Exercise and Pain


"Pain is not a stranger. It’s not an unexpected guest to whom you latch the door. Pain is on the daily. The surprise isn’t that you return to pain again and again. The surprise is that by traversing its passageways of doubt and fear, you emerge to the highest levels of joy. This is why we run."Oiselle athlete Lauren Penney, Payton Jordan, 5000m

I saw this quote posted on Oiselle's Instagram page today and it made me think.

Most of us avoid pain as much as we can. Whether it's emotional or physical, if we can find a way around it, we will probably go to great lengths to do so.

In our personal life, pain happens and sometimes we can't avoid it. We fight in our closest relationships, we go through break ups and we deal with tragedy and loss. Avoiding this pain makes it linger and I've written about how exercise has helped me deal with difficult emotions. Addressing it head on, usually makes us emerge stronger.

Physically, as a former athlete I know that pain can not be avoided. Just like in the quote above, strangely we return to it. This year alone - in the US - almost 50,000 people have finished a marathon. That's painful, during and after.... but also in training. As runners we push ourselves to get to a faster time, run more efficiently and make our bodies stronger to recover better. Why do we do it?

I have recently talked to a few women who have had children and continue to explore their physical boundaries. They told me child birth raised their pain threshold. Dealing with the unknown pain of a maraton, an ironman or other event, has become easier after giving birth and some professional athletes can probably attest to that. British marathoner Paula Radcliffe won the NYC Marathon less than 10 months after giving birth and many more women have returned to their sports performing better than before they had children.

Personally when people ask me why I would put myself through the pain of speed work or tempo runs or strength work that feels unpleasant, it is because that makes it a 'known'. If I can endure it in training, it will not be a surprise during an event. If I can touch on my boundaries in training then my body gets stronger and so does my mind.

Shalane Flanagan said before the Boston Marathon that she breaks her competition mentally. Her father added that she can step into pain like nobody else. She is capable and willing to make herself uncomfortable until she shakes off her opponent. And she does that through visualization, through simulating the fatigue and discomfort of her races, beforehand and sharpening her mental and physical fitness. That, gives her a feeling of control and being ready.

exercise and pain

Outside of performance I personally believe that pain makes us evolve. The emotion following discomfort is usually elation and a feeling of empowerment. I am not talking about tapping into your last 20% which are only released under extreme duress but accepting that life is a flowing sequence of opposing forces.

Good and bad, high and low, weak and strong, pain and pleasure they all create a (mostly) balanced construct through which we navigate and try to stay in the flow. Imbalance creates discontent.

So, my bottomline is, a little pain won't kill ya. You've most likely been there anyway. Surrender to it, make it work for you. Make it a 'known' so that the next time it comes around, you can laugh it in the face and march on - on your quest for your next challenge.

Let me know what you think in the comments.