Pain or Discomfort?
By Richard Ferguson Ph.D
Whether we like to admit it or not, there is a certain amount of physical discomfort that comes with running if we’re really pushing to our physiological capacity. I hate to use this word, but yes, there is pain involved with running. The pain I’m talking about has nothing to do with injury. Running pain comes with effort and endurance when metabolic waste products build up, energy stores become depleted, and muscles become sore because of eccentric loading. Our emotions actually are very important in how we perceive and interpret the pain of running. Often, if we are really concentrating on a pace or competitor, we don’t have any awareness of pain until something breaks our concentration. Usually if our concentration is not on ourselves we are much better at dealing with pain when pain does occur.
Our beliefs about pain can greatly influence the pain we actually experience. Think about the placebo effect. If we expect a pill to reduce pain we may actually get some pain relief, even if the pill is only a sugar pill. Our cognitive expectations about things can greatly influence the sensations we experience.
Pain is a very individual phenomenon. It’s a known fact that some individuals tolerate pain much better than others. There is really no way to accurately measure pain because the only way to do so is dependent upon the perceptions of the individual experiencing the pain and also how they describe the pain. What one runner would call excruciating pain may be completely ignored by another runner. In reality, pain is a very difficult thing to study, both the intensity of the pain and coping with pain.
How can we deal with the pain we experience in running? Almost all programs that are designed to teach humans how to endure or cope with pain are designed around the thinking process. In other words, pain management strategies are cognitive in nature and usually involve concentration on something other than the pain itself. To better deal with the discomforts of running exertion we need to direct our attention away from the self and toward other thoughts.
When we actually concentrate on our body and how it feels we are said to be practicing “association.” Research has shown that the best runners do indeed associate and monitor their bodies quite well. They know what their body should feel like at certain paces etc. On the other hand, when we think about something else when we run, like being at the beach or winning a race, we are practicing “dissociation.” During extreme discomfort even the best runners probably dissociate to some degree. If we can just take our focus away from the discomfort the degree of pain seems to be lessened.
What should we think about when we begin to feel really uncomfortable? The answer is simple: a mental device. A mental device is not a piece of high priced equipment. In other words, you don’t need to fork out big bucks for some gadget that will sit in your basement for eternity. A mental device is anything that takes your thoughts away from the self. A self-statement like, “relax and feel good,” concentrating on your breathing, a specific cue word, or even a mental image are all examples of mental devices.
By using a mental device we can disregard pain in a way, or at least not cognitively acknowledge that pain is present. The key with making this work is practice! In order to self-regulate our perceptions of pain we must continually refine our ability to cognitively interpret pain.
Here are a few suggestions to try on your next “challenging” run. Since your breathing is always present when you run, it can serve as your first mental device. When you feel yourself begin to suffer a bit, simply focus on your breathing and nothing else. Once you have learned to do this, begin to imagine that each time you exhale you’re actually blowing pain out of your body. In reality you won’t blow out any pain, but you will begin to take your focus away from the discomfort.
Repeating a cue word is also a good way to reduce the focus on discomfort. Repeating over and over to yourself words, like “relax,” “easy,” or “warm” can take your mind away from pain. Combining these cue words with some imagery that is comforting can also be a valuable tool when you’re not feeling all that great.
Finally, by simply focusing on the race or those you’re running with can serve to reduce discomfort. It’s a well-known fact that if you focus on the task at hand totally, then you can’t be focusing on yourself and how you feel. Just think back to a really good race when you were very focused on catching someone or running a certain time. Did you really perceive pain in that situation? If you were totally focused on the race the pain was secondary.
Above all, don’t focus on the feelings of discomfort. Doing so will only make the perceptions of the discomfort worse. Practice using some mental device to get your mind away from pain and you will cope with the pain better. No, we can’t totally eliminate pain, but with a little practice we can drastically change how we perceive it!