Pushing Through The Pain

Each week, I see new clients dealing with a very specific type of injury. The one that comes from pushing through the pain. This past week, Jason Robillard of Barefoot Running University wrote an article that I think you should take a moment to read right now: When Running Hurts: Discriminating Between Good Pain and Bad Pain.  He writes about the difference between good and bad pain for barefoot runners and for runners who want to run ultra marathons.

Go ahead and read it now, I don’t mind waiting…

Two Kinds of Pushing Through the Pain

No Pain No Gain. Pushing Through The PainThis is a topic that has been on my mind as well. In the runner’s groups and forums, I see the advice, “pushing through the pain is what you have to do.” Usually it’s offered haphazardly by “experienced” barefoot runners to novice barefoot runners. This kind of thinking comes from a particular couple of ideas.  First, that when transitioning to barefoot/minimalist running you will experience pain, and second, that the only way to get beyond the pain is to push through it. “No pain, No gain.”

I consider this advice to be not only irresponsible, but dangerous for most people.  Doubly dangerous since the majority of those who offer the advice have very little experience in coaching much less in working directly with people with injury. Triply dangerous because they’re often strangers on the internet, where trustworthiness and background info are superficial at best.

The Article
I agree with everything Jason says. But I think he is speaking to a very specific segment of the running population. For the most part, his audience is made up of people who are already in good to excellent physical condition and injury free. However, many of the people transitioning to a barefoot/minimalist lifestyle are doing so because they have been dealing with chronic issues of pain and injury. And they are searching for the cure to their woes.

Running - Pain Now - Beer Later. Pushing Through The PainI grew up as a competitive athlete and I am all too familiar with the sayings. “No Pain, No Gain!” and “pushing through the pain is good.” One of my favorites comes from my best friend, an ex-Navy SEAL, “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” My guess is that the last one would resonate well with Jason Robillard, being an ultra marathoner.

In the past, as a personal trainer and coach, I’ve even used these same phrases to motivate clients to push themselves just a little harder. But now that my work has shifted into movement therapy, my practice has deepened and grown, and I see more and more clients with issues of chronic pain and injury.  Many of my clients come to me over-trained and in pain because they spend the majority of their training time “pushing through the pain.” In light of this, the “idea” that I have makes me think of this in an entirely different way.

What is “good” vs “bad” pain?

Good” pain….
… is general in feeling, meaning it does not have a specific origin (i.e. muscle soreness vs. “my knee hurts”).
… happens when you try a new exercise or workout after a long break.
… comes from pushing yourself to your limits of speed, strength, endurance, power.
… goes away once you slow down or stop exercising.
… in the case of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), the soreness you get a couple days after intense exercise.  This pain should reduce within 72 hours, and be gone completely within 5-7 days.
… does not interrupt your sleep.

Most well-coached athletes spend less than 10% of their total training time pushing themselves into this level of pain. It is the extra kick at the end of a workout, or a planned high intensity day. The majority of their training volume is at a lower level of intensity. However, it is not uncommon for uncoached athletes to spend the majority of their training time at this level. Every workout is a hard workout. There are no rest days. They run as hard and fast as they can every run, lift as hard as they can every workout.  Their idea of a rest day is.. well, the only easy day was yesterday. Spend too much time training at this level of “good” pain and you will eventually feel the “bad” pain.

Bad” pain…
Person with knee pain. Pushing Through The Pain… is when, in other words, you have done damage to your body.
… tends to be very specific (i.e. “my foot, heel, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow hurts right here.”)
… doesn’t necessarily go away once you stop exercising.
… lingers around for weeks or months.
… interrupts your sleep.
… affects performance.
… leaves you moody – frustrated, angry, or anxious.
… leaves you overly fatigued.
… makes your joints, bones, or limbs hurt.
… leads you to the point that your immune system is compromised.
… makes you question whether you should continue exercising.

Do you feel this? Well, if you do… You are injured. To continue pushing through the pain, your body will make the injury worse, it will increase the amount of time needed to heal, and will prevent you from doing what you love to do so much. When you have this pain, you need to stop immediately and seek help from a movement specialist who specialized in walking and running gait assessment, movement assessment, hands on massage therapy, and developing a personalized exercise program for you. It would also be highly advisable to seek the advice of a health care professional. What you want is a solid health care team!

What is Pain?
Pain is not good or bad. Pain is a vital piece of a complex communications system that tells you something is going on within your body. Pain is there for a reason, and it should be listened to, respected, and understood. Listening to, and participating in this conversation is incredibly important. If you listen to the ideas of “pushing through the pain” or “no pain, no gain,” you are  consciously disconnecting or ignoring the body’s natural warning signals.

