In Jens’ Words – Pain Explained

Erik just sent me this link from bicycling.com and it was just so concise and perfect that I had to share. We’ve talked a lot about ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ on this blog, but nobody says it like Jens, I think. I guess he just knows it better than most.

(http://bicycling.com/blogs/hardlyserious/2013/07/30/my-favorite-enemy/)

By Jens Voigt

It is not a big secret that I have an interesting relationship with pain. Pain is good! Most people who follow the sport know that I think this. But the big question is why.

First of all, I like the feeling because it proves you are still alive—because you are aware of something, even if it’s a sensation most people consider bad. After my awful downhill crash in the 2009 Tour de France, at a really high speed, doctors had to stitch me back together. When I woke up afterward, the first thing I did was to actually check all my body parts to make sure they were still there and functioning. I started out with my fingers, seeing if I could move them. And I was honestly happy that my fingers shouted at me when I wiggled them. That meant I was still able to feel them and ­control them. Then I checked my legs. Again, I was happy to hurt when I tried to move them. My whole entire body communicated distress, but this showed me that everything was going to work once it all healed. I felt bad everywhere, but I knew this meant I would become healthy again.

During my recovery from that crash, pain proved very handy—it forced me to take it easy on my workouts. I was so eager to return to the sport that sometimes I would start pushing too hard in my exercise regime. When I did, my body would scream its resistance so much that I had no choice but to back off.

Later, when I had regained enough strength to get back to training on my road bike, trying to catch up to my colleagues and feel like my old and normal self again, the pain was a useful reminder that I was still far from my average condition. My first ride was about two hours, and my wattage was ridiculously low—but the amount of pain was just as high as it had ever been on a normal ride. This showed me that however slow and short the ride was, it was my limit for the moment. Pain told me that I had to be patient in my progress.

The discomfort I felt on that ride stayed the same for weeks, but my speed, power output, and heart rate all improved. One day I realized, “Okay, the pain is still here, but I did five hours with 220 watts average, and a 33km-per-hour average speed and 130 heart rate. That’s a normal day!” So in this case, the pain was like a coach who focused me on my progress in conditioning.

Pain comes in handy not only during bad times, but it is also there when you are trying to improve under normal circumstances. The process of getting the most from your body is a complex undertaking that involves training, nutrition, science, experience, motivation, weather, and a lot of other factors. But the most primitive way of describing how to develop is to tell people, “The more pain you put yourself through in training and racing, the better you get.”

Pain should be one of your most common partners in training. It’s maybe not with you on an easy Monday-morning ride when you are recovering from a race, but in general, if you are not riding with your old friend pain, you are not training. You are going too easy! I like to constantly talk back to the pain when it is shouting at me to slow down. For me, it is always really rewarding when I finish a ride knowing that I ignored all that yelling the pain was doing. There can be a fine line between not giving in to pain and listening when your body actually does need a break. You need some good experience and knowledge about the way your body functions on a ride, but I would say in general more people quit too soon than push too hard.

And, of course, the more pain that comes your way when you race, the ­better you are doing. Whoever has the highest pain threshold is a winner, or is at least guaranteed to have a good race, to play an ­important part. I think often about what Eddy Merckx once said: When a race feels easy everyone can attack, but when you’re in awful pain that’s the moment an attack really matters, because all the others are hurting as much as you. Those are the moments that decide races, Eddy believed—and who am I to not respect the opinion of the greatest cyclist of all time.

There have been many moments in ­races when I have said to myself, “Okay Jensie, you are a good rider and if this hurts you this much then everybody else around you must be close to quitting, too.” That’s when I just refuse to give in, to let myself get intimidated by how much pain the race is raining down on us.

I would not exactly call pain a friend. But it is a constant companion in my life. Sometimes I say that pain is my favorite enemy. We have this love-hate relationship. We keep watching each other and waiting for the other one to show some weakness, to give in. Every morning when I jump on my bike, it takes only seconds for me to think, “Ah—there you are my old enemy, let’s get it on for one more day!” The pain and me, nothing can keep us apart. It keeps me going. It keeps me young

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8 thoughts on “In Jens’ Words – Pain Explained

  1. I saw an interview with him during the Tour and he came across as charmingly intelligent, not the adjectives that you necessarily always apply to top sportsmen. He turns out to be a lucid and articulate writer too. Thank you for sharing this.

    I agree with him up to a point. Pain is a helpful indicator and I can’t see how people regularly take pain killers and hope to deal with what is causing the pain satisfactorily but in my case pain is the enemy and is certainly not keeping me young.

    • Right, I doubt he’s talking about, for example, the pain you feel when you go through chemotherapy. From my knee I can related on a small scale as to what chronic pain must feel like. I hope I don’t learn more about it as the years go by.

  2. Thanks Gerry. Great article. My friends suggest that a Catholic upbringing is a great intro to pain and suffering…

  3. hey Gerry ,what do you reckon chances are that old Jens rode a 15 year career through all that Pain with no pharma assistance? 98-04 with Gan 04 -2010 with Frankenstein himself (Riis) at CSC.
    Coincidentally that’s the same team he rode on with Stuey o Grady the latest career doper to be forced into retirement/admission.But not before Old Jens intervention with the French Government
    to prevent the publication of the names on behalf of the “riders” while this years Tour was in full swing

    “Shut up legs” me old media darling!!

    • Maybe his next article will be titled “My Favorite Steroid”. There’s no chance he was clean. It’ll all come out, probably when he retires after next year’s Tour de France (but not during it).

  4. Thanks for posting this Gerry. What a great article, written by a guy that’s so well respected in the pro peloton. I can certainly relate to the love hate relationship this sport has with pain. As Jens says, pain is the body’s way of telling you that you’re alive and in some cases, maybe too alive. I suspect in 17 days, you and I and the rest of the participants in this year’s Haute Route are going to feel more alive than at any other point in our lives. I can hardly wait.

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