Pain and exercise. This is a thorny issue and not one that can be solved by one simple formula. However, there are some common mistakes that people make, causing exercise to become unnecessarily difficult. This post for you if you suffer from familiar aches and pains that tend to recur, on exercise, with annoying regularity and seemingly for no reason.
When it comes to exercise – particularly running - you commonly hear the phrase ‘let pain be your guide’. On the surface this sounds fairly sensible – do your thing until it hurts and then stop.
But, in reality, what does this look like? You start to exercise and at some point pain comes on. You stop – as per the advice - and rest. You keep resting because you are worried about causing further damage. Perhaps a few days later you try again and – often at the same point – the same thing happens and you stop again. After a few rounds of this you conclude “running is bad for me” or "I can't run with my knees" and hang up your trainers.
Finding another sport is one answer, if you don’t really like running, but if you do like it then it’s a shame to stop.
So, what is going on and how do you overcome it?
Remember, from previous blog posts, that pain is an alarm. It’s the brain’s way of letting you know that it believes you are in danger. Sometimes, this information is accurate and useful. Other times, that alarm is unnecessary and inaccurate i.e. you are sent a message saying ‘damage’ when in fact there is none.
There are many reasons for this. One reason might be if you have suffered injury in this area before. Previous injury immediately puts the brain on higher alert – this past experience will be remembered and your brain wants to stop you making the same mistake again. Unless you have recently hurt yourself or are doing something quite extreme it is unlikely you are causing damage.
Unfortunately, by stopping, you are reinforcing the message that the activity is dangerous. This response becomes conditioned i.e. learned, over time so that eventually pain will be automatically triggered out of habit, regardless of injury.
The key is finding a way to break the cycle and provide positive feedback to your brain that all is well, running is not dangerous and there is no need to activate the pain alarm.
Well, firstly, the answer is NOT to ignore the pain. This can be worse - if you ‘run through’ pain this will be interpreted as even more dangerous by your central nervous system and it will be prompted to ramp the pain up to get you to listen. Does this sound familiar? Any increased pain, even if it is very severe is unlikely to be significant damage (if you are engaging in activities that are normal for you) but, your body sure does want you to listen. So, make sure you do!
Here are some alternative tips.
Firstly, find an activity that is easier than you would normally set out to achieve. Something that is a bit of a challenge but not too much. Commit to doing this a certain number of times a week for an agreed length of time. Ideally write this down e.g. I will run 2 miles, 3 times a week.
Whilst doing the activity, if pain comes on, acknowledge it, observe it and don't panic. In your mind can you picture where it is and what it feels like? Slow down if you need to but do aim to complete your agreed activity. (A little pain is ok but stop if it’s excruciating of course.)
Self-reassurance goes a long way here. While you are running it helps to give yourself encouragement and kindness. Runners in races get hugely boosted by spectators cheering them on. Can you provide this for yourself in the form of “I’m ok, I can do this” or similar?
Afterwards, document a word or two in a book or your phone about how it went. You only need to write something simple like “It hurt a bit” “bit sore” or “no pain today”.
Repeat the exercise over a few weeks and you will notice that the outcome is different every time. Yes, it may hurt sometimes but importantly - there will be times when there is no/little pain.This information provides reassurance to you (and your brain) that serious structural damage is unlikely, it's not getting worse and you can break the cycle of pain.
Over time slowly and gradually build up your distance, speed or wherever it is you want to progress and you will find that you are soon well beyond where you were at the beginning. Not only will you have increased your strength and speed but you will have actively decreased the sensitisation in the previously painful parts of your body. Give it a go. You may be surprised at what your body can do!