"Why?" is a common question triathletes get from non-triathletes about their sport. From an outsider's perspective, the challenges of training and racing appear to be rooted in misery and hurt. They think we must be crazy to do what we do.
Interestingly, it turns out that the reason non-triathletes fail to understand our motivations may be rooted in the fact that triathletes experience pain and discomfort differently. Indeed, recent research suggests that triathletes have a higher pain threshold than the Average Joe.
In the study, published in the Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain, researchers recruited a group of triathletes and a group of non-athletes. Upon putting them through a battery of tests to measure things like pain tolerance, pain threshold and fear of pain, they found that the triathletes reported pain as less intense. They were also able to tolerate it for a longer period of time than their non-athlete counterparts.
Based on this study, we are left to wonder whether those who become triathletes are inherently more tolerant when it comes to pain or if it is the sport itself that bolsters pain threshold.
Another recent study out of Australia offers some insight. In testing a group of participants' pain tolerance before and after a six-week long aerobic training regimen, researchers found that those who took part in the exercise protocol showed significant increases in pain tolerance at the end of the month-and-a-half long study. This suggests that even relatively small amounts of exercise can bump up our threshold for pain.
Mike Jotautas, a triathlon coach in Louisville, Kentucky, regularly sees this phenomenon play out with the athletes he coaches. "I really think pain tolerance is something that is developed through training," he says. "Being an age group coach, you watch people who come from very little athletic experience and they go through this progression of experiencing pain and breaking through and learning their limits."
Indeed, whether you're a newbie or a pro, you must learn to embrace pain in order to participate in triathlon at any level. Even on the days when the weather is ideal, your equipment functions perfectly, and you're in top shape, the sport involves a certain amount of discomfort that must be endured over the long haul. If you wanted to avoid those types of experiences, you'd choose another hobby.