Saturday, 30 November 2013

If you want to beat pain think like an Ironman champion!

This week I went to a talk by Chrissie Wellington, who is a four time world Ironman champion. If you don’t know, the Ironman competition consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a marathon to run at the end. This would be grueling enough, but two weeks before her last Ironman competition in 2011 she had an accident on her bike that resulted in third degree burns, a torn pectoral muscle and some nasty looking contusions. Despite these injuries so close to the event, she still went on to win the world Ironman competition in Hawaii!

Her talk at Bristol University this week was both interesting and inspiring. She explained how she got into triathlon and about her life before triathlon, the travelling she had done and how she developed a passion for cycling whilst working in Nepal. The most interesting part of the talk for me was when Chrissie described the mental preparation she does before a race. If you think about the amount of training she has to do for an event and the 8 hours and 55 minutes of strenuous exercise you have to do during the event, it’s no surprise that you have to do some mental preparation beforehand to help you with these challenges. What was most interesting for me was that the type of techniques she uses before a race are very similar to the techniques I use with people who have chronic pain, to help them overcome their pain. For example, before a race Chrissie uses positive affirmations and mantras and visualisation techniques to train the brain to deal with pain and any challenges that could occur during a race or training. These are all techniques I regularly use with people with chronic pain. Except that the challenges for people with chronic pain maybe bending down or walking for more than 100 metres.

Often, people with chronic pain can get into a negative cycle, of not doing things because of the pain, which then makes them feel down because they aren't doing the things that they enjoy, which in turn makes their pain worse. I regularly find that people tell themselves they can’t do something because of the pain, even though they haven’t tried that activity, or they begin to avoid certain activities for fear of injury. This isn’t always the case, as I’ve said in previous blogs, the brain and the nervous system are a more likely cause of pain than anything structural so most of the time people can do these activities, they just need educating properly and a bit of encouragement and mental preparation. These techniques can be very useful in challenging yourself and preparing yourself to do activities that you previously thought you couldn’t do.

If you are suffering from chronic pain, why not try making a list of every time you tell yourself ‘you can’t’ do something. Then change the list into a positive list. For instance if you tell yourself you can't bend down because it will hurt your back, when you go to bend down it will more than likely hurt, because you are telling your nervous system that this movement is dangerous and it will respond by being protective of you and cause some protective pain. So, rather than tell yourself ‘that you can’t bend down’, try telling yourself that ‘you can bend down, because it is a normal movement that your back is designed to do’ even if you have a prolapsed disc, which is a natural occurrence in a lot of people. Then repeat this phrase over and over again to help retrain the brain. This is what Chrissie does before a race, repeats positive sayings over and over to help prepare her for the challenges ahead. If you can do this and do one thing that you previously couldn’t do before, you know you can use your mind to help you overcome other challenges.These maybe pain related challenges or general life challenges.

One of the other techniques Chrissie used was visualisation. She uses this to help imagine what the worst case scenario could be in a race and then visualises herself in this scenario, so that she is prepared for it if it were to occur. She then visualises herself overcoming this challenge, so that if it did occur she would be confident enough that she could beat it whatever it was. This would help to reduce anxiety about whatever scenario it was, which can be a reason why people don’t attempt things because of fear of the consequences. If you find it difficult to visualise doing something difficult and overcoming it, it might be worth writing down the worst case scenario for that activity, once it’s written down you might find it’s not as bad as you thought it might be. This helps give you the confidence to give it a go.

So, if you have chronic pain and there are certain activities you think you might be able to do, but you’re unsure or anxious then try using these techniques to help you mentally prepare for them. They might not seem so daunting once you begin to think like an Ironman champion and as Chrissie also said ‘We are all a lot stronger than we think we are!’ 

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