What is “Suffering Management”© and what does the term truly entail Part 1? By Influencer Todd Parker, M.A., M.S.
December 22, 2016
Some years ago as I was racing, on competitive group rides, or performing my Advanced Performance Cycling (APC©) Classes, I realized that the one common thread was suffering, so I coined the term Suffering Management©. After all, as professional or competitive amateur cyclists, duathletes, runners, or triathletes, learning to suffer and physically & mentally manage it is critical to optimal performance. Therefore, we have to break down the components of suffering, train our bodies to suffer at higher intensity levels and for longer periods, as well as train our minds to be adept at learning to “embrace”, accept, manage, and persevere through these brutally intense periods. So first off, we need to find our current training zones. Many in the industry use 4 or 5 Zones, while I use a proprietary 8 Zones. Regardless, we’re really referring to an intensity range between lactate threshold (LT) and maximal oxygen uptake capability/rate or (VO2max). Before we get into the training and competing within this range, let me define the ends of this range of intensity. LT is sometimes referred as ventilatory threshold due to the association of the breakpoint in ventilation and the accumulation and timely removal of blood lactate. It is a misnomer that it’s lactic acid accumulation that’s not being cleared to sustain energy production, but rather, LT is the exercise intensity at which the lactate molecule, accumulates in the blood – hence the term Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation (OBLA) – referring to lactate and not lactic acid. Lactate threshold therefore, is an intensity level at which your body can no longer effectively clear the lactate as quickly as it accumulates. In layman’s terms, LT is the most common intensity to work at improving. With a Perceived Exertion (PE) of ~8 out of 10, this workload is often sought to sustain during races lasting approximately 15-90 minutes. Breathing is very labored at threshold, so conversation is limited, and muscular strain and fatigue is very prevalent. For most, this is not typically an intensity level that one can sustain for 30-60 minute bouts (until training facilitates this ability), nor is it so intense that you can only sustain it for 30-60 seconds. Now, VO2max is another couple of levels closer to your maximum effort; which at that “terminal level”, it’s an intensity that typically most cannot sustain for more than 3-5 seconds. So think of your VO2max as an intensity level that has a PE of ~9, breathing is extremely labored and muscular strain is so prominent that you rather quickly accumulate excess blood lactate, and start to lose control of your breathing. This intensity level is normally not sustainable for more than 1-3 minutes (for most individuals). Additionally, it is about 90+% of max HR, ~106-120% of LT Power, and is the most prominent determinant of one’s CV fitness level. Remember, this is the maximum sustainable effort, and not absolute maximum. Performing intervals, surges, or short climbs at this intensity will improve CV and muscular power at LT and higher. Again, breathing becomes extremely labored at VO2max; to a point where it is hard to maintain consistent control of, and for many, one word responses are all that’s possible. In other words, if asked “how are you doing?”, a response of “Okay” is about it. Now that we’ve defined our “suffering management range of intensity”, we’ll now delve into training for racing at this range throughout different phases of a complete year or season. For many endurance athletes, their racing season can typically last up to 10 months or more – if not all year, with some still including training races when it’s considered “off-season” for most. That said, a majority will back it down, or reduce the overall training volume and intensity for ~1-3 months in Winter. This is the period that we’ll cover in Part 1 of this article series on suffering management. Factors that often contribute to the off-season length are: competitive level, number of races required or desired, previous best and worst race performances, length and severity of Winter months, level of recovery needed coming off of a racing season that was either long and intense – to a season that was very limited, short, and/or easy…etc. For the majority of us, following 1-3 weeks of “being off” to adequately recover physically and mentally, we’ll then resume with sport-specific-training at lower intensity levels within the low-mid aerobic range to maintain this system as well as the sport-specific musculature. Also during this period, it is very common to incorporate cross-training or other sports or activities. This allows for a “mental break” from the norm of our sport specificity, as well as maintaining our cardiovascular fitness, and even more importantly, strengthening other or some opposing muscles