• Mark Turnbull

How cyclists can increase pain tolerance

Suffering paves the path to victory in the sport of cycling. But everyone’s tolerance for pain is different. While physical fitness represents the ceiling of your physical limits, just how close you get to that limit is dictated by your mental fitness. The good news is that just like physical fitness, your mental fitness can also be trained. For those who aren’t blessed with freak genetics, but still want to beat that impossible opponent, here’s how to up your mental game and hence your pain tolerance for improved performance on the bike. And the turbo trainer is the perfect place to practice.


As cyclists, we all know the feeling that comes over us when the body says “enough”. Few of us assume that we have more to give when we’re overcome by extreme fatigue, painful legs and a negative mindset on a steep climb. But science has shown that perhaps we have a lot more left in the tank than we may think. It turns out that it’s the brain, rather than the capacity of our muscles that’s the primary limiter when it comes to effort.

During hard efforts, the brain limits performance in order to protect the body. This unconscious protective mechanism reduces output to the muscles and was named the central governor model by South African scientist Tim Noakes.

The theory states that the brain regulates exercise so that the intensity doesn’t threaten the body’s homeostasis and cause anoxic damage to the heart muscle. The perceived level of effort that we experience is actually just the brain trying to force us to slow down for our own good. After all, it hasn’t yet learned the difference between chasing a Strava KOM and chasing a wildebeest on the savannah!


Fatigue and perceived exertion are not the same. Perceived exertion at a fundamental level is a sensation just like thirst or hunger. If we stop riding, we soon feel better, but that doesn’t change our fatigued state.

The top cyclists in the world have learned that they have more to give even when levels of perceived exertion are high. With 5km to go on Alpe d’Huez, those in contention are ignoring the signs from the central governor. They’ve learned the technique necessary to survive and thrive in a world of pain again and again.


While genetics count for a lot in cycling, personality is what really counts. The underlying psychology of your past and present-day self will often define how “good” of a cyclist you are. Many top athletes had tougher than normal childhoods that helped prepare them with the mental toughness to thrive in tough endurance sports like cycling.

When it comes to suffering on a bike, the secret lies in the conscious reframing of the experience. By training yourself to replace negative thoughts around your current predicament with positive ones, then you can expect marked improvements in your pain tolerance.

Studies have shown a 20% increase in the ability of untrained athletes to withstand suffering via positive self-talk. But when it comes to self-talk, everyone is different. What works for one, may not work for another. The secret is to realise you’re having a negative thought and replace it with something positive that works for you.

Sean Kelly once commented that while riding at his limit in a race, he would convince himself that everyone was suffering at least as much as he was. Others have more bizarre rituals. Australian time trialist Felicity Wardlaw claimed to imagine she was a panther. She would see herself through the eyes of this panther imagining herself to be fast, relaxed, smooth, powerful and lean. Experiment with your own techniques the next time you’re doing some hard turbo intervals so you know the right technique to use when you’re actually racing.


While it works for many, visualisation usually backfires because it’s done incorrectly. The secret to visualisation lies in being realistic. You must visualise the imperfect race.

Those who visualise the perfect race often find themselves wallowing if things go off-script. By visualising attacking off the front with 5km to go and holding off for victory, you likely won’t cope well if you get into trouble on the first climb of the race. Such a visualisation has set you up for failure.

To visualise effectively, you must visualise the event to be as hard as you can possibly imagine. By imagining the worst-case scenario, you give yourself the best chance of staying positive no matter what plays out in the race.


Behavioural synchrony and competition are great for increasing pain tolerance in cycling. Behavioural synchrony is the ability for group members to coordinate. When one cyclist pushes the pace, others quickly adapt and push through the pain barrier. Within a group, you’re much more likely to exert yourself, as there’s something very motivating about the consequences of getting dropped. That’s one of the reasons that Zwift is so beneficial.

While cyclists generally tend to lose speed in their legs in their early 30’s, there is no such limit attached to how you age psychologically. It all comes down to practice and healthy habits. Visualising and reframing negative thoughts to positive ones in your everyday life off the bike will no doubt lead to health improvements and inner wellbeing — and that’s another performance enhancer in and of itself!

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