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
This 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.
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.
I 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?
… 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.
… 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.