Pain Tolerance in Sport

Eddie O’Connor, PhD, CC--AASP
Performance Excellence Center

Pain is ever-present in sport.  An athlete’s ability to tolerate pain is essential to success. Pain provides valuable information about your body and how it is performing.  To maximize its usefulness it is important to understand what kind of pain should be listened to and what type is helpful or safe to work through.

First, we must define the different types of pain you can experience:

  • Fatigue and discomfort.  This is an unpleasant feeling produced by effort, but not strong enough to be labeled “pain.”  Athletes learn to be “comfortable being uncomfortable,” as such efforts are a regular and necessary part of most sports.  With continued effort, discomfort can turn into …
  • Positive training pain.  This pain often occurs with endurance exercise, and includes muscle fatigue and sensations in the lungs and heart that can range from unpleasant to what is typically thought of as pain.  It is neither threatening nor a sign of injury. Because athletes know the cause, are in control of their effort, and recognize that these feelings are beneficial and can enhance performance.  In short, positive training pain is a good sign of effort and improvement.
  • Negative training pain is still not indicative of an injury, but goes beyond positive signs of training benefit.  An example may be extreme soreness that lasts for days.  There may be an overtraining risk.
  • Negative warning pain is similar to negative training pain, with the added element of threat.  It may be a new experience of pain and a sign of injury occurring.  It typically occurs gradually, and allows the athlete to evaluate potential training causes and respond appropriately.
  • Negative acute pain is an intense and specific pain that occurs suddenly, often a result of injury.  It is often localized to a specific body part and is labeled as threatening.
  • Numbness is rare but of very serious concern.  It is when the athlete feels nothing when soreness, fatigue or pain should be felt.  Instead, limbs are numb.  This may be a sign of serious injury or pushing one’s body past its physical limits.

We will focus on positive and negative training pain and save negative injury pains for another article.  

How you react to your pain is important. 

  • If you interpret your pain as threatening, or if you focus on the pain rather than concentrate on your sport, the pain will increase and interfere with your performance. 
  • On the other hand, if you view pain as something that is natural and necessary and interpret it as a sign that you are working hard and achieving your goals then your pain can be an ally. 
  • Many athletes find that recognizing that they are not alone in their pain is helpful.  The athletes playing with them also hurt, and the challenge of tolerating your pain may add to the competition.  In addition, athletes often report great satisfaction after persevering through a painful training session or competition.

Accepting the reality that pain is a part of training and competition may be most helpful.  You cannot perform at a high level and not experience pain.  Comfort and performance excellence are mutually exclusive.  You cannot have them both.  Prior to exercise, decide how much pain you are willing to experience to achieve your goals.  When pain shows up, be willing to feel it fully as part of your experience.  Let your pain be in service of your greater goal.  You may be surprised to find your pain suffering will be lessened when you allow pain to be a part of sport.

More on injury and rehabilitation pain at a later date (you are not advised to push through injury pain) … but until then, “Be willing.”

References

  1. Addison, T., Kremer, J., & Bell, R. (1998). Understanding the psychology of pain in sport.Irish Journal of Psychology, 19, 486-503.
  2. Taylor, J., & Schneider, T. (2005). The triathlete’s guide to mental training. Boulder, CO: VeloPress.

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