Updated: Oct 24, 2020
“No pain, no gain.” “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” “The pain you feel today is the strength you will feel tomorrow.” I see this type of “motivational” quote adorning gym walls, locker rooms, coaches’ offices, and Instagram pages all the time. But this mindset is a myth at best, and actually dangerous at worst. Why? Well, the problem is multifaceted.
It all begins with our definition of the word pain. As an athletic trainer, I hear “this hurts” or “I stopped because it was too painful” fairly often. A key component of my job here is to go deeper on this with my client to understand exactly what they are experiencing. When we start to add other words to their vocabulary to better describe what their body is feeling, they often land on things like muscle soreness, fatigue, discomfort, tightness, anticipation and fear of pain, and sometimes, of course, true pain.
Understanding the lens that we see pain through, is an important first step to take. Experience and interpretation can vary greatly from person to person. An elite sprinter, who has been taught that his body is a fine-tuned machine, may be sensitive to anything that feels slightly “off,” and pull himself from a training session to recover, while a rugby player, who has been taught to play through anything, may ask to be wrapped and put back into a game even with a visible divot in her quad from a strained muscle. A freshman college athlete, who has never experienced a Division I preseason before, may truly believe that he has somehow “pulled” both his hamstrings and needs to see a doctor, while the senior athlete, although still incredibly fatigued and sore, knows that this is nothing some foam rolling and ice baths can’t fix.
A person who has never experienced a back injury may note some discomfort after a strenuous training session, and do a little extra stretching. On the other hand, someone who has a history of herniated discs may experience the same sensation, and begin a spiral of worry, anxiety, and fear as they wonder if a re-injury has occurred that will leave them in chronic pain. All of these are examples of people experiencing a physical sensation, and then interpreting it through the lens of their own experience and beliefs. Most of us lie somewhere in between.
So what is “No Pain, No Gain” all about? I think what we really mean is, “It never gets easier, you just get better.”
The discomfort during and after intense training is what all of those motivational quotes are actually referring to. If all of our training sessions were easy, we wouldn’t improve in strength or performance. This is what trained athletes often refer to as, “good soreness,” and it’s the type of pain that’s worn as a badge of pride. If you’re just beginning a new fitness routine or new sport, like the freshman athlete I mentioned above, it might be hard to differentiate this from an injury. Some questions you can ask yourself include: Do I feel this sensation on both sides of my body? (both hamstrings or both quads for example - it’s highly unlikely that you have sustained the same injury to both legs).
Does the discomfort begin to dissipate 24-48 hours after the workout? (For example, I tend to feel most sore on the second morning after a tough workout). Was I doing hard work during my training session? (RPE, rate of perceived exertion, can be a great way to check in with yourself after each session to ensure you’re working at a productive level without overtraining. More on that in an upcoming post!).
How about when what you’re feeling is more than hard work or post-training soreness? A more suitable quote might be, “These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.” -Rumi This pain is a signal from our body that something is wrong. It isn’t smart or heroic to train through this type of pain. It can make an injury worse, or the recovery process longer. Questions you can ask yourself include: Did the pain come on in a split second? Do I remember the moment where something just didn’t feel right? Has it lasted longer than 48 hours? Was there any swelling or bruising? Am I feeling pain somewhere new? Would I describe the pain as sharp, stabbing, or burning? Is the pain causing me to change the way I live my life (opening doors with the opposite arm from usual, walking with a limp, unable to sit at your desk for your normal workday).
If you’re experiencing this type of pain, it is best to talk to a sports medicine professional like your athletic trainer, physical therapist, or doctor to rule out any injuries. Sometimes people avoid these conversations due to the fear that they will have to take a hiatus from training. I encourage you to have these
conversations early - the quicker the pain is addressed, the more your healthcare professional can do to help you. We all know the extensive benefits of exercise on physical and mental health, and our goal is to get you back to training as quickly and safely as possible. Even if there are a few modifications made to your programming, it is highly unlikely that you will have to stop training all together. The right healthcare professional for you will work with and around your pain and injury, not through it.
Erica Marcano, MS ATC, CSCS, also known as The Notorious ATC, is certified Athletic Trainer and Strength & Conditioning Specialist with 15 years of experience in her field. She currently coaches clients in person throughout Brooklyn & NYC, and due to recent events, now sees clients virtually as well. Learn more about Erica and her holistic fitness practice here.