I’m sure we have all had an experience similar to this…
You’re one week out from your key event. You signed up several months ago, you’ve trained hard, you’ve watched your diet, you’ve prepared well – you’re ready for this! During the taper week, you head out training. Halfway through, something feels funny in your knee. You try to ignore it, but as you continue you’re sure it’s getting worse and worse. You cut your session short and head home. It’s definitely not right, maybe it’s even swollen… What a disaster – so close to the event!! Why does this have to happen now?!
It’s an all too familiar story, and working with cycling teams, I have seen my fair share of this. Not at all uncommon that suddenly, the day before the hilltop finish, your climber mysteriously develops a nasty pain in the knee. Or in the final stage of a tour the GC rider comes down with a strange, undefinable illness threatening his chance of success. These pre-race injuries and fears are often remedied with reassurance, and simple treatment. They are also often forgotten after the event. Or so I thought…
I was recently lucky enough to be invited to race the Mersey Valley Tour in Tasmania with the Specialized Women’s Racing Team. Naturally I was pretty nervous having never raced an NRS event before, but I had been training well and was very keen to race, and so alongside these nerves was a healthy dose of excitement.
About a week out I headed out for my final set of efforts. Halfway through the first set, something didn’t feel right. I checked the bike computer and my heart rate was MASSIVELY low. Starting to questions things slightly, I headed back down the hill to repeat the effort. Even worse the second time; I could not get the heart rate up, my legs felt dead, I felt sluggish and tired. This didn’t make sense, I was pretty fresh and felt like my form was okay. Feeling a little guilty, I decided to can the last set of efforts and on the way home I started to do the most dangerous thing you can do in this situation: I started thinking. Recalling the last couple of days I thought to myself, maybe I have had a bit of a dry throat the last couple of mornings, actually, when I considered it properly my throat wasn’t just dry, it was sore. The more I thought about it, the more I was sure. I swallowed to check, hmm, that did feel a bit strange. I swallowed a second time to reaffirm, yes, definitely feels uncomfortable. A final confirmation swallow, and all of a sudden a horrifying, dark realisation came upon me: I was SICK! This was totally unfair, I hardly ever get sick and what completely horrible timing. I stressed and worried the whole ride back. By the time I arrived home I was sure that this inconveniently timed illness was at best, going to ruin my tour and jeopardise my chances of selection for the team, and at worst I probably had about 3 days to live. This was a disaster!
So I did what any normal person would under these circumstances: I severely cut back training, I whinged and moaned to my coach (sorry Tim), I snapped at everyone around me (sorry Neil), I downed cough lollies like they were going out of fashion and I ate so many vitamin C tablets, I think I actually started to resemble an orange. We went to a wedding that weekend and I spent the whole time scanning and examining fellow wedding goers, trying to identify anyone else who might be sick and avoid these potential threats to my already compromised, fragile immune system. I stressed, I fretted, I worried, I waited, I stressed some more and eventually I found myself in Tasmania on the start line for the individual time trial – the first stage of the tour.
With very low expectations, I set out as hard as I could. 16km later, I rolled through the finish line feeling, well actually pretty good.. This was strange, I had to cough to check, dry, nothing there. Very curious. Surely though with this serious health condition I would not recover well from today’s effort. After all, I was very sick, I was sure I’d feel horrible tomorrow.
The following day brought the stage 2 road race, and it also brought wind, rain, cold conditions and a very steep hill climb. All things that surely would spell disaster for someone so gravely ill as I was. What ensued, much to my surprise, was a very successful day. The whole team rode well, we managed to avoid the crashes, we had Kate Perry in the yellow jersey and I felt, well, completely normal. Better than that actually, I felt good! It was at this point that I had my second realisation: I wasn’t sick at all, I was one of them – I was the hypochondriac! So how does this happen?
There are a number of physiological, physical and psychological factors, which can all contribute to changed pain perception pre key events. With the focus so often being directed on biomechanical factors, we tend to neglect the important role that psychological factors can have in the experience of pain and in actual fact, these factors can have a very powerful influence.
Here’s how it works. The pain process begins when receptors in our skin sense a stimulus, usually but not always, harmful to the body. This information is then sent through the nervous system, up the spinal chord and delivered to the brain where it is processed, interpreted and then finally experienced as the sensation of pain. But here’s the thing, in between the signal leaving the spinal chord and then actually being experienced by the individual, some pretty funky stuff can happen in the brain. The way our brain interprets this signal is highly influenced by a number of factors which can include: environment, past experience, emotional state and stress levels. As you can see pain is a very subjective thing, the exact same stimulus can evoke a very different response under different conditions. In the high stress, hyper aware state we often find ourselves in prior to key events, it makes sense that we may be more susceptible to experiencing heightened awareness of pain. So that leads to the question: what can we actually do about this?
Being aware of this phenomenon is a very good start. Sometimes understanding the pain process and the factors influencing it can be enough to allay small concerns we may have. Preparation and prevention are also extremely important; being well prepared for your event will lower stress levels and therefore make you less vulnerable. Finally, if doubts continue it is definitely worth being checked out by a health professional. There are a number of treatment techniques available which assist in changing sensory input (eg: taping, soft tissue massage, mobilisations) and thereby reduce the sensation of pain. Perhaps most important though, the relief provided by being put through a thorough physical examination and being reassured that biomechanical function is normal and is a very valuable thing to be gained.
So my words of advice for any little pre race niggles: if in doubt, get checked out! It’s probably nothing, but then again, it could be worse than you could possibly imagine… Kidding!