Pain, The Endurance Athlete’s Friend. Good pain. Bad Pain. Psychological Pain.

Hi! Folks,

Understanding your pain is a critical component of safe training for endurance athletes. You have to learn to tell the difference between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain.’ Good pain means that you are pushing your limits and becoming a stronger athlete, both physically and mentally. Bad pain means injury, and when you feel that bad pain it is probably too late. You can at least have the good sense to stop and prevent further injury. But how does one recognize bad pain? Experience combined with body awareness is the only answer that I know. Sometimes you just know it, and don’t know why. For instance, I signed up for the Charlotte Thunder Road marathon in 2009, with the goal of doing a sub-4hr time. At the halfway mark I was right on track, coming through at about 1:58, and I started to pick up the pace. I entered the race knowing that I had not quite recovered from a pulled hip flexor (right psoas, Power Crank injury! No fool like an old fool!). So! Here I was running in perfect weather, attacking the second half-marathon and just cruising, with the temperature at about 40 degrees, nice and dry, a beautiful clear day. At 17 miles I started to have a niggling doubt in my mind that by 18 miles turned into a definite decision to stop running – did I feel real pain? Not really, just doubt about my hip flexor, so I bailed and walked the remaining 8 miles, freezing my ass off. The next day I had intense pain in my damaged hip flexor, and I probably delayed my recovery by about a month, but recover I did. If I hadn’t recognized those subtle warning signs I might have been out for a year or more. I credit that decision to stop running, and to wisely forget my goal, to the ability of my mind to recognize very subtle pain signals. That was an example of bad pain, which is generally much more dramatic and painful. So! Make sure that you know how to recognize the signs of bad pain, and hopefully stop before they arise if you can. Remember, sometimes the best workout is no workout.

How about ‘psychological pain?’ Well, it is real enough I found on the Mountains of Misery bike ride in Virginia in 2009, as the next to last person to complete that hellish but beautiful 200k ride:

11:40:33 267 Kevin Morgan M

I was pretty proud of finishing at the age of 66, especially the last category one climb about 120 miles into the day. It was on the last climb that I experienced the power of psychological pain. This climb is 5k of hell, with an average gradient >11% and in some places it is 16%. It was on a 16% grade that I diagnosed ‘psychological pain.’ I was grinding away with a cadence of <50 rpm, looking at a road that seemed so steep that I could reach out and touch it in front of my bike. My legs would only put out 170 Watts, and nothing more. I had test ridden this hill with my best biking partner ever, Rory Conolly, only a few months before, and I had sailed up using 210-230 Watts. However, on race day with only 170 Watts available, it was a slow, hard climb which provided me with the time to contemplate my pain. I started looking around in my body, in a typical Feldenkrais way, for the source of the agony that was trying to force me off of my bike. I looked in my legs – nope, just putting out 170 Watts, with no real complaints. I looked at my cardiovascular system – nope, my pulse wasn’t really that elevated, at about 120 bpm. I looked all over my body for the source of this most intense of pains, and then I looked in my head and there it was. My mind contained two voices, arguing, one saying ‘STOP,’ and one saying ‘NO WAY!!!‘ Once I realized that it was purely psychological I thought that it might go away – absolutely no way it would go away, as this mental process continued to send my consciousness an impression of intense pain. Fortunately, voice number two won out, but all the time I knew that it was good pain, and I didn’t experience any adverse effects after the ride, just a sense of delightful tiredness. It takes a lot of training to experience psychological pain, I think, but it is worth every minute.

Pain is your friend, but don’t forget to stop and appreciate the good feelings that your body is sending you all the time.

-k Your Medical Mind


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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.