#5: How to Train Pain. Lessons on Resilience From Ross Edgley’s “The Art of Resilience” (Part 1)

The Art of Resilience by Ross Edgley

Some feats are impossible to grasp. Ross Edgley’s Great British Swim is one of them.

Imagine swimming for an hour in a swimming pool. An average swimmer will swim, at a casual pace, 1-2 miles (or 2-3 km) during such a workout.

Now multiply it by 954-1432 times to get the distance Ross Edgley traveled during his challenge—1780 miles or 2864 km.

But that’s not everything. Now imagine that you’re swimming in a cold ocean with big waves, strong currents, huge ships, polluted waters, and dangerous marine life.

But that’s still not everything.

Now imagine that you need to swim on average 12 hours every single day, rain or shine, day or night, and spend 157 days at sea, never setting foot on land.

But that’s still not everything.

Now imagine that you have to deal with seasickness, sea ulcers, dehydration, and your tongue shedding layers from chronic salt water exposure.

But that’s still not everything.

Now imagine breaking several records along the way and establishing new records.

But that’s STILL not everything.

Now imagine that your loved one is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer as you’re still a long way from finishing your challenge.

But that’s STILL not everything.

Now imagine that during all this time at sea and so much swimming, you don’t suffer from even a single severe injury or illness.

Imagine handling all these challenges and emerging victorious. What are the odds?

I was shaking my head in disbelief as I read Ross Edgley’s account of his journey, documented in his book The Art of Resilience: Strategies for an Unbreakable Mind and Body. His Great British Swim is one of the greatest modern feats of adventure and athleticism.

Over the next three articles we’ll cover lessons we can learn from Edgley’s achievement.

Today we’ll focus on how to train pain, which is one of the key powers Ross needed to develop to achieve his goal.

Brutal Lessons on Pain Tolerance From the Kalenjin Tribe

Ross was once exploring the plains of Namibia where he was documenting the life of the San Bushmen. They’re considered to be one of the world’s greatest hunter-gatherer civilizations to have ever existed.

After an exhausting day of persistence hunting, Ross asked his translator, Tau, how the hunter-gatherers coped so well with pain. He was also curious why so many Kenyans are elite endurance athletes. Here’s what Tau said:

Tau was adamant that the secret to Kenyan running success can be found in your penis.

He told me that Kenyan runners are so good because their perception of pain has been modified by their ritual practice of circumcision. So, it’s not because they are a few ounces lighter or encounter less wind resistance after the procedure. It has a lot more to do with the brutal initiation ceremony into adulthood that most boys endure, resulting in an indomitable tolerance to suffering.

He then went on to tell me about the Kalenjin people. A tribe in Kenya with an incredible history and heritage, they account for only three per cent of the total Kenyan population but have produced more elite marathon runners than anywhere else in the world and have dominated international middle and long-distance running for over 40 years. But what’s incredible is that from a very young age boys are prepped and primed to withstand vast amounts of pain as they enter into painful (and often scarring) rituals in order to be branded brave and marriage worthy. The boys who opt out of the ceremonies are often branded a ‘kebitet’ (a coward) and stigmatised by the entire community.

Setting aside the ethics of subjecting young boys to such immense pain, Tau’s answer shows how powerful discomfort can be.

We all know that life can be hard. We all know that we’ll deal with pain. It’s a non-negotiable part of life. Many men choose to ignore this fact, hide from it, or pretend it’s not going to affect them.

But it will.

You can either get hit unprepared or you can get hit prepared.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to undergo painful voluntary training to be better prepared for what life throws at us?

One example of such training could be martial arts.

The workouts can be demanding and painful but they prepare you for a potential life or death situation.

Would you rather skip the voluntary pain of training and later be completely unprepared? Or would you rather get used to it to be able to think clearly as you face unexpected physical violence against you?

As adult men, we can decide how much practice we’ll have with handling pain and to what extent. The Kalenjin boys don’t have such a luxury. Their initiation ritual is brutal:

I asked Tau just how bad it could be. His answer made a bar mitzvah look like a casual beauty treatment.

‘First, you must crawl naked through a tunnel of African stinging nettles,’ he said, assuring me they were much worse than the ones I would find back home in my garden.

‘This will cause a rash, blisters, scars and a lot of pain. After this you must accept a beating on the bony parts of the ankles and knuckles with hard sticks. You then have the acid from the stinging nettles rubbed on your genitals, until you’re then circumcised without anaesthesia or pain reliever of any kind … with a sharp stick.’

