We’ve all been told “no pain, no gain.” But on top of that, scientific studies have shown that athletes are better at tolerating pain than non-athletes and that exercise can improve our pain tolerance.
When you think of the greatest athletes ever, what differentiates them from regular, everyday athletes is often their pain threshold. Think about great sports moments like Michael Jordan’s “flu game” or Curt Schilling beating the New York Yankees with a bloody ankle. Even before those big moments, the ability to tolerate pain led those athletes to work harder and reach the levels they did.
So how does an athlete raise his or her pain threshold? Is it just working out, or is there something more to it?
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What “pain tolerance” means
We should start by explaining how increased pain tolerance and exercise are related. A 2014 article in the New York Times noted that scientists know that when our muscles ache during exercise, our bodies release endorphins and other chemicals that help dull the pain. The chemical release can last throughout your exercise period and up to 20 to 30 minutes afterwards.
But this does not mean athletes feel less pain than non-athletes. Although pain tolerance varies among individuals, everyone feels roughly the same level of pain regardless of how much they exercise. Pain tolerance is the ability to tolerate pain, not the ability to feel less pain.
Exercise to your limits
What can athletes do to increase their pain tolerance?
One of the first steps is to go past your limits. When you begin a workout, it’s natural to reserve yourself a bit so you have energy left for the next part of the workout.
Instead, start with an extremely strenuous workout that leaves you struggling from the beginning. Then continue the next part of your workout without extra rest or a lighter load.
Runner’s World recommends doing this kind of workout no more than once every few months. Furthermore, working through pain means that the rest of your workout may not meet your standards. But that’s fine. The point of this workout is to improve your mental fortitude to deal with pain. If it becomes a little sub-optimal, that’s OK.
But obviously, a series of sub-optimal workouts will only get you back to step one. So it’s important to rest properly so your body can recover and prepare for the next series of intense exercises that can increase your pain tolerance.
Exercise hard and fast, and rest hard. Increasing pain tolerance really can be that simple.
Mental tricks to tolerate pain
Of course you can no more block the sensation of pain than you can jump off a cliff and defy gravity. But you can use mental tricks to distract yourself. For some, this means wearing a lucky charm, like a custom Tyvek wristband. For others, it means developing mental fortitude.
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One method is to understand that pain and suffering are not necessarily the same thing. You should feel some pain during a strong workout, but that doesn’t mean you should think about how much the pain is making you hurt. Instead, think about how the pain means you are making progress and your body is developing.
That sort of positive thinking can distract your mind from pain. At a minimum, it can ensure that you won’t think about how bad pain make you feel. Then you can concentrate on your workout. If positive thinking can help individuals who suffer from chronic pain, it can surely help you during a two-hour workout.
Ignore the pain—until you shouldn’t
Everything mentioned above may make it sound like pain is something that should be ignored. This is absolutely not the case.
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Our bodies evolved to feel pain as a warning sign that something is wrong. The above techniques to increase pain tolerance mean that a tougher body can handle some warnings to an extent. But take it too far and you can destroy your body.
Just take a look at Boston Celtics legend Kevin McHale. In 1987, McHale broke a bone in his right foot. He continued to play on that foot for the next several months, ignoring the pain and helping the Celtics get far into the playoffs.
Today, McHale is hailed as an example of toughness and resilience. But what is not often mentioned is that even today, more than 20 years since he last played a game, he walks with a noticeable limp.
McHale has said that he doesn’t regret his decision to play through the pain. But would you?
So work out to increase your pain tolerance if you’re ready. But remember, if the pain gets to a point where you cannot continue, then stop.