How Can Athletes Drown Out Pain & Fatigue?

The human body can push further than many athletes realize. Often, the mind gives up before the body shuts down. Some athletes sell themselves short. 

My Inner Battle

Running cross country was always a mental battle for me. In a race, I was torn between pacing myself and pushing my body to its limits.

Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t go on. My lungs hurt. I got side cramps. My legs burned. At times I wanted to give up (or at least slow down).

I didn’t know whether to pull back and ease up or push harder.

Barriers To Maxing Out Performance

There are common barriers many athletes face which can influence them to ease up on the throttle.

  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Lack of Motivation
  • Underdeveloped Mental Toughness

For the most part, each of these become barriers based on how an athlete interprets the specific situation. These are mental barriers that athletes can learn to overcome using a technique called intensification.

Before I explain the technique there are two things you need to know.

1. Thoughts Drive Performance. An athlete’s thoughts result in emotional and physiological changes that either enhance or detract from performance.

2. Attention is Limited. As human beings we have a limited capacity to pay attention. We can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

Athletes can leverage these two truths to overcome performance barriers.

What is Intensification?

The technique of intensification is using self-talk (what an athlete says to him or herself) to drown out the sensations of pain or fatigue. This works because of our limited attentional capacity.

How Athletes Can Use Intensification

During a cross-country race, this technique would have been hugely helpful for me. Let me give you an example.

Typically, I continuously talked to myself throughout a race. Some of my thoughts were productive. Some were counterproductive. When I felt pain I told myself to keep pushing. The problem was that I kept focusing on the pain. It consumed my attention, but it didn’t have to.

If I had used intensification I could have drowned out the pain my brain was experiencing. I could have increased the volume, frequency, and intensity of my productive thoughts. “Keep going, keep pushing! Beat that guy! Breathe. Just stay calm and keep pushing yourself to the finish line!”

That’s intensification.

Disclaimer: Physiological Factors To Consider

It’s important to remember that there are also physiological factors which impact the body’s ability to push through.

  • Nutrition
  • Hydration
  • Physical Strength & Stamina
  • Sleep

Each of these can pose legitimate physiological restrictions on the body’s ability to perform. We can push our bodies to do more than we previously thought possible. However, we must also learn the difference between growing pains and the potential for injuries.

Teach Athletes How To Drown Out Pain & Fatigue

Teach this skill to your athletes. Encourage them to use the technique in practice and drills. Like any other technique, they’ll get better at it over time. They will learn to dominate the barriers of high intensity performance. They’ll learn to push their bodies and give it everything they’ve got.


Question: How can intensification help you and your athletes? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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