Sunday, January 26, 2014

Let's talk about pain

The other day, I ran around Macritchie with Rachel, and then we sat down to breakfast. Rachel is training for the Tokyo Marathon so part of our conversation went something like this.

- When you run a marathon, is there a point that everything starts to hurt?
- Yeah, my feet hurt, knees hurt, quads hurt, everything hurts. But it's normal pain. Not bad pain. You just gotta deal with it. (Pause) Do you realise that only another runner would understand exactly what I mean?

We both burst out laughing. It's true - there are so many different kinds of pain, and runners understand exactly what the difference is.

But let's talk about pain.

In general there are two kinds of problems that runners have with pain:

One, more common to beginning runners, is not understanding the difference between good pain and bad pain.
At last year's Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon, one of the taglines on the posters was 'Brave the Pain. Celebrate After.' And experienced runners complain all the time - 'That track session hurt but it was so good.'
This can actually be dangerous to less experienced runners listening in, and lead them to do some crazy stupid things. I've heard of people doing a 30k while they're still recovering from a flu. Going from nothing to marathon or ultra in too short a time frame. Doing a marathon - even though they're generally fit - with no training, thinking that pushing through the pain is heroic.

But here's the difference.

Good pain is: Doing a long training run and needing to foam-roll out all the dull muscle aches afterwards. Or: strength training and aching gently in places you didn't know existed. Or: when the yoga instructor says 'now open up your hip just a tiny bit more'. Or: 38km through a marathon; everything is sore from all the pounding, but you know you're not going to injure yourself and you're on track to PR if you just push a tiny bit more. Or: you hurt all over the day after a hard workout, but you know it'll go away in a day or two. Good pain is never the goal, never a bragging right. Good pain is pain in service of a larger goal.

Bad pain is: Sharp bright pain just below your kneecap when you run, as though the padding has worn down and something is grinding away inside. Or: when your calves are abnormally tight and wound up, like a too-tight guitar string, and you need to stretch at every stop light but even the stretching hurts. Or: being undertrained for a long race. Or: 12km into a marathon and every step sends pain shooting up your leg. Or: two weeks after you sprain your ankle, it still twinges when you land wrong. Or: pain that doesn't go away even with rest and reduced intensity. It's psychological too: bad pain is the pain you flaunt trying to show off how tough you are.

There comes a point when fighting through the pain isn't brave, it's stupid. And that depends on whether it's good pain or bad pain. Experience will help; no one but you can tell you what kind of pain you have. Knowing which is which can make all the difference.

This is why I hate 'fitspo'. Which is a whole nother conversation for another day.

The other sort of problem, endemic among experienced runners, is not listening to your pain.

Yeah, I have a problem with this too. I know running gives you a buzz like almost nothing else. I know how addictive that buzz can be. I know no other exercise is quite the same. One of my running friends is suffering through a nasty bout of plantar fascitis and the psychological damage is worse than the physical misery.

Most people who've been running for a while know the difference between good pain and bad pain; whether today's pain means tomorrow's gain or tomorrow's DNF. Your pain is trying to tell you something. But you've got to actually pay attention to it and take responsibility for yourself, or you're in as much trouble as someone who doesn't know which kind of pain they have.

I love this.


  1. You're talking about the difference between stupidity and common sense. It always amazes me how uncommon common sense can be. And how I've been guilty of not having it at times.

    I hate all that Fitspo stuff too. I know it's supposed to be inspirational but it just makes me want to gag.

    1. No worries. Sometimes I'm commonsensically-challenged too...

  2. Nothin' to add, except that I'm scheduling this one for a re-post. AMEN.

  3. All those inspirational fitness posts just make me groan. If you hate it so much that you need a guilt-trip to get you exercising, maybe you should pick an activity you actually enjoy!
    And yes to two different types of pain. Another sign for me - usually anything unilateral = bad pain! If it's both sides I assume it's soreness and it will go away.

    1. You're right, unilateral vs bilateral is a pretty good rule of thumb! In general, some other good indicators/ warning signs are:
      - novelty (have you ever felt this pain before? no? did anything different? no? start worrying)
      - duration (doesn't go away within a day or two)
      - unusual severity/ intensity
      it's sort of like the 5 W's and a H of journalism in fact - where, when, who, what, why, how...

  4. I love that image at the end! So true! If you can't fit in a 6 mile run on a weekday, just do 3 and be happy with it :)

  5. Totally agree....Those statements really can be misleading for people who are not used to physically pushing themselves. (And even those of us with more experience can be fooled....Witness me, with 20 years of distance running under my belt, ending up with a stress fracture & just feeling so! Sure! that the pain I was feeling was an achey pulled muscle.)

  6. Your point about good pain vs. bad pain is something I think about a lot. When I first started out running, I interpreted all of the various little pains and discomforts I felt as proof that I hurting myself. It was only after I legitimately hurt myself a couple of times that I started to figure out the difference between muscle soreness/cardiovascular discomfort and the kind of pain that signals injury. I think it was important that I learn to tell the difference if I was going to become a better runner. It was only when I started to be okay with the "good pain" that I was able to get faster, for instance.

    But yeah, I totally agree that for people who don't have experience running (or exercise, really), they can think it mean pushing through all kinds of pain, which is just a recipe for disaster.

  7. Thank you for this post! As a novice plodder (very, very slow walk-jogging round the neighbourhood), I've often wondered what people mean when they talk about pushing through the pain and if things should hurt the way they sometimes do but I'm too shy to ask.

    This is really helpful and something I will definitely keep in mind next plod :)

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