The science of pain

I damaged one of my front teeth crashing off my MTB about 3 years ago. I had a root canal and the nerve taken out/cut. Even though there is no nerve connection to it I have been getting pain in it in response to hot/cold.
The specialist dentist (who is also a cyclist) told me it is the tooth next to it that has heightened sensitivity, but my mind believes it is the one I damaged which hurts. Like a phantom limb scenario.
To me this is personal proof of how much the mind mediates pain and I’m wondering how to use it to an advantage in training.
Does anyone have any similar anecdotes or relevant scientific studies?

Check out the work of Lorimer Mosely, David Butler and co. They have written books (based on their research) - Explain Pain, Explain Pain Supercharged, Painful Yarns etc and their info can be found at
Lorimer is a great presenter and some of his presentations can be found on You Tube as well.

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I’ve always been interested in the different intensities of pain. I crashed on my bike and fractured my jaw and skull, and it certainly hurt quite a bit but it was by no means “agonizing” in intensity. The other day I hit my shin off a barbell while walking and collapsed and longed for the sweet embrace of death. What gives?

There was a book the guys on the podcast have mentioned several times about “how bad do you want it,” and one of the chapters in that book references your pre-acknowledgement of the pain you’re going to endure in an athletic event. There’s some evidence to back up the idea that if you convince yourself it’s going to hurt you bear the hurt better.


We had a great lecture from a chronic pain specialist who described varying levels of pain tolerance being due to how damaging our brain perceives a stimulus to be. So that if you expose it to a stimulus over time that does not cause damage it will reduce the pain signals it sends for that stimulus. The example he used is when you use a foam roller, the pain doesn’t decrease because your ITB gets looser (this is impossible), the pain reduces because your body learns that it isn’t going to cause damage. This theory could also be applied to exercise.

He also said that because of this it is incorrect to simply say someone has a low or high pain threshold because that threshold is dependent on the situation. So you may have a high exercise pain threshold but lower threshold elsewhere


Really interesting. Yes I think it’s the meaning we attach to the pain. Anything that is linked to loosing training time through infection/ injury is given higher significance, which might inadvertantly end up hurting more…?

Maybe breaking your jaw and skull was Sooooo painful your system didn’t allow you to experience it in full?
Yes, I’ve heard about expecting it to hurt.
I mostly lie to myself until I’m on the trainer though :rofl:

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Lots of interesting reading there. Thanks😀

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I’m a Clinical and Sports Hypnotherapist who specialises in pain (and an ex icu nurse). Until it hits the brain, pains just a signal like lots of others coming into the brain, what’s interesting is there are different parts of the pain matrix in the brain such as emotional and sensory processing (ie how much it hurts, what it feels like and how much it bothers us), and this can be manipulated.


It’s ironic that saying to someone “the pain is all in your head” is often seen as derogatory yet it’s a really true statement for all pain.


This reminds me of Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques (NLP). One of the strategies is to picture an event/experience and then adjust the intensity e.g. make it black and white instead of colour/quieter/smaller.

Considering this I think for me it’s about the meaning of the pain rather than the pain itself. so tooth pain was only an issue as it may signal tooth infection, which would effect my training.
When racing/ training, think i have a tendency to link the pain I’m experiencing with negatives - “can’t, not good enough etc” I am going to work on changing / “reframing” this self talk to:
Can push myself until it hurts/great at pushing beyond the pain/pacing myself

I think that will change the experience of pain.

Yes NLP and hypnosis do overlap in places.

Ive been doing self hypnosis on the trainer and its been really effective. Go into a ‘trance’ bit staring at a place on the wall and let myself develop tunnel vision while focusing on breathing. Then I imagine a net going across a cross section of my body catching big blobby pain signals as they go up from my legs. Instantly drops my pain about about 30% and ive just had the biggest increase in FTP since starting TR.

I did some work recently with someone and we anchored a blast of analgesia everytime he looked at a certain part of his bar

Power of the mind…bloody fascinating!!!


It certainly is.

When I focus on this process I seem to be anchoring analgesia/energy at specific points in my usual (hilly) TT course. It’s a bit like an xbox game, moving along picking up extra powers :sunglasses::rofl:

equally fascinating is the way in which we are all so unique in the way we process and support ourselves.
My unconscious does seem to have a sense of humour :grin:

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Might be a little tricky during a road race!!!

As far as I know, once you’ve anchored something you only have to bring it to mind to get the body-mind to respond.

There’s a few of us who have done a good job of anchoring “can’t”. For me it would just be a method of changing that

IMO, if you get good at teaching your mind how to ignore/dim the pain sensation, it’d be easier to draw upon later when you need it. After a while, instead of going through the whole self-hypnosis bit, you can just skip to the last step where you visualize the net pulling the signals away. Should be able to do that in a moment, while out on the road just fine.

I was being a little tongue in cheek!

Yers, there’s loads of techniques people use to be able to push through to achieve what they desire. I was taught the self-hypnosis techniques as a teenager at a sprinting workshop when I was a runner. It really helped to visualise the race ahead.

Nowadays I use mindfulness to get through very dark places on the bike. It’s not for everyone, and can take a while for it to click, but it was like a lightbulb moment for me when it did. Now I’ve become so practised in it that it’s automatic.

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could you explain a bit more how you use it Andy?

I’ll try, but it’s probably outwith the scope of a forum post!! Maybe best illustrated by examples…

I see the core principle of mindfulness as acceptance without judgement. I leave no stone unturned when prepraing for a race, and I pay particular attention to the weather forecast. I was scheduled to race a tight circuit and rain was forecast about 30 mins into the race. Right on cue the rain came down. The usual reaction would be to start complaining about the rain, begin to worry about how to take the corners, start second guessing have I got the tyre pressures right, worrying about whether other riders are going to crash around me and then get angry with folk that start making mistakes. All these are judgements, and can affect our abilty to be effective in our task. The mindful approach was to notice without judgement. It’s raining. Nothing else. Once you free yourself from the judgements about the rain, you can be more effective in remaining focussed on what’s going on. I remember the smell of the rain on the wet tarmac, and that’s the last I recall about the rain. I remained focused on staying in the bunch, and aware without critisism or judgement of those around me. Instead of thinking “he’s got that corner wrong, I hope he doesn’t hit me”, I think “he has taken a very wide line. I need to adjust mine.”

I apply the same principle to hard sessions. Instead of dreading VO2 max sessions, thinking this is going to hurt, I’ll think I need to hold X watts for X minutes. I notice the sensations in my legs and pay attention to my cadence/pedal stoke. I don’t consider it pain, as that’s a judgement, but notice the sensation.

Last nights Zwift race, I planned to split the field at a certain climb. Instead of going up there, screaming with pain, approached it calmy. Planned “I will ride at 600W for 30s up here. Power is a number.” I did what I set out, noticed my effort and the 4s gap on the field. The effort had worked but hadn’t planned to be off the front, so had to make a decision on the fly what to do. Noticed my HR, and the sensation in my legs and made a decision to wait sit up. That was the choice I made. Being angry/upset etc would not have changed it, but I could change the path I would take for the rest of the race.

For me, it really works.


Thanks for this Andy. Really valuable and so well described.
It’s something I’ve used in other contexts. I’m not sure why I haven’t applied it in this way before.

Thanks for the insight :blush:

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