4 Effective Pain Tolerance Strategies

April 20, 2020

The mind always fails first, not the body - Arnold Schwarzenegger

Your heart is thumping, your lungs are burning, your legs are screaming, and you still have 3 miles to go. How is it that some individuals have the capacity to endure the pain and push through to the end while others throw in the towel and quit? 

It turns out, the secret lies within your mind. Discover our 4 effective mindset strategies to increase your mental toughness and push way beyond your perceived limits.

Mental Imagery

Guided imagery is the most effective strategies to endure pain during stressful situations. The idea is that you can take your mind off the situation at hand and take your mind elsewhere, to a more pleasurable, relaxing situation. The more vivid the visualisation, the more effective the strategy. You can picture a real scenario from your past or it can be based on a scenario you would like to experience in the future.

To take his mind away from the relentless torture during interrogation, Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins graduate, James Priestly, actually visualised himself watching the movie, Transformers.

“The toughest point for me was the stress positions during the torture/interrogation phase. The pain gets worse by the second and last an eternity. You have to occupy your mind with something else, for me, it was to watch my favourite film, Transformers, in my head!”


Attention Control

Attention control is the ability to ignore all distractions, including pain, and concentrate on the task at hand. In fact, every time you lose concentration and stop due to distractions you run the risk of losing up to 30% of the mental focus you had just achieved!

By focussing in and heavily concentrating on an aspect of the task at hand it can take your mind away from the distractions of pain.

GB Duathlete, Kathy Stringer, likes to focus on movement and form to take her mind off the pain.

"Whilst training on the bike, I’ll look down at my legs and make sure that they’re spinning fast and efficiently, I’ll drop my shoulders down and bend my elbows a little more. By checking in on my form, I find that I’ll naturally stay at a good pace and that it momentarily takes that thought of pain away."

When things got tough for ultra-athlete, Rhys Jenkins, while competing in the toughest footrace on the planet, Badwater 135, he took it back to basics.

“When things got tough, I went back to basics. I focussed on my breathing. I focussed on the here and now. I trusted in my ability to adapt and the team around me.”

Self Talk

Self-talk is an extremely successful way of self-motivating yourself through situations of high stress and pressure. There is growing evidence that language and the way we process language can have a significant effect on how we approach tasks, work and challenges. This is because words often conjure up images and meaning beyond the simple dictionary definition. When your back is up against the wall, try giving yourself a pep talk to motivate you to the end of your challenge.

Self-talk is one of Stringer's main strategies when pushing through the pain barrier.

"Self-talk is by far my biggest coping mechanism. If I’m out running and doing a track session where I really have to push myself with every set, I will be continually talking to myself through each small target. I will be thinking things like "600m to go, that’s less than 2 laps of a track, it’s nothing, keep pushing" and by the time I’ve thought of all of that, there will only be 400m left so then I’ll move into "that’s four 100 metres, that’s nothing, 300m, less than a lap to go" etc….until I’ve reached my target and collapsed on the floor!

Extreme adventurer, Ash Dykes, took self-talk one step further and actually recorded himself an audio message to motivate himself when he was at his lowest point whilst crossing the Gobi Desert solo on foot.

I sent this to myself via voice message on my iPhone and I promised myself that I wouldn’t listen to that message until I was at my darkest point during the mission. I did end up listening to it…when I was slowly dying in of dehydration in the Gobi Desert. [By] listening to voice recording I was able to push on through to the [next] community and just managed to survive.”


A study in 2015 discovered that swearing during pain or discomfort actually increased the individual’s tolerance. The study asked participants to see how long they could immerse their hand in icy cold water. During repeated measures, they were asked to either repeat a swear word or a neutral word. When participants repeated the swear word they were able to withstand the pain for a much longer period of time.

For those with a politer vocabulary, a similar study in 2015 also found that saying “ow” had a similar but lesser effect on the individual’s tolerance to pain.

  1. Swearing as a response to pain.
  2. Clough, Peter, and Doug Strycharczyk. Developing Mental Toughness: Improving Performance, Wellbeing and Positive Behaviour in Others, Kogan Page, 2012.

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