The Game Face (Embracing the Suck)

229916_3524246380262_1976393260_nGrimacing and embracing the suck

Watching elite athletes, or even just the highly competitive, we often see them start to grimace towards the end of a race, their faces showing a look of complete agony and discomfort as they push their body’s upper limits in order for that moment of glory at the finish line. I like to call this the game face for endurance athletes. Its different from the game face of many other sports, where there is a look of concentration and calmness. This is a look of pain, but a good pain. A pain that shows just how hard the body is working. Intimidating in a different kind of way.

Several months ago, I was talking to a fellow triathlon coach about motivation and psychology for endurance athletes, and he used a phrase that really stuck with me. He told me the way to really reach an athlete and push their limits is to get them to “embrace the suck.” Embrace the suck. That seems to be the psychological key to reaching potential, making friends with the feeling that seems to come with pushing hard.

Basic principals of physiology tell us that in order to make improvements, whether in strength, aerobic capacity, etc., we need to follow the overload theory, pushing just past the limits in order to raise that limit. This is uncomfortable, and its supposed to be uncomfortable. But this is how we improve, push hard, exceed your limits, recover, and do it again next time. Eventually, the feeling of complete agony starts to become familiar. It starts to become routine in training, and we almost look forward to it, however morbid that sounds. The pain of pushing becomes a good pain, it means we are putting the hard work in and preparing our bodies to compete on race day. When we show up to compete, we all want to do the best we can, regardless of whether that means winning the race, or just making it to the finish line. Each time we toe the start line, we are getting ready to push, and push hard.

Maybe endurance athletes enjoy pain, maybe we’re all insane, but whatever the reason, we embrace the suck. It makes us better. It wins races. It gives us a sense of accomplishment. We love it, and as we willingly put ourselves through hell every hard workout and every race, that grimacing game face we all show always has a spark of enjoyment in it. Don’t shy away from the sufferfests, its a good way to make yourself faster!