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Leah Sherriff: Learning when to suffer


“You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.” –Henri Frederic Amiel

Learning how to suffer is a huge part of triathlon. The ability to push one’s body through pain is what separates the great athletes from the good ones. However, the thing I’ve come to understand over the past few months is that there is a time and place for suffering.

The more I become involved in the triathlon community the more I realize how many of us are wrestling with demons. Over the years I’ve tried a number of rather unhealthy things to keep those demons at bay, but now I’ve found that if I swim, bike and run long distances I can just exhaust them. If I tire the demons out and fill them up on endorphins they wander away to take a nap, leaving me alone to get on with my day. It works great… until I get injured. 

The past few weeks I’ve been dealing with a few classic overuse injuries. They are a part of the sport, and the very best thing to do is rest, get treatment, and let my body recover. I know this. We all know this. It’s not a hard concept.

But, if you’re like me, the word “rest” probably fills you with dread, and the sight of the little Couch symbol on your Training Peaks account brings on a cold sweat. I can feel my demons stirring. Anxiety, body-image and self-doubt perk up perilously, like a dog separated by flimsy screen door from the squirrel running across the street.

Instead of taking the rest I know my body needs, I have too often pushed through the pain; wearing the fact that I’m training through an injury or fatigue as a badge of honour, a sign that I am somehow more worthy than those around me.

Luckily my Coach, a very wise and experienced man, has recently spent many hours patiently teaching me an ancient secret: training through injury doesn’t mean I’m a badass, it means I’m stupid.

More than once as an age group athlete I suffered through training to get to my goal race. I would push through the pain to get to the finish line, telling myself that when I got to the other side I would do something about my injury. As a professional triathlete I don’t have the luxury of taking my body to its breaking point and then spending months putting it back together. If I don’t race, I can’t make money, and I won’t get sponsors. Plainly speaking, I’ve got to take care of the money maker.

Don’t get me wrong; learning this has been a challenge. Training is the one thing in my life that I get complete control over. I know that if I do the work and put in the time I will be rewarded come race day. What else in our lives has that kind of guaranteed outcome?

Being injured feels like someone has come along and is trying to wrestle that control away from me, I cling on for dear life, desperately afraid to let go. Thankfully, I’m starting to figure out that its ok to let go and let my support team step in and grab the reigns for me. I’m very lucky to have built a great network in my Coach, my RMT Katherine Cochrane and my chiropractor Carrie Johnston. 

Learning to trust them and to listen to my body has not come easy, but it sure beats being in pain all of the time. I also wish I had learned this lesson when I was starting out, I much prefer reserving my suffering for sprints and hill repeats, where it is useful.