Pain when exercising: how understanding aches can improve your workouts

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Why do we exercise even though it hurts? An expert explains the benefits of pushing through discomfort  

Some people hate running. They hate the racing of their heart and their sore calves as they place one foot in front of the other. Others hate the feeling of loading up their muscles in a squat or the burning sensation in their chest as they attempt another rep of press-ups. You’ve probably used the pain of training as a reasonable excuse to get out of doing it to begin with, skipping the crunches in your workout because they’re too hard. 

Our relationship with pain is complex, according to Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, co-author of OUCH!: Why Pain Hurts, and Why It Doesn’t Have To. “Pain is a multi-layered phenomenon that’s experienced differently depending on our context. Who we’re with, our motivation, what we want out of the experience, whether or not we are in control of the event and even down to being able to decide whether your eyes are open or closed can impact your experience of pain,” she says. 

But pain is particularly interesting when it comes to sport. After all, this is a hobby that participants have chosen to do, but often involves painful experiences. “Sport is probably one of the only areas that we acknowledge that pain has a part in our lives. Most of the time, we are trying to suppress, muffle or get rid of pain – we’re seeing doctors because we’ve got a weird pain or we’re taking more and more paracetamol because our heads hurt,” says Linda.

Do your workouts need to hurt? 

It’s true that, in the world of exercise, pain has been fetishised. The ‘no pain, no gain’ rhetoric is has been around for years – we’re constantly told to do ‘one more rep’ and are led to believe that if we don’t have DOMS, we aren’t working hard enough.

“Look at Iron Man or Tough Mudder. Pain is part of their pitch. They are selling you an experience based on you bleeding or getting electrocuted,” Linda says. “There’s a market for pain, and it’s something people want.”

But we’ve also seen a shift away from punishing training, rejecting the idea that we need to put our body through extreme conditions and instead, encouraging us to be more mindful and caring towards our bodies. Which group has it right? 

“We do need to experience pain, because we need to experience a lot of different physical, mental and emotional sensations,” says Linda. On a physical level, adaptation comes from working your muscles to failure – or rather, until you get so exhausted that you must stop. That will probably be at the least uncomfortable, as you’re damaging the muscle fibres in order for them to regrow back stronger.

But there’s psychological gain to feeling pain too. “Pain increases the circulation of our endogenous opioids, aka endorphins, and that helps us feel good,” says Linda, which explains why we go back for more. “Pain is also fantastic at refocusing your attention away from stuff we might be ruminating on and on to your immediate circumstances.” Basically, you can’t stress about work when you are trying to hold a plank with your core on fire. 

However, we need to stop seeing pain as punishment for the things we’ve eaten or the way we look, says Linda. “I’ll be honest – the only reason that I used to exercise was because I thought it was going to have an appreciable impact on how I looked. I had to pay the pain price in order to have other people look at me and say ‘that’s a fit person’. Working out and exercise were mediated by how other people saw me.”

Now, Lisa says that she puts no value on her pain. Putting herself through the discomfort of training doesn’t determine her worth, and painful things are not good or bad. For example, she manages to go cold water swimming, during which “the blood starts to leave your limbs because it needs to keep your core warm. For me, that’s usually accompanied by a lot of nerve pain so it feels almost like electricity going up my arm or in my hands,” she says. “But I know that the pain is not a bad thing, it is just a part of the experience, and I think that opened up more possibilities and allowed me to swim further and faster.”

Exercise and pain: "Pain isn't a bad thing."

“The bigger statement is that it is important to listen to your body. Doing sport and exercise is a way to really work on that skill, as it’s a place where discomfort is almost assured. That can give you an opportunity to explore these sensations without judgement and decide what they are and what is worth pushing through,” Linda says. 

How can you push through exercise pain?

“Firstly, you don’t have to,” reminds Linda. “You do not have to push through and go for a run if you don’t want to. But I find the benefits of going out for a run do outweigh the discomfort that I know will be part of it.”

Linda’s biological, transactional attitude towards pain can be useful, she says: “Being able to cognitively say to myself ‘I know what’s happening’ really does help me.” She suggests trying to use your workout as a form of data collection – seeing what pain really feels like to you, how you can make it better, what feels too extreme, and keeping that in mind so you know what to expect next time.

“Understanding what is happening in your body gives you a sense of agency and control over it, which then helps the experience be less scary and more manageable.”

As much as we need to acknowledge that pain is probably going to be a part of the workout, we also need to not overthink it. “The more we think something will hurt, the more it will,” says Linda. “Numerous studies have demonstrated that being both afraid and in pain makes that experience of pain that much worse. But if you can find ways to chip away that anxiety and that fear, through regaining a sense of control, then that pain becomes more manageable.”

Instead, stop hyping up how awful it will feel to do your training session, and instead be realistic: “I might get a stitch on this run, but that’s because my body is working properly, and it will last for a few minutes and then pass” is a better mindset. 

Importantly though, you should never push through sharp pain, unexpected pain, or new pain, but understanding your body enough to differentiate between normal discomfort and signs of something more sinister is important. That is why it’s important to notice the other sensations in your body. “I realise that, yes, I’m still feeling that electric jolt in my hand as I swim but I am also feeling good in other parts of my body, such as feeling refreshed and invigorated in my core, helps me accept the pain,” says Linda.

And if all else fails? “Recent studies have demonstrated that activating the muscles in your cheeks and around your eyes, by smiling or grimacing, means people report less pain. Doing that might make you feel in control and, while it might hurt, everything will be OK.” That might explain why you sometimes see people smiling in the gym then. 

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