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Injury Prevention

Every Triathlete Needs To Understand Good Pain vs. Bad Pain

Pain is a big part of what triathletes do, but understanding the “language of pain” is essential.

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“No pain, no gain” is an oft-recited mantra—but when it comes to tri training, that mentality is anything but definitive. In fact, one training expert likens understanding pain to learning a new language that your body is using to communicate with you. Here’s how to decipher what your physical pain—”normal” or otherwise—is trying to say.

What To Listen To, What To Tune Out

“Pain is almost entirely subjective. It’s a signal from the body to the brain that says you’re incurring damage,” said Sean Cronin, co-owner of NYLO Fitness. “The job is to determine if the pain is a warning bell or noise.”

Cronin says that the sensation of burning muscles during and after hard training, or the pain that comes with a deep stretch, is more on the “normal”—and even beneficial side.

“Lactic acid [buildup], muscle fatigue, or soreness comes with the territory of competition,” he added. “Listen to your body and experiment with pushing through, pulling back, and the results you get from each experiment, in order to figure out what best suits you and your competition goals.” Of course, there’s more to it than that.

Where Does Some Pain Come From?

“Pain in the form of tweaked muscles, or joint pain, often points to poor training balance,” Cronin said, noting that some triathletes tend to neglect mobility work and strength training which can offset these pains.

Related: Why Strength Training is Important for Endurance Athletes

“Most pains in endurance sports come from tight muscles which need to be mobilized, or from weak antagonistic muscles which must be addressed in strength training beyond regular triathlon training. When in doubt, roll it out on the toughest foam roller you can tolerate for as long as you can tolerate.”

Related: Do These 3 Foam Roller Exercises After Every Run

Regular, Old Tri Pain

In terms of body areas that might endure less worrisome pain, Cronin says that biking, swimming, and running tend to affect the lower back, upper back, groin, and/or hip the most. What’s deemed “normal” pain should subside in two weeks with rest and anti-inflammatories as needed.

While Cronin says that each athlete comes to the sport with different bodies and different training experience, it’s important to acknowledge that pain beyond the intense physical and mental effort of hard work is never normal: “Treat everything as a faint warning bell that must be tended to before the training volume increases,” he advised.

“Treat everything as a faint warning bell that must be tended to before the training volume increases.”

When (and Where) To Take Pain Seriously

“If pain continues [after rest and anti-inflammatories], it is almost certainly caused by an underlying issue related to improper training or recovery practices,” Cronin said. “Don’t ignore it. Your body is on your team and wants you to succeed. If it is throwing off warning bells, there is always a reason. Take the time to understand what the reason is, and you will be a better triathlete for it.”

Generally speaking, consistent pain or sharp pain in a specific area, especially if it is only located on one side of the body, is an indicator of an injury onset. As for pain sensations that are “asymmetrical or originate in bones or joints,” Cronin said that these most certainly are a cause for concern from the get go.

Shoulders, hips, and T-spine (upper back) are a triathlete’s problem areas,” he said. “Triathlon is an intense sport, but it only exists in the sagittal plane, meaning triathletes generally only move forward. There is little or no side-to-side movement. This puts the hip’s internal and external rotators in danger of developing muscle imbalances which can lead to hip, groin, or lower back injury.”

Cycling, which requires the body to be bent over in heavy spinal flexion with internally rotated shoulders, can also result in neck pain and poor shoulder mobility.

“Poor shoulder mobility is often exacerbated by swimming, as tight joints cannot take the strain well. This results in neck, shoulder, and back pain and injury,” Cronin warned.

Related: 6 Simple Poses for Stretching Sore Tri Muscles

What To Do About This Specific Pain?

“Consult an expert who understands your sport and your passion,” he offered. “Experts come from all disciplines—massage therapy, coaching, medicine, etc.—so make sure your expert understands the mechanics of your sport, your body, and your drive.”

Cronin also says that it’s imperative to work to develop your own understanding of the body and your relationship to pain. He advises extensive bouts of deep tissue work— foam rolling, myofascial release, and self-massage— to develop better kinesthetic awareness.

“This will allow you to determine ‘normal’ pain more easily from a warning bell. Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone.”