How is it that we can inflict damage to ourselves yet be completely oblivious to the damage?

Ask athletes who completed ‘epic’ events and they will often tell you that during the event, they felt energized, elated, excited, enthusiastic (at least for bits)… in short, despite exhaustion they can recall points of feeling absolutely amazing. Then ask those athletes what they felt in the days and weeks and even months after and another story emerges: a story of aches, and pains, and mysterious recurring issues such as difficulty sleeping, metabolic issues, bathroom issues, chronic inflammation, painful joints, difficulty moving even difficulty doing the sport(s) of the ‘epic’ event they completed. In some cases these athletes will also reveal that they are now suffering with issues that are even more serious… immune system dysfunction, sexual dysfunction, chronic anxiety or depression, sometimes severe symptoms of anxiety or depression, sometimes even suicidal ideations.

Q: How is it that while we inflict damage its possible not to feel the damage, and can in fact feel ‘good’, maybe even ‘great’?

A: Endorphins

Our emergency response/survival system (i.e. flight-fight-freeze reflex mechanisms) was designed to help us escape danger and whatever we learnt (and taught ourselves) to perceive as danger. When threatened, be it by a bear in the wild, or in more modern life by academic exams, a report deadline, a critical business proposal, or by an ‘epic’ athletic endeavour our emergency response/survival system fuels a ‘super’ level of performance by turbo-charging our circulatory, respiratory & musculo-skeletal systems via hormones and neurotransmitters to deliver a significantly higher power output.  In addition, this system floods our body and brain with pain diminishing endorphins so that we do not ‘feel’ being turbo-charged, nor the effect of pushing/punishing our bodies while on turbo. And don’t forget, that while our endocrine system is turbo-charging our body and brain, normal regular daily operations of the body and brain are placed on hold (you don’t need proper digestion, healing processes, sexual functions and higher levels of cognition to be operational when trying to survive, escape, or when fighting for your life… and yes, that is what Sanders said he was doing on the Queen K Highway during Ironman World Champs: “fighting for his life“).

Just how powerful are endorphins? There isn’t just one type of endorphin, researchers have identified at least 20 different types of endorphins and have identified also that one type – beta-endorphins – are as strong or even stronger than morphine. Yeah… think on that for a moment.

Why does the body have a system that masks damage, even and especially self inflicted damage?

Think back to the threat of a bear in the wild. To survive and to escape from a threat your body de-sensitizes/numbs you – via endorphins – to all forms of hurt. No matter whether its a bite, a superficial or deep cut or wound, even to broken bones. If the goal is to survive and escape to live another day and the expectation is that at some point you will be clear of the danger so that you can rest, recover and heal, then the objective is to survive and escape and deal with the damage at a later time. Imagine if you felt all the bites, cuts, wounds and damage while trying to escape. If you did, you would likely be overwhelmed by all the pain making escape, hence survival impossible. Not only are we physically desensitized to danger, our emergency response/survival system also de-sensitizes/numbs us to the mental and emotional stress of danger: our higher executive functions are shut down in times of danger. Imagine if we stopped to rationalize the optimal way to respond in a dangerous situation. We would be dead before we even started to logic out the situation. Reacting quickly to escape danger is programmed into this system (hence flight-fight-freeze and not stop-breathe-think) and that’s why we typically behave like squirrels when a car approaches one sitting in the middle of the road… it (we) runs in every direction all at once trying to escape (most of the time they survive, occasionally they don’t – same applies to us).

OUR EMERGENCY RESPONSE/SURVIVAL SYSTEM CREATES A STATE OF HYPER NUMB & DUMB

Deadening yourself to pain works when trying to escape real danger (most of the time).

Problem is… instead of properly training for athletic adventures, for ‘epic’ endeavours, for life… we found a short cut! Trick our emergency response/survival system into believing that a marathon, a triathlon, a grandfondo pose a threat to our survival, we trick our flight-fight-freeze system to flood us with turbo-charging hormones like adrenaline and hyper-sensitizes our nervous system allowing both our heart rate and muscular activity to skyrocket while numbing us via endorphins so that we do not feel nor think about the damage we are inflicting upon ourselves and voila… the short cut to crossing finish lines.

But now we are no longer using our emergency response/survival system just to bullshit our way to finish lines, we are relying on this systems to live life on a daily basis resorting to a state of hyper numb & dumb to make it through – aka survive – our school day, our work day, to make it through daily life.

Then we wonder… why oh why do we have all these medical issues?

Then we wonder… why oh why do our children suffer a wide range of medical issues?

Yeah… its a real mystery.

Abuse your emergency response/survival system to constantly over-reach and when this system starts to fatigue or becomes exhausted and is unable to fuel your ‘all-out’ beast-mode lifestyle or worse, becomes so depleted that it cannot return to controlling normal body functions… yeah… its a real mystery where injury, illness and disease (physical & mental) arise. For athletes… yeah… its a real mystery why inflammation won’t subdue quickly and naturally, why injuries won’t heal, why recovery time is excessively long and an endless list of gimmicks (i.e. foam rollers, compression socks, etc…) are needed to attempt to expedite it.

Next time you are in your spin class, HiiT, Tabata or bootcamp session, or perhaps next time you are competing… ask yourself… what am I actually doing? Am I honestly training to develop skill, technique and capacity to take on the challenge of a sport/life, am I honestly testing my ability level to assess by progress, or am I seeking a way to numb myself to all the hurts, aches and pains in my life (using the socially accepted fitness fanatic/type ‘A’ persona as cover)?

One path will develop you into the person that can deal with life as it is… hurts, aches and pains and all. The other path leads to chaotic mindlessness and numbness, a life of avoidance and escapism where the hope is that if you can only hurt yourself often enough or badly enough that your emergency response/survival system will flood you with enough mind-numbing endorphins that everything ‘bad’ from memory will be erased, at least temporarily or if possible permanently.

When this happens the sports media calms us by stating that its a statistical normality for there to be ‘n’ number of deaths amongst athletes, and since the number is well-within reason… so… keep calm and carry on. Isn’t that nice! If one of us kills ourselves off its nothing to worry about… actually, its made out as if we should expect a handful of athletes to die every now and again… ya know… its like… normal. Really? Says who?

Is it any wonder then why an athlete like Sanders arises proclaiming his willingness to “die in pursuit of pushing their limits”… and the masses mindlessly cheer!

After reading this blog perhaps this article that appeared at triathlete.com written by Jason Koop, Head Coach of Ultrarunning at Carmichael Training Systems on his opinion why this partnership was a big misstep–with implications that reach far beyond triathlon–will make more sense.

Another side effect of adrenaline/endorphin fueled training… bonehead decision making abilities as a result of higher executive functions in the brain being taken offline when we are ‘under the influence’ of our emergency response/survival system.