that aren’t targeted highly in our sport or multi-sport. Some examples of cross-training are cross-country skiing, adding or increased sessions of yoga or Pilates, hiking, mountaineering, wall climbing, or swimming, cycling, or running for those of other sports. Triathletes may focus on some mentioned earlier, as well as on their weaker sports. For instance, many triathletes don’t come from a swimming background, thus more volume and technique work on swimming takes priority. For all endurance athletes, becoming stronger is always a goal; therefore, sport-specific-strength-training or SSST is commonly prescribed by coaches and trainers. With total-body strength work that maintains the athlete’s strengths and significantly improves on weaknesses, athletes can expect improved sport-specific performance, as well as a lowered injury risk during early season competition. Part of “suffering” through long winters (for many) is indoor work on the stationary trainer or treadmill, especially when sessions and intervals within the aerobic range become longer and longer. Below are many things to combat indoor session boredom, monotony, as well as boost mental strength from and embracement towards indoor training. First of all, some intensity is good, and depending on your overall health, fitness level, years of training and racing experience, and time period, inserting some high intensity intervals will compliment your training – especially if your volume is significantly less. For instance, going from a carefully managed 6-7 training days a week, and for some 2-a-days or even 3-a-days, a 4/week program will be significantly more effective if a couple of those days include some more intensity – rather than 4/week with only low intensity aerobic sessions. By doing so, your cardiovascular, muscular, and mental fitness will remain higher without the worry of overtraining or peaking too soon. If performing longer intervals at let’s say Sub-Lactate Threshold (Sub-LT) or a PE of ~6-7, vary the cadence and intensity within the zone. For example, if performing a 15min Sub-LT interval on the bike, perform 5min at 95rpm, 5min at 100, and 5min at 105. You can either perform each 5min at various cadences at the relatively same intensity (or power output, HR…), or if you Sub-LT Zone spans 60-70 watts, then pick a different intensity and cadence for each 5min segment. Further, you may change your positioning from the drops, to the hoods, to an aero position, or simply make it a climbing interval and alternate in and out of the saddle. For running, change the stride-rate, pace, and gradient to mix things up. In the water, swim some regular freestyle, followed by other segments with a pull buoy, fins, hand paddles, kicking, or any combination thereof. Think outside the box – as your options are really infinite. It’s just that some athletes and coaches approach to this training period with a very narrow view, and that success can only be achieved with “vanilla” and at a low intensity for weeks or months on end. With decades of experience and research here, I can assure you that mindset is decades outdated. It may work for some; however, with everything being equal, the program with various methods, modalities, and intensity levels will result in more optimal performance potentials and performances. Therefore, you don’t have to dread the next workout or week with the thought of “ugghh, time for another series of 15min intervals at the same old intensity!” Your mental attitude, sport-specific musculature, and cardiovascular systems will all “have a memory of – been there, done that”, and not progressively gain strength. Therefore, to gain strength both physically and mentally, you need to learn to manage yourself at various levels and time periods of suffering. To do so, start by breaking up the long steady-state efforts or the intense intervals into smaller chunks of time or distance. As you increase the length and intensity of specific intervals, you’ll get cardiovascularly and muscularly stronger as the weeks go by; thereby being able to sustain specific intensity levels for longer periods of time, thus making these periods of suffering easier for you to manage. It’s that simple; however it must be orchestrated or controlled carefully and systematically. This is where a good coach is worth their weight in gold, because they’ll orchestrate the sessions, weeks, and months for you. This alleviates excess stress on you by trying to put it all together yourself. Furthermore, the mutual communications and feedback will raise flags when you’ll need to back it down, or, pick up on indicators of when to ramp up an area of volume and/or intensity in your program – things an educated and experienced coach will know, whereas you will not. Bottom line, you need to learn to suffer, embrace it for what it is, and manage it. Like Billy Joel states in his song Pressure – “you’ll have to deal with pressure”, because sooner or later you will, and as long as you’re competing in endurance sports, it’ll be there, whether internally or externally imposed! Moving on, some novice cyclists have either a fear or lack talent at drinking while riding – especially in large tight groups, so while you’re knocking out indoor intervals, practice retrieving the bottle, drinking, and putting the bottle back without looking, and while at every intensity level. For triathletes not good at sighting or breathing, alternate laps or interval segments sighting every 5th or 10th… stroke, or practicing different breathing intervals or sides. These aspects get magnified and change in open water, so practicing in open water at your earliest opportunity is highly recommended. