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Pain but No Gain?

Sometimes pushing through the pain is more detrimental than beneficial to your training.

By on March 1, 2022 | Leave a reply

I still vividly remember one of the worst training runs of my life. I was a senior in college, at the peak of my fall cross-country season. My teammates and I were doing an interval workout at a park near campus. It was a hot day for October, and the red-brown dust from the gravel trail kicked up and seemed to stick to the roof of my mouth.

I could tell from the first labored steps of our three-mile warmup that it was going to be a hard afternoon for me. After a few brief strides, we started the workout with a 1,200-meter interval.

On a normal day, I would have been at the front of the group, pushing the pace well below five minutes per mile with my teammates, but instead, I went immediately to the back of the pack. I pumped my arms hard in an attempt to get my legs to follow, but instead of accelerating, I seemed to slow even more. My legs were trashed, and I moved slower and slower with each interval.

Instead of giving up, I kept pushing, determined to finish the workout. We had a saying on the team: “The great ones get it in.”

Even though I was running minutes slower than usual, I finished that workout. I couldn’t give up, because the great ones didn’t give up. I wanted to be great.

Achilles tendon pain

Sometimes it’s best not to push through the pain. Photo: Oleg Breslavtsev

Sacrifice for the Sport

I pushed through that workout because it is what I thought all real athletes would do. This sort of decision-making process that potentially put my body at risk of injury is related to what Hughes & Coakley (1) coined as the sport ethic.

We see examples of the sport ethic on display in the media and in stories of athletes overcoming adversity to achieve great things. Sport ethic is composed of four main beliefs that are commonly accepted as factors defining what it means to be an athlete, and to be treated as an athlete by others in sport:

  1. Being an athlete involves making sacrifices for the game.
  2. Being an athlete involves striving for distinction.
  3. Being an athlete involves accepting risks and playing through pain.
  4. Being an athlete involves refusing to accept limits in the pursuit of possibilities.

That day at the park, I was running through pain and sacrificing myself for the sport. I was doing what I thought I needed to do, to be the athlete I wanted to become.

Was it a good decision? Absolutely not. I likely jeopardized my training by running myself deeper into a hole of fatigue.

I wasn’t just embracing the beliefs of the sport ethic; I was overconforming to the sport ethic and risking my health because I wanted to be perceived as a successful athlete. I didn’t want to give up on the workout, because that would represent a weakness, and as one of the top runners on the team, I did not want to be seen as weak.

As Maurice, et al. (2) stated, “Perceptions of weakness within sport can be damaging for athletes; those who play through injury are often regarded as heroic while those who admit to their injuries are mocked. Over-conforming to sport ethic often leads athletes to push themselves past, or conceal, their limits and risk further injury.”

I had internalized that great runners were heroic for pushing through bad days, and only weak runners would give up on a workout when they felt bad. Running through my pain gave me zero training benefit from the session. I did it because I wanted to embody the sport ethic, even if it set my training back.

Family and friends take a 4:00 a.m. “nap” in the Courmayeur aid station during the UTMB while waiting for their runners to arrive. Photo: iRunFar/Kirsten Kortebein

Who Is a Real Athlete?

The trail running and ultrarunning worlds are full of athletes who push past their limits. Ultrarunning, especially, is almost synonymous with pain and suffering. We use terms like “going to the pain cave” or “sufferfest” to describe our runs.

We laugh about lost toenails and post pictures of rock-gashed knees on social media. The goriest photos and the most extreme stories always command the most attention. Stars in the ultrarunning world have amassed hundreds of thousands of social media followers from their extreme exploits and their famous ability to transcend pain.

As someone who has run trail and ultra races at a high level, I know that discomfort and pain can sometimes be a part of racing. However, glorifying pain and normalizing injuries does not promote a healthy relationship with running and our bodies.

Running can be difficult, and a rewarding way to challenge ourselves, but that does not mean we have to sacrifice our bodies to become some sort of ideal runner. The “no pain, no gain” attitude is deeply problematic, yet widely accepted by fans and athletes alike.

This problematic attitude toward sport and the body is something I think every runner should try to identify and work to address. By working to subvert this extreme image of sport, athletes can develop a longer-lasting focus on their health and well-being. When I look back on that day of practice, there are a few things I wish I could have asked myself to evaluate and question.

Here are a few ways to help identify those times when we might be taking the sport ethic too far:

  1. Why are you doing this particular run? What is the purpose of this workout in the broader spectrum of training? If we are putting ourselves in a position that no longer serves the intended purpose of the run, there is no reason to keep pushing. It is simply unproductive.
  2. What will be the impact of these actions on my body in a week or month? If our actions are causing long-term damage, the purpose of the run or workout is once again not achieved.
  3. Are you enjoying the run? In my experience as a runner and a coach, I have found that people run best when they enjoy it. Running should be fun. If you are pushing yourself to a place where it is no longer fun or enjoyable in some way, you are most likely pushing too hard.

The social pressure to be tough and muscle through pain is very real. We see heroic examples of these types of actions all the time. In the real world, those actions don’t make sense.

It wasn’t productive for me to push through that terrible day at practice. I would have been far better off calling it a day and coming back later in the week stronger and more rested.

I didn’t get the intended benefit of the workout, and I most likely set my training back further by overworking my body on a day that it was already overstressed. I thought that I needed to prove myself by running through pain, just like the greatest athletes.

In reality, the greatest athletes are the ones who adapt their training and prioritize their long-term health. Those are the runners who train longer and more consistently, and who enjoy the greatest success.

Call for Comments

  • Do you feel there are certain kinds of pain that are acceptable to push through, and others that are not?
  • Are you more inclined to push through pain during a race than a workout?

References

  1. Hughes, R., & Coakley, J. (1991). Positive deviance among athletes: The implications of overconformity to the sport ethic. Sociology of Sport Journal, 8(4), 307–325. https://doi.org/10.1123/ssj.8.4.307
  2. Maurice, S., Voelker, D. K., Kuklick, C., & Byrd, M. (2021). “We don’t always get it right”: Coaches’ perspectives on supporting injured athletes. Sports Coaching Review, 10(3), 295–324. https://doi.org/10.1080/21640629.2021.1897244
Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well as at Trails and Tarmac. He has a Master of Arts in Sport Coaching and a USATF Level 2 Endurance coaching certification. On the trails, Alex has finished second at the Western States 100 Mile and won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. He's supported by SCOTT Running.