Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Tue, 25 Nov 2003 19:08:28 -0500

Feeling Your Pain


Pain is on my mind today for two reasons. First, I'm dealing with a pain in the butt that comes to visit every couple of years.

It's not a person but an injury, a muscle tear where the glutei attach to the upper hip. It isn't a running injury, though it stopped my runs for a few days.

The other reason I'm thinking about pain is that a student-reporter from the University of Missouri asked about it. "I'm writing a story about the pain runners go through both in really hard workouts and in races," said James Carlson. "I'm trying to delve into why runners ignore the body's most basic cautionary response, pain, and the ways they go about doing it."

He wanted to know my thoughts on the "pain barrier." What allows some runners to punch through it better than others?

I began by telling him about the butt injury, defining it as a "bad pain." Not bad as in severe, but bad in contrast to the good pain of running. The bad one keeps you from pushing for the good one.

Good pain is what we experience normally in some runs. It's the discomfort of fatigue or mild soreness that follows a race or hard training session.

These feelings are temporary and not entirely unpleasant. This type of pain reminds us that we've done as well as we could, that we're allowed to feel a little bit heroic.

The pain barrier exists, but I see it less as a wall to be crashed than as a line to be pushed. It tells us how hard we can safely run, how far we can safely bend without breaking. Break through that barrier too far or too often, and bad pains are sure to follow.

I don't think runners truly break through the pain barrier -- not for long, anyway. We simply learn to work with it.

The first way of working with pain is recognizing what the auto racers call a "red-line pace." In our hard training and racing, this line separates good pains from bad pains, discomfort from destruction. Ambitious and successful runners learn to nudge that line without going over.

The second way of dealing with the pain barrier is to move it. It's not like a steeplechase hurdle, in the same place for all runners, all the time.

Training pushes the red-line to a higher level. What might be a destructive effort early in training becomes a mere discomfort later on, and what once was uncomfortable becomes easy.

I see all types of runners, from the fastest to the slowest. I don't see the top ones, as a group, enduring a great deal more pain than the back-of-the-packers. What the front-runners have are the talent and training to run as fast as they can at twice the pace of the little-talented and lightly trained.

Kenny Moore was between his two Olympics and only beginning to earn his living as a writer when he penned an article about runners and pain. More than 30 years later it still makes more sense than anything else I've read on the subject.

"Good distance runners are reputed to possess either great resistance or little sensitivity to pain," Moore wrote. "I have heard coaches state flatly that if an athlete doesn't have a high 'pain threshold' he may as well forget about running well. Yet I doubt whether runners as a group are any more brave when it comes to sitting in dentist chairs or receiving tetanus boosters than the general populace."

He told of participating in a study to measure the effects of altitude training. This involved running to exhaustion and then giving blood samples.

Moore noted, "It seemed strange to our doctors that while we showed no reluctance to run ourselves into unconsciousness at the end of a hard workout (quite easy to do at 7500 feet), the mention of another session with the needles set us all to whining like tormented alley cats. The explanation, of course, is that we were used to OUR KIND of pain.

"Over the years we had developed a familiarity with our bodies that let us know how much of the discomfort of extreme fatigue we could stand. Part of a runner's training consists of pushing back the limits of his mind. But the needle pain was relatively new and exposed our 'innate toughness' for what it was -- a learned specialty."


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