I was already wincing just thinking about it.

‘You could not make that face, Ross,’ he said sternly. ‘During this ceremony, your face would be covered in dry mud. This is to ensure you don’t flinch from the pain during the circumcision. You must remain quiet, still and strong and any involuntary twitch of the cheek might split the mud and cause you to be branded a coward.’

From the day Ross heard the Kalenjin story, whenever he faced pain he would think back to the tribe. As he dealt with immense pain of his chafed neck, he thought of it as his own initiation process before facing many more painful days at sea.

Get Wintered

Athletes are taught to perform at their best when they feel at their best.

Royal Marines are taught to perform at their best when they feel at their worst.

One of the painful ways in which Ross prepared for his adventure was swimming non-stop for 48 hours, battling torturous sleep deprivation. He did it under military supervision in a swimming pool in the Royal Marines training center.

Ross completed 175 km (109 miles) in 48 hours, suffering from hallucinations and trench foot by the end of it. The man is a beast when it comes to handling discomfort.

Edgley calls such meticulous and demanding preparation “getting wintered.” It’s a concept borrowed from Epictetus who advocated hard winter training to prepare for battles fought in the spring.

In Ross’s case, his training helped him keep going as he swam for long hours in a dark, cold ocean. As he said in his interview for GQ, “hardship helps forge heroism.”

Ross’s most valuable lesson from the sleep deprivation training was that Royal Marines are taught to perform at their best when they feel at their worst.

I find this concept similar to Greek poet Archilochus’s words: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

An athlete prepares for a match or a race with proper gear, a coach, a physical therapist, a diet protocol, and a regimen of supplements. He’s expected to be at his best during the official event. Nobody cares about his performance when he’s at his worst because the entire focus is on the athlete always feeling at his best.

A Royal Marine (or any resilient man) knows that you can’t predict what the challenge will throw at you. You can’t even predict how you’ll behave in the face of such adversity. So you train yourself in terrible conditions to later perform at your best no matter what happens.

Ross elected sleep deprivation as his handicap. Since he managed to swim for 48 hours without sleep, he knew that he could handle his daily 12-hour shifts in the ocean.

In less extreme challenges, imagine that you’re preparing yourself for a multi-day hike through the wilderness with a group of friends.

To prepare the way Ross does, you wouldn’t do simple day hikes with a light weight on your back while the sun is shining. You’d load your backpack with more weight than you would carry during the hike. You’d carry something in your arm, like a light kettlebell. And of course, you’d test yourself in adverse weather conditions.

This would help you get wintered and perform at your best when things go south. Imagine having to carry an injured friend to safety. A wintered man would be ready for it. A man hoping for good conditions would be caught off guard.

You can never be too prepared. The harder you train under voluntary adverse conditions, the more capable you’ll be under involuntary adverse conditions.

Practice Interval Training to Train Pain

Sprint. Rest. Repeat. Quite possibly the simplest training method you will ever undertake. Known as high-intensity interval training, it can be used in any sport and in any activity from cycling and sprinting to swimming and running, but it involves repeating a series of fast-paced and slow-paced running intervals to improve the body’s ability to move, train and work at a high pace when you’re not able to provide enough oxygen to the working muscles (relying on anaerobic energy production).

For swimming, interval training can be as simple as sprinting 25 m front crawl as fast as you can and then swim slow breaststroke back, allowing your heart rate to drop. Sprint and repeat as many times as you can (aiming for at least 10 sprints).

Interval training not only improves aerobic and anaerobic fitness. It also increases your pain tolerance (how long you’re willing to endure pain).

Ross trained intervals to prepare for inevitable swim sprints when battling currents or crossing busy shipping lanes. The goal for his workouts was to help him prepare to excel despite stress, adversity, and extreme exhaustion. Interval training, when done at high intensity, definitely provokes the latter.

Interval training is simple and accessible to everyone. Pick an activity, do it with high intensity for a short (but hard) period of time, rest and repeat.

I used to do hill sprints (completely brutal) and swimming sprints (lighter on the joints). These days I do interval training with bodyweight exercises and train pain during my MMA and krav maga workouts.

Questions to Ponder

1. How do you deal with physical pain? Do you complain about it or handle it without flinching?

2. How do you prepare for challenges? Do you get wintered and place emphasis on demanding training or take it easy, hoping for good conditions?

3. Is interval training a part of your workout routine? Does any of your workouts allow you to train pain?

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