How to Overcome Pain in Triathlon

Pain is a wholly necessary component to success in anything. You don’t get good at your job without some struggle or challenge. In triathlon, pain is the primary currency for improvement. It may seem scary at first, but there are ways to overcome pain that perhaps you haven’t considered before. Here are a few mental exercises that, if incorporated consistently in your daily routine, can help you rethink how to handle pain.


Prioritize Goals more than your Feelings

Being driven is often lauded as a positive attribute to have. As triathletes, our non-athlete friends have probably asked us how we can put ourselves through so much suffering. We must be driven, they say.

Before feeling warm and fuzzy about yourself, I would disagree with this sentiment. Triathletes are more obsessive than driven.

However, we can use this obsession as a weapon against pain. In order to live a somewhat normal life, I recommend separating mental time outside of triathlon from the mental time within triathlon as much as possible. This means not dwelling on your training until you’re actually doing it. Mentally prepare, sure, but only in moderation. Know what to expect because you’ve been there before, not because your failing to knock this next workout out of the park will mean the end of your life.

Now when you are in the thick of your workout, on the other hand, use the obsession you had been avoiding all day to your advantage. Numbers, numbers, numbers. Triathletes are obsessed with numbers and this can be a great asset when overcoming pain in your training. What do I mean by this?

If you’re training smart, for example if you have a TriDot plan, then you’ll have target pace and heart rate and power goals intelligently prescribed for each strenuous workout. These targets will be painful, but they’ll also be realistic. When training, make these target numbers everything. It should be the only thing that matters in your world right now. If you take that approach, pain becomes less about something that’s hurting and more about an obstacle in your way.

Say you’re doing 30” bike intervals at Z5 with a target power of 300 watts. It’s starting to hurt and you’re dipping into the 280W range. If you’re obsessed with the numbers, if hitting your target is more important than how you feel, then pushing through the pain to hit 300 becomes something more attainable. Remember, with a smart plan like what you would have with TriDot, you CAN hit that number – whatever it may be for you. When you’re confident that your target is what’s going to make you better and you wholeheartedly believe it’s not something out of reach, you will push to hit it.


Segment your Time

Have you ever noticed that on the last interval of a workout some triathletes will generate their fastest time yet to finish off the day? Have you ever watched the finish of a triathlon and noticed some people are literally sprinting across the line when they could barely run at the turnaround point? What’s going on here?

The reason should be obvious. When we know the pain is about to be over, we’re willing to endure more of it in a short period of time with the expectation of relief immediately following. So how do we leverage this phenomenon more efficiently so that it actually makes a difference in our triathlon training?

The trick is mentally segmenting everything. What do I mean this time? Let’s say you’re doing 1k repeats on the track. Instead of facing a daunting distance at a gut-wrenching target zone, think of them more as two 500m intervals. Or maybe even two 400m intervals followed by a finishing 200m.

Here’s what that doesn’t mean. Segmenting your training and racing does not mean forget about pacing. It also doesn’t mean you should be repeatedly “kicking” and relaxing at the end of each segment.

Intelligently segmenting your triathlon is almost purely a mental exercise. And it’s not easy. It takes experience and trust in your own training and knowledge of your own physicality. What turning those 1k repeats into two 500m intervals really means is that you’re breaking up your target into smaller chunks. So if your 1k target is 4 minutes, then only focus on hitting 2 minutes for the first 500. Once you’re there, start the segmented interval over mentally.

This way you’re only focusing on one 2-minute interval at a time. That’s a lot easier to handle mentally when the pain is setting in. It’s also a great tool for pacing.

Sometimes it’s even best to make each micro-segment the priority. The 1k repeats are hurting, yes. So make the first 500 at 2 minutes priority one. Allow yourself to think the second micro-segment isn’t as important. Once you’ve hit that halfway mark, you might be surprised with what you’re capable of.

Contrast this point of view with the traditional approach of only focusing on the entire 1k as a whole. If you’re hurting, most likely you’ll slack that first 500m and come across at 2:05 or 2:10. At this point, hitting the target of 4 minutes will be too daunting. When you’re suffering, it’s much easier to stay consistent rather than try and fail to negative split.

In the end, triathlon training isn’t necessarily about being tough. It’s about being smart. Smart training is how you endure the most pain and, by extension, how you generate the most dividends in fitness.


Triathletes can work to overcome pain by practicing a few mental tricks. By obsessing over your training target goals and mentally segmenting workouts and races into micro-segments you’ll find yourself pushing past a threshold you never thought you could handle.


Do these methods make sense to you? How do you overcome pain in your triathlon training?

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