What to focus on when your brain senses pain

By Ross Hartley | Nov. 04, 2019, 10 a.m. (ET)

athlete sitting on mat and writing goals in notebook

During both training and races, there comes a point in time when it “gets real.” It usually happens when your mind begins to sense physical pain from the completed exercise. As your mind begins to sense this pain, it brings your attention to it and eventually zeros in on the sensation. The feeling of discomfort consumes your conscious and you do not see a way out of it other than giving in and slowing down. 

The majority of the time, the brain gets in the way of the body. Quite simply, your brain gives in before your body does. So, knowing that the focus of your brain can be the limiting factor, what can athletes do to refocus their attention?

Two things to focus on:

1. Your Goals. 

Beginning with the end in mind, what do you want — To become? To do? Your future first begins as a narrative that your brain tells you. You must know what you want to accomplish and WHY this is important to you. Clarity is key, the more clarity you have with your desired outcome and why this is meaningful to you, the more likely you are to succeed in reaching that state. The journey to being better than yesterday requires you to know and continually revisit your “why”. It will be the fuel for you to execute the actions that your dream state demands. Your focus in the moment is connected to your end vision — the clearer your vision for the future, the easier it is to focus on what is currently required of you.

Scientific-backed research on the idea: The more motivated you are, the more you are willing to endure. (Motivation and Pain Tolerance: Psychobiological Model)

2. Your Form and Breathing. 
Make sure that your movements and breathing are both effective and efficient.

By bringing your attention to your Form/Breathing 2 things happen:
a. Your mind turns its focus on the actions you are completing and not the pain.
b. You end up maintaining your speed or even going faster because you have made your movements and breathing more efficient and effective.

Having and using a mantra that can take your mind off of the ever-growing discomfort and redirect it to a specific executable action is key. The best mantras are short, simple and repeatable phrases. As with anything, the more your practice them in training, the more effective they will be on race day.

A great example is F.A.S.T.

From Brother Colm O’Connell, also known as the Grandfather of Kenyan Running, who has coached more than 25 Olympic and World Individual Champions, F.A.S.T. stands for:

Focus, Alignment, Stability and Timing.

This acronym is used to emphasize the basic principles of natural and good form running to ensure the most efficient running style is achieved. Although intended for runners, I believe that this applies to all legs of a triathlon — swim, bike, and run.

Focus: Focusing on you focus — taking a step back and not focusing on the pain but on your form and your goals. 

Alignment: Depending on the movement being completed, alignment meaning “arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative positions.”

Stability: Engaging the core and not wasting energy. Making sure that your movements are both effective and efficient.

Timing: Stroke Rate, Cadence, Turnover. 

Some other examples include:

Smooth and Strong
Run Tall
Eyes Up
Quick/Quiet Feet
Head to Heel, Strong as Steel
No Fear-No Doubt

The key to not giving in when it “gets real” is to refocus your attention to what you are doing at that moment in time. Legendary Ironman Dave Scott used the mantra, "Do what you can do in that moment." 

Life is made up of moment after moment. Success is made up of winning more moments than you lose. To win the moment, you have to be in the moment giving effort.


Ross Hartley is USA Triathlon Certified Coach and served as the age group Team USA coach for the ITU 2020 World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.