the race, before the stressful situation, before the bodybuilding competition in order to benefit when the time comes.
You may get some immediate benefits like relaxation, tension release and an endorphin rush; however, the real value to such practices is your ability to cope better later – when you really need them!
The same goes for controlling your mind.
It needs to be practiced (a lot!) BEFORE THE FACT!
It’s too late to practice a mindfulness technique if you’ve just launched the Xbox controller off the wall because “the game” screwed you over or you’ve frisbeed the laptop through the front window because it crashed again!
No one likes pre-coursework but if you’re willing to put in the time now, I promise you, these techniques could really help you to control your mind and give you the edge when you need it!
Detachment is separating yourself from your mind. Seeing your mind as a separate controller that you can observe and ultimately control.
This allows you to say to your mind: “okay, thanks for the heads up, I know we are at 40% because my legs are starting to hurt and you’re telling me to stop but I’m going to push a little bit further – maybe to 50%.”
“I know this meeting is going badly but I’m going to use the rest of my energy to step back from the situation and understand what this customer actually wants.”
Being able to detach from your mind and from the situation allows you to act in a cool, calm, collected manner, ultimately leading to a more resilient and a more successful you!
Sometimes, when I run, I detach from my body and observe my legs moving. It’s a funny sensation because it feels like I’m not in control – my body goes numb and the rhythm of my legs just flows. I find myself watching myself run!
It makes running simple because I know as long as my legs keep moving, I can keep going!
The full detachment technique is explained in our Ultimate Beginners Guide To Practical Meditation (coming soon).
2. Breath work:
Breathing has been a real area of study for me recently and there’s no doubt it’s a superpower when it comes to controlling your physiology.
Breathing controls everything!
Just take these two quotes on exercise from Let Every Breath by Vladimir Vasiliev and Scott Meredith:
“Treat all the work described in this book as breathing exercises, rather than physical or mechanical work. This will help your mind. You won’t understand the miracle of breath until you push through your own limits.”
“If you approach the work as first and foremost a breathing exercise, rather than physical conditioning, there ought to be no limit – just as there is no pre-set limit to how long you can sit comfortably breathing in a chair! When you finish your work, if you’ve done the exercises properly, you’ll feel a positive fatigue rather than an absolute exhaustion physically and will feel refreshed mentally.”
Breathing not only offers you the ability to control vital bodily functions, it allows you to focus your mind, keep calm and carry on without fear or anxiety.
The most poignant example of this is Wim Hoff, who has achieved a breath-taking (mind the pun) 26 Guinness World Records in his time; including:
- The furthest swim under ice (57.5 metres).
- Fastest barefoot half marathon on ice or snow (2hr, 16min, 34sec).
- The longest time in direct, full-body contact with ice (1hr, 53mins, 2 secs) – Now surpassed.
He also climbed 7,200 metres (23,600 ft) on Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro within two days wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, and ran a full marathon in the Namib Desert without water!
Wim manages to accomplish these otherwise unthinkable feats by following his own “Wim Hoff Method,” which comprises a breathing technique, similar to Tibetan Tummo meditation (named after the fierce goddess of heat and passion), that keeps the body warm.
This breathing technique is explained in Barry Westley’s article Why I Use Cold Water Therapy.
I will soon be releasing The Ultimate Beginners Guide To Practical Breathing which will arm you with breathing practices to use in everyday life to go further.
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In the meantime, the following articles should provide a good introduction to breathing techniques for certain scenarios:
- Box Breathing – For maintaining calmness and focus in intense situations and coping with stress, anxiety and fear.
- Be More Wolf! – For breathing whilst moving.
- Focussed Breathing – For an introduction to breathing and a selection of techniques.
- Control Your Tension, Control Your Life – For relieving tension in your body.
- Techniques To Help Reduce Stress – For dealing with stress.
Although Wim Hoff is a perfect example of someone who uses breathing techniques to push himself past what’s considered “normal,” he is by no means an outlier – military personnel, martial artists, athletes, singers, performers and yogis all use breathing techniques to expand their ability to endure.
They also have another thing in common – they all get comfortable with being uncomfortable…
3. Being comfortable with the uncomfortable:
Tough roads often make for tough people.
When it comes to “going further,” there is a common theme amongst those who do it best – during the times when they just don’t feel like that extra practice, that extra mile, that extra weight, they get up and they get it done!
Nothing will enhance your ability to endure than consistent dedication and hard work – putting yourself in well controlled uncomfortable positions so you when the time comes to perform in an uncontrolled scenario, you can be at your best!
This is something I have learned first-hand since starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu…
In our academy, we spar with different size partners in order to defend against different types of attackers.
You may think this is great practice, which it is, but when you first start and have a guy who’s more than 20kg heavier than you, cradle you into a foetal position, lie on you until your flat on your back and sit on your chest so you can’t breathe, you start to wonder why you’re doing it!
But as well as learning how to avoid those situations, you become used to them. The pressure doesn’t bother you as much, the pain is less intense and you increase your ability to endure.
You “callous your mind” as Goggins says:
There are plenty of techniques that you can use to callous your mind and become comfortable with the uncomfortable – you just seek out difficult situations!
Some of the techniques Gaz and I teach, which have been collated from our various studies, include:
- Cold water exposure
- Breath holds
- Asking for a discount without an explanation
- Do something absurd – i.e. lie in the middle of a shopping mall
WARNING – Some of these techniques need to be understood before you partake in them! Make sure you, and those around you, are safe at all times!
If you’re looking for interesting reads in this area, Scott Carney’s What Doesn’t Kill Us is worth a browse.
As “callousing your mind” suggests, being able to endure in uncomfortable situations is heavily reliant on mindset.
Mindset controls your actions – you literally have the ability to choose to go the extra mile, attend the next session or skip that McBurger doughnut meal with fries!
This is when meditation, mindfulness and other psychological techniques become extremely useful…
4. Meditation, mindfulness and psychological techniques:
I’m sure you’re all aware of some sort of meditation, mindfulness or psychological technique that can help in tough situations, and some of the techniques above overlap into this category; however, do you have specific practices for specific scenarios and how often do you practice them?
In our Ultimate Beginners Guide To Practical Meditation we answer questions like:
- What is meditation?
- What different types of practices are there?
- What techniques can be used in “real-life” scenarios?
- What are the benefits of each technique?
Some techniques included in the guide that will help you to push further in times of need include:
- Breath and thought focus
- “Gone” meditation
The most useful techniques for developing resilience are those that offer a way to break the connection between you and your brain, allowing you to simply experience situations, pleasant or unpleasant, as they are, and to reframe your thoughts as you see fit.
Being the “watcher of the thinker” is an extraordinary role to take but being the “controller of the thinker” is even more rewarding!
Education is entertainment unless you use it!
So use it!
Use the following checklist to help you control your mind to go further:
Use the 40% rule for motivation in tough times.
Practice detachment once per day BEFORE THE FACT! – 5 minutes
Practice one breathing technique once per day BEFORE THE FACT! – 5 minutes
Put yourself in an uncomfortable position once per day BEFORE THE FACT! – 5 minutes
Meditate or use mindfulness or psychological practices once per day BEFORE THE FACT! – 5 minutes
BEFORE THE FACT – Practice before you need them so when you need them, they are second nature!
Please also read my related article about embracing placebos! You may think some of the techniques above are just fluffy practices that don’t work in real life but if you believe enough, they can work for you!