Toolbox: Why Suffer?
Most of us ride our bikes for fun, not a pay cheque, so why do we do it? Why is the fascination with pain and suffering so deeply ingrained into our enjoyment of cycling?
I have not undertaken any meaningful training for a while. I’ve done a few rides, mainly low-intensity and not very far. This year has been characterised by a lot of international travel; 65 flights and many hours of sitting down; sitting on planes; sitting in cars; sitting in meetings. However, after a few days at home, motivated by a mixture of concern for my eroding aerobic capacity and morbid fascination, I decided to do an interval training session.
Revisiting the Pain Cave
My chosen terrain is a short climb, not far from my home in the French Alps. It features a consistent incline of about 5-6% with few junctions and little traffic. I warm up and pedal gently towards the crack in the road which has marked the start line for countless efforts in previous years. I hit “lap” on my computer, stand out of the saddle, reach my target power and try to hang-on. The first interval feels surprisingly easy. The second starts to burn. By the third interval I’m back in the familiar pain-cave: mouth open, bloody-taste in my throat, lungs stretched wider than they have been for months.
The result? 6 x 3 minutes and not a lot of power, relative to how much it hurt. So why did I put myself through this suffering? For my health? Partly. For competitive reasons? Certainly not. But as I cycled home I was filled with satisfaction, and felt I had truly ‘got away from my work’, in a sense that I hadn’t found during my less painful, lower-intensity rides.
Suffering is big business in the endurance sport world. The internet is awash with social-media posts of pained, sweaty faces at the end of indoor workouts. Clothing brands romanticize the hollow eyes of the ultra-endurance cyclist in grainy black and white images. Entire training series are themed around suffering. Business models are built on providing cyclists with more ways to discover the agony of exhaustion on the most challenging routes on the planet.
For many cyclists, the pursuit of pain is a way of life. We know there are few sensation better than returning home after a brutal training session or race, with burning legs and a clear head. However, this phenomenon has piqued the interest of researchers in the world of ‘consumer behaviour’. In an economy where, for the most part, convenience and ease are king and queen, what is spurring increasing numbers of people to part with thousands of dollars in exchange for inevitably painful experiences. Why do countless men and women spend their working weeks dreaming of pulling on their lycra and pounding the pedals on the weekend?
In February 2017, the Journal of Consumer Research published a paper which was produced from a partnership between Cardiff University, Kedge Business School and Nanyang Technological University.
“How can we comprehend people who pay for an experience marketed as painful?” the authors enquire.
They conclude that “through sensory intensification, pain brings the body into sharp focus, allowing individuals to rediscover their corporeality.”
Corporeality: the nature of the physical body. The paper suggests that our sedentary lives have detached us from our physical selves. I’m inclined to agree. I have a smart watch that vibrates when I’ve been sitting for too long. What kind of world do we live in, where we need electronic devices to remind us to move?
Suffering as Regeneration?
In studying the peoples and culture who participate in extremely painful leisure pursuits, the authors conclude that, far from breaking us down, these experiences are regenerative. They are an opportunity to escape. We use the pain, and perhaps even the injuries after the event to create a new story about our ‘fulfilled life’.
Does it sound familiar? What do you sell to the knowledge-worker who has everything, but spends their day in the virtual world of information flows and remote connection? The bike offers the opportunity to feel something real – pain.
So next time you’re struggling with motivation for your interval session, take a moment to remind yourself why you do this, and look forward to the smug satisfaction when you’re sitting on the sofa at the end of it.
Scott, R., Cayla, J. & Cova, B. (2017) Selling Pain to the Saturated Self. Journal of Consumer Research. 44 (1) p.22–43
James Hewitt is Sports Scientist and Performance Coach with HINTSA Performance based in Geneva, Switzerland. In a previous life he was an Elite racer but now focusses on avoiding caffeine overdose and helping other people achieve their goals. You can contact James through twitter @jamesphewitt and find out more at his website www.jameshewitt.net