We know No Pain No Gain is BS. Pushing through injury is dangerous and downright foolish. But exercise isnât supposed to be easy, either. When I gasped about how hard some uphill weighted walking lunges were to my trainer last week, he replied drily that he doesnât mean for me to feel like Iâm floating along.Â And when he sent me immediately into wall sits after I dropped the 40 pounds of dumbbells, I let theÂ agonized shrieking echo off the walls along with the Linkin Park blasting on the stereo. If I were everÂ captured by hostile interrogators who needed information from me, theyâd need only to force me intoÂ a wall sit. After enough time Iâd give up any state secret they wanted. Theyâre that painful. But: when I stand up and walk it off, moments later Iâm fine.
And thatâs the key difference in the kernel of truth behind No Pain No Gain, and the misunderstood,Â overhyped notion of pushing yourself balls to the wall, all the time. Pain expert Eddie OâConnor, Ph.D., sportÂ psychologist and director of the Pain Center at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, spoke with me about the realities of pain in the life of an athlete.
âYou can’t be an athlete and not hurt,â he says, and then laughs: âHow do you do it without pain? You play golf.â But seriously, âYou cannot perform at a high level and not experience painâ he explains. âTo improve you’ve got to hurt. The problem is people don’t know the difference in discomfort and training pain and injury pain. Thatâs where all the problems start.â
The simplest rule of thumb is that âtraining pain is diffuse âŚ maybe a gradual onset; it will decreaseÂ or go away when effort is discontinued,â Dr Eddie says. âInjury-signaling pain won’t go away when the effort is done. It’s sharp as opposed to dull, it’s a specific location. Itâs âthat spot RIGHT THERE.â If it gets progressively worse it is more likely an injury.â
Dr. Eddie further explainsâin plain Englishâhow to understand the difference in his article PainÂ Tolerance in Sport. In short, we start with fatigue and discomfort. âAthletes learn to be comfortableÂ being uncomfortable.â This can progress to positive training pain, âmuscle fatigue and sensations in the lungs and heart that can range from unpleasant to what is typically thought of as pain.â This is âa good sign of effort and improvement.â Past this we can move into negative training pain, which âgoes beyond positive signs of training benefit. An example may be extreme soreness that lasts for days.â
Negative warning pain is similar to negative training pain, but could be a sign of injury occurring.Â It typically occurs gradually. Nowâs the time to âevaluate potential training causes and respondÂ appropriately.â In other words, your body is talking. Pay attention! Donât follow your probable tendency to stick your head in the sand like an ostrich.
When youâre a dedicated athlete, âWhat’s wise and what you want to do are two completely differentÂ things,â acknowledges Dr. Eddie. âI see this all the time. You know rest is going to be required and you just donât want to stop.â But, he explains, âIf you at least go to the doctor you can make an informed choice. It’s still your choice but then you get to know what you’re risking and not just have it taken away.â He encourages athletes to specifically see a sports medical professional, since most typicalÂ physicians will just tell you to stop the activity. âYou have to be open to the information but you areÂ still in charge. For the most part the doctor can’t take you off the field. You have to.â If you donât go toÂ a doctor, âyouâre putting yourself at risk,â he warns. âThere’s no way it can turn out good if you don’tÂ have information.â
I waited far too long to go to the doctor when my pain moved into that stage. I reached the negativeÂ acute pain stage, âan intense and specific pain that occurs suddenly, often a result of injury. It is often localized to a specific body part.â I lingered there for months. Only after numbness, âa rare but of very serious concern âŚ sign of serious injuryâ set in did I see my sports doctor. By then it was too late. He took me off the field of powerlifting permanently and scheduled me for surgery.
If this scares you it should. Pain should not be taken lightly. But this doesnât mean it should be avoided. I experience positive training pain every time I work out now. I donât enjoy the pain â far from it! I make terrible faces, yell and swear. But, according to Dr. Eddie, although pain tolerance is not natural, âit is a learned skill,â one that âseparates athletes from everybody else.â
He says we become comfortable with pain by building up to it. Eventually you âhave to seek itÂ out and be willing to live in that space. Get used to being uncomfortable. After you get used to it,Â set challenges; âI can go five minutes, next go six.â You get a sense of accomplishment âŚ learn theÂ uncomfortable feeling means you’re making progress.â He explains that when the endorphins kick in exercisersâ minds can make the connection that with pain comes a good feeling. Although the idea seems crazy when youâre in the midst of, say, a horrific quad-burning wall-sit, he says âitâs important to push through and engage training pain, and celebrate it.â
Celebrate it? Iâm not there yet, as I crush my trainerâs hand and scream along with Linkin Park in the wall-sit. But I feel damn fine afterward, and that I can celebrate.