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Expectations and Knowing the Road

Blog Day 1 Pain Revolution 2018 with Edel O'Hagan

Each day, one of the Pain Revolution riders will be writing a blog about the events of the day, what we saw and what we discovered. Today we were officially launched at the Australian Pain Society Annual Scientific meeting, and then we got on the bikes and got on the road. Today, the ride covered 73kms, starting from Miranda in Sydney's south, heading through the Royal National Park, and finishing up with a stunning ride along the coast to finish in Wollongong. We did 2 seminars, for public and professional, each with over 100 people, a fantastic start to a big journey! Thanks to Edel O'Hagan, pain researcher at Neura, for her thoughts on the first day of the ride.

I know this road. I ride it every Saturday, starting from Centennial Park rather than Miranda, which takes us along Princes Highway, we sometimes get abuse from cars but hopefully not today.

Starting at Miranda, we have a few kilometres of wide streets come highway that allows us to find our pedals and settle in to our group before we hit the Royal National Park (RNP).


We Sydneysiders are very lucky to have the RNP on our doorstep. We can enjoy the serenity and the stillness of the park, yet still accessible the city.

Our Pain revolution ride leaves the main road at Audley, and we start descending. The descent is steep in parts and too early in the ride to really enjoy it; there is some nervous excitement in the air and at the start of such a big week of riding so we take the corners cautiously. There is some immediate regret that we didn’t capitalise on the descent as much as possible as after that initial 4km the road gradually ramps up for the next 16km before the next fun downhill. This time the downhill is great, gentle corners that roll into each other, on a silky, smooth, surface, our bikes glide from one corner to the next effortlessly, quickly eating up kilometres with barely a pedal stroke.

Here is an opportunity for my first pain related nugget; your head is the boss.

Your Head is the Boss

In cycling as in life, your head is the boss. What your head decides your body will follow. This is a very important principle of cornering and descending in cycling, look through the corner, point your head at where you want to go and your bike and you because you’re on the bike will follow. It’s not a perfect analogy but this is also true for pain, it is the brain (your head) that calls the shots. You may feel pain in your hand/ foot/ back wherever so it seems like it is your hand/ foot/ back that is telling your head that there is pain in that area but actually that is not true. Pain is an output of our brain. Our brain will create pain in response to a perceived threat, to produce pain it must weigh up all the available information at that moment and decide is there more credible evidence of danger than there is credible evidence of safety. If the answer is yes then our brain will produce pain to protect us, we will feel it in our hand / foot/ back but it is produced by our brain. Your head is the boss!

We continue through the park for another 15km. More fabulous tall trees, there is a misty, mythical, magical feeling in the air. It is like we have been granted passage through a secret world of trees, animals and birds, who sqwak at each other to announce our arrival.

We emerge from the park at Bald Hill lookout where we are rewarded for our climbing efforts with a stunning view of the south coast.

As we continue the road hugs the coastline to Wollongong and allows some spectacular photo opportunities of our small peloton against the backdrop of the contrasting azure of the sky and ocean. Time for my second nugget;

How bad is it really?

As I said, after the initial descent the road ramps up, and at Audley this is quite a significant ramp. The steep part of the climb is only 1.6km but it’s an average gradient of 7.5% with pinches of over 10%, it’s a pretty rude start to a week on the bike.

Usually, I don’t mind climbing, but there are sections of this climb that are challenging.

As I have ridden this climb before, my body knows it, and has an automatic conditioned response accordingly. It will hurt, my brain will assess all the available information and decide that this is a blooming stupid idea and I should stop right now, it will let me know by telling my quads and chest to burn, everything will start to work harder as my brain perceives a threatening situation, my heart will beat faster, my breathing will hasten, my knuckles will go white as they squeeze and pull on the handlebars, every part of my body is saying “what the hell are you doing, this is dangerous, stop!”

My strategy for dealing with this is either to distract my brain by counting, or systematically analyse and reconcile all its complaints. I try to put it into context; I ask my legs, “how bad is this? Really”, usually when you put it like that, they are ok, chest too.

My strategy is justified in that 6 minutes later, at the top of the climb my body slots back into calm, normal mode, no burning in chest or thighs, they’re actually working just fine now, I don’t know what the fuss was about.

Pain relies on context; it can become a conditioned response. Having done that climb before my brain is quick to recognise elements of the quad burning experience neurotag and early in the climb I experience quad burning but similarly, knowing what I know about pain and being able to neutralise the context I can decrease the intensity of the experience.

We need some more clever tricks than just thinking about pain differently to solve the problem of persistent pain, but thinking about pain differently can be an important starting point.

"Exercise People" and the joy of cycling

I have a small tangent here that came to mind as I was writing this.

Contrary to popular belief, we cyclists don’t like exercise, we just like riding our bikes, so if you are on the part of the journey with pain where you’ve been advised to exercise or you would like to start exercising more but find it’s difficult cause you’re just not an “exercise” person. That’s ok! Neither are we, we just like riding our bikes, an important distinction.

Ok, cycling also happens to be exercise, but the point is that you don’t have to be an exercise person to enjoy exercise, just enjoy doing something regularly, it will more than likely involve movement and there you have it, you are exercising.

It doesn’t matter what it is; walking, dancing, shopping, gardening. With me for example, I will happily ride 66km today and 110km tomorrow, and whatever the next few days entail, I look forward to it, I even particularly like the hills, but there’s no way I’m walking anywhere.

When we go to North Wollongong Surf Club tonight, I’m not sure where it is but even if it’s a couple of hundred meters away, I would like a lift please! Usually I will trawl a car park for 10 minutes trying to find the park closest to the shop. I am not an exercise person, but I do like riding my bike.

So never fear if you are concerned about exercising, don’t think of it as exercise, just choose something you like doing and do it, a lot.

The route we rode today was one that I have done so many times. Even familiar roads seem new with the Pain Revolution crew riding with me. The movement has started, on to another day of hill climbing tomorrow!

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