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better and more relaxed you’ll become. Some runners and triathletes don’t have drinking while running through aid stations without stopping “dialed-in”. So why can’t you practice that during a weekly track workout? There’s no reason why you can’t, you just have to plan and prepare for it. Another huge key during this off-season period – if you haven’t already, is to “learn your body”. What I mean by this is that you should know full well what your HR range, power output range, or pacing range is for every intensity level (i.e. Sub-LT, LT, VO2max …). What your muscles feel like, what cadence, stride-rate, or stroke-rate is optimal at each, the labor and control level of your breathing, to how long you can sustain an effort at the current time, as well as, what’s typical for you during different periods of the year. Furthermore, practice tensing up your facial muscles, jaw, and joints like your shoulders and elbows so that you know what it feels and looks like when you’re tense versus when relaxed and fluid “in perfect form and technique”. Also know how you feel and perform when you notice yourself breathing very shallow versus when it’s deep diaphragmatic breathing. Practice this both physically during training and mentally during your relaxation breathing, visualization, and imagery training. If you don’t know these bodily responses, then the off-season is the perfect time to learn them all, or get them “dialed-in” as we say, rather than during your first A Race of the season. Another aspect for indoor training that should be altered and tailored is the tempo of songs within a given workout playlist. Most love to train with music, research had shown that it alters and boosts both physical and mental performance, and I can tell you that I’ve created several hundreds of playlists for every type and intensity of interval sets within an entire workout. If you don’t like music, then try a race like a stage or more of the Tour de France, Ironman or Olympic Triathlons, or perhaps the NYC Marathon, and replicate some of the intensity as if you’re in the race. The key here is to stay within your training session plans and goals, and not over-extend or continually over-reach, and recover at intervals and adequately enough between segments and workouts. With everything I’ve mentioned above, this should not only improve you physically, but also in mentally embracing each and every training session, week, month…etc. And you’ll also soon notice how fast your workouts seem to go by and that they’re no longer mundane because they’re not the same redundant workout, goal, or stimulation week after week. When you complete your off-season training and move on to pre-season, early season, and mid-late season, you should thoroughly know yourself, your bodily or bio-feedback to every intensity level, and be both physically and mentally stronger and prepared for the increased volume and intensity of the periods to come. We will save those other season periods for another article; however, just remember that you can apply all of the aspects and principles to each, and in theory, the only changes are the amount of training volume and intensity overall. So now you’re all excited to go forth and suffer in your coming workouts! By learning suffering management, it’ll result in you becoming a physically and mentally stronger and more in-tuned athlete, and able to relax, embrace, and manage every level of suffering race situation you’re confronted with. Best of Luck! Coach Parker
Todd Parker is a World-Renowned Cycling & Triathlon Coach, Influencer within the Sports & Fitness Industries, and Corporate Wellness Consultant – consulted by Coaches, Athletes, Corporations, Governing Bodies, and Sports Supplement, Gear, and Apparel Companies Worldwide. Todd’s a former Professional Triathlete, Elite Cyclist, Personal Trainer, Strength Coach, Public Speaker, Guest Lecturer, and Professor. Besides his expertise in consulting in Training and Coaching, Todd is also a Corporate/Government Security Consultant. You can reach Todd at: TP2Coaching@gmail.com , by appointment only, or at his secure site https://toddparkertrainingprograms.com/
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