What Research Says About Pushing Through Pain

A glimpse into what the sports psychology literature says about managing discomfort in endurance sports.

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What the research says about pushing through discomfort.

It is said that running is 95 percent mental. While we tend to get hung up on the physiological aspects of performance, hard training sessions more importantly fortify the brain to withstand the sensation of being uncomfortable for prolonged periods of time. Here’s a glimpse into what the sports psychology literature says on the subject:

  • An Australian study demonstrated that aerobic training can actually increase a person’s pain tolerance. After just six weeks of aerobic workouts for 30 minutes three times per week, the participants in the study were able to withstand the same amount of pain for longer, suggesting that endurance sports can actually make us tougher over time.
  • Memories of pain experienced during a marathon waned over time, according to a study in the journal Memory. The researchers hypothesized that this is what motivates runners to sign up for subsequent events despite the discomfort associated with racing.
  • A recent study that examined the thought processes of ultramarathon runners identified their ability to “accept the pain” as playing a major role in keeping them coming back for more. Rather than tuning out the discomfort that accompanies competing in ultra-distance races, they simply embraced it and focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
  • In examining the thought processes of a group of runners during a workout, sports psychology researchers found that pain and discomfort was on the brain 32 percent of the time, distance and pace 40 percent of the run, and their surroundings the rest of the time. They also discovered that the nagging thoughts associated with pain and discomfort tapered off as a runner got deeper into the run.

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Tips to increase your pain tolerance

Kim Webster, a Boston-based USAT-certified coach and a sports psychology consultant, says that the discomfort associated with training and racing comes with the territory in the sport of triathlon. While pushing through actual acute pain can lead to injuries, increasing your tolerance for discomfort is key to success. Here are a few of her top tips for doing so:

Practice pushing through the pain. “As an endurance athlete, you need to train yourself to become comfortable being uncomfortable. And you can only do that by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations regularly during training.”

Adjust your mindset. “An athlete can interpret the sensation of fatigue in a variety of ways, such as, ‘My legs hurt, I’m tired and need to slow down’ or ‘I’m pushing hard, I’ve done this before and can do it again.’ Hence, two mindsets in response to similar levels of discomfort but interpreted in very different ways; one slowed down and the other held strong.”

Learn to visualize discomfort. “In visualization sessions, if the athlete can effectively practice interpreting signals of physical discomfort in a productive manner, they will be better prepared to deal with adversity and discomfort on race day. Really try to feel that discomfort and think specifically about how you want the brain to respond.”

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