Let’s get specific for a second.  If you are training for an ultramarathon (of 50 to 100 miles or more), then pushing through some pain is what you will need to do to be successful. There is a level in which you have to disconnect and ignore pain to achieve
your goals. However, doing so is not necessarily in the best interest of your long term health and wellness. This, I believe, is the grey area in which Jason is addressing in his article. Most high level athletes understand that they may be sacrificing some level of health to achieve a specific goal.

However, if you are learning a new skill, perhaps you are learning how to barefoot run, now is precisely and absolutely the WRONG time to shut off or ignore the vital conversation that is taking place within your body. Keep in mind that you have spent the majority of your life cut off from the communication taking place at your feet at every step. To your body, the change from walking and running in a shoe with an arch support, cushion, and heel drop, to walking and running barefoot/minimalist is like training for the Kentucky Derby by riding a merry-go-round. It’s not the same thing. It’s not even in the same ballpark.

Now is the time for you to be extra vigilant and hypersensitive.  Listen carefully to every signal coming from your body. Right now pain is the best coach you could have on the planet. It will tell you when you have done enough, and when you have done too much. It will say when you need to rest and, ultimately, when you can push it a little harder.  Appreciate it, respect it, love it. Listen to it, and don’t ignore it until you better understand exactly what it is telling you. Happy training.

Stop sign with "Stop Pain Stop". Pushing Through The Pain


12 Replies to “Pushing Through The Pain”

  1. Finding this balance is the root of all growth and if you will forgive my an indulgence, I will tell my sad tale to help illustrate. In the years past, I’ve had issues with my knees. During that time my main form of exercise was cycling. I would ride to the point where I felt too much pain and then have to rest. I repeated this cycle for quite some time, hoping to find a solution. I would road run shod occasionally, but that seemed to accelerate the pain. So I switched to shod trail running and that seemed to be a whole new pain free enjoyment. I could run for 5 – 8 miles without experiencing knee pain. It was a great couple of weeks. I was floating. But then I pushed it too far too soon and dealt my Achilles a blow. My shod hubris had manifest in my heels now. So I had to make a change in my approach. I had read about barefooting and decided to give it a go and yes there was pain involved. Sometimes bad pain, but I had a feeling that it would work for me, so I continued.

    Every time out was a learning experience. I learned alot about what aggravated the pain in my heels. I learn that there are several different kinds of blisters that can develop on your feet. I learned that even though I have the capability and desire to go farther, faster, it’s in my overall best interest to develop a moderate approach. My desire to “push through the pain” was really the self-destructive ego-driven voice of inexperience (Yeah, hill repeats are what you need). As a result, there were many mornings I put my feet on the floor and the first couple steps out bed were not pleasant. I did this for months. I was back in the same pain cycle that I had developed while cycling, And this seemed all wrong. I was supposed to be doing this activity to find the pain-free exercise Nirvana, not crippling myself. So that was my signal for a change.

    After some contemplation, I decided that my approach was what was the problem. Instead of ignoring the pain, I needed to incorporate the feedback that my body was giving me into the way that I exercised. I developed the mantra of “sensible is strong.” If I had a choice of going two ways with an activity, I would pick the direction that was most sensible and would lead to not developing an injury. This meant that if I felt pain coming on in my heels, I would start to walk and then go back to running once I felt better. I would also have to make continual micro-adjustments to my running form, listening to the feedback I was getting from my feet. Oh, I can feel some rawness starting on my toes, I need to lift and flare, I can feel a blister starting on the outside edge of my foot, I need to roll in more toward the ball of my foot.

    While I am still in the process of developing my own style, by following the “sensible is strong” approach, I have been able to increase my range and lessen my pain, which is the heart of what most of us want.

    Happy barefooting.

    1. Thanks Tim,

      Thanks for the indulgence. That was a very thoughtful and quite poignant story. There are may who are going through exactly what you went through. If they find these words, I am sure they will find resonance within them.

      Jesse James Retherford

  2. Great article/discussion to be having! My clients over the past 10 years have shifted to an older population as well as a population that have chronic illness and injuries. It is amazing how many people were programmed to think no pain no gain! Shifting their thinking pattern to working to it and not through it is most beneficial as is helping to recognize the difference between working hard pain and injury or over exertion pain!

  3. Another excellent post, Jesse. I always find your words spot on, relevant, and full of useful wisdom to inform my relationship with my body. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Don’t miss out on any of our posts, subscribe to our newsletter!