Throughout my personal experience I have had a love/hate relationship with the concept of “No pain, no gain!” As a kid I was a competitive gymnast and we had a quote on our gym wall from 1976 Japanese Olympic Gold medal gymnast Shun Fujimoto. He competed his last two events in the team competition with a broken patella, helping Japan to beat Russia for the team gold medal. When asked about the pain of landing his dismount from the rings, he said “My desire to win was greater than my moment of pain…now I have the gold medal and the pain is gone.”
As a young gymnast those words were very inspiring. But as a massage therapist who works with athletes, I often am asked about training and competing through pain of injury. While I do have a handful of clients who are professional athletes, the majority are mere mortals who enjoy their sport and compete as amateurs. Most are looking for personal bests or perhaps making the podium at a local event, but Olympic Gold typically is not on the line. So my advice is usually to take the time to properly rehabilitate the injury so that you will be able to enjoy your sport far into the future.
That being said, there is a difference between the pain of injury and the pain of hard effort. When I got into the sport of running and later triathlon, I followed training workouts that I found online or generic workouts that were designed for groups. I trained by perceived exertion, basically if it felt too hard I slowed down. While I was able to run further and further, eventually running marathons, I never got any faster and it never got any easier. Later I began working with a coach who had me train by heart rate. It was then that I learned that when left to my own perception of exertion, I AM A WHIMP! As I became more familiar with my heart rate zones and how they corresponded to my physical abilities it became quite evident that what I previously thought was a hard effort was nowhere near what my body was capable of. It’s just that what I was really capable of took even more effort, and that was uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful, but doable. Eventually I got stronger and faster and it became easier, so I could push harder and get stronger and faster, and so on. Eventually I came to enjoy the pain of a hard workout. The body is amazing at being able to adapt to the stressors it is exposed to and is able to do the same amount of work with less effort. So if you want to get stronger and faster you have to constantly challenge yourself beyond your comfort zone.
In his blog, Hardly Serious with Jens Voigt, one of my favorite professional athletes describes how his relationship with pain actually helped him as he recovered and returned to competition after a significant crash in the Tour de France. You can read it here:
So as you train for whatever sport you enjoy, when you find yourself experiencing pain ask yourself is this the pain of injury or the pain of hard effort. If the answer is “injury,” you may want to hold off on registering for that next competition, schedule an appointment with your trusted health professional for evaluation and then book yourself for a therapeutic massage so that we can help your tissues heal more quickly. If the answer is “hard effort”, then embrace the pain, finish that workout strong and go book yourself a recovery massage as a reward for that effort.
Happy, healthy training!