Push Past Pain? Not!
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on November 7th, 2010

A more accurate title for this NY Times column How to Push Past the Pain, as the Champions Do would have been “Don’t try this at home.” Considering that it appeared in the Health section, it strikes me as somewhere between ill-conceived and irresponsible because its message can be summarized as “Dear Reader, A small group of people who are nothing like you encourage you to ignore and ‘push past’ pain.”

A few excerpts:

“Mary Wittenberg, president and chief executive of the New York Road Runners says one of the secrets of elite athletes, is ‘. . . the ability to thrive on and push through pain‘.”

It quotes Tom Fleming, a former elite marathoner who now coaches fitness and competitive distance runners as saying: “I was totally willing to have the worst pain. I was totally willing to do whatever it takes.”

And finally, it has Dr. Jeroen Swart, a sports physician, at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa advising readers that “athletes must resist the feeling that they are too tired and have to slow down, he added.” Instead, they “have to concentrate on increasing the intensity of their effort.”

Dr. Swart, it seems, doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk – err, make that runs himself into – and nearly below – the ground:  “There were many races where ‘I pushed myself beyond my abilities and had to withdraw, as I was completely exhausted.’”

I had to check again. Yes, this advice really did appear under the newspaper’s Health banner.

Here’s what’s wrong with the philosophy expressed:

1) Readers, even those who call themselves ‘athletes’ are overwhelmingly motivated more to health than high performance. Pushing oneself to the point of exhaustion isn’t just non-sustainable; it almost inevitably damages the body – leading to physiological and orthopedic injury. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the greatest health benefits come from exercising at just 60 percent of your capacity.

2) The careless advice to ‘ignore and push past pain’ overlooks the fact that the word pain often has entirely different meaning for an experienced, than to an inexperienced, athlete. The experienced athlete often uses pain as shorthand for: ‘Intensive – but on the whole positive – sensation.’ Few inexperienced athletes have the awareness to discriminate between ‘good hurt’ and that which leads to injury or breakdown.

3) The world’s best athletes – in contrast to those chasing them – are far more likely to experience a pain-free flow state in their best races.  Countless times I’ve seen a photo of a closely bunched pack of runners approaching the finish in an Olympic 5k or 10k track race. The leader often looks serene. Any signs of strain appear on the faces of those chasing him or her – usually in inverse proportion to their place in the field. And I’ve directly asked five different swimmers who set world records to describe how it felt when they swam faster than anyone else in human history. All emphasized flow. None described straining.

4) This article was among a series that focused on marathon running in the weeks leading up to yesterday’s NY Marathon. Marathon runners suffer more downtime, due to injury, than any other endurance athlete. Sports doctors say that the most common cause of injury is failure to heed clear signals from the body to ease up.

To gain the greatest health benefit from exercise – and to perform your best as well as enjoy it most – pursue flow states not pain or discomfort. Run, bike or swim farther or faster when you feel pulled to do so, rather than pushing yourself. Channel the flow of energy in and through your body, rather than expending energy. Work with, rather than against, natural forces.

For a holistic and sensible guide to intelligent fitness, read Effortless Exercise by TI Coach Grant Molyneux.

Elite Women in the NY Marathon. No pain or strain here.

4 Responses to “Push Past Pain? Not!”

  1. Alan says:

    Had a similar reaction when I saw this article, just reading the title! why pain? I thought. Knew you would have something to say about it, and glad you did.

  2. leo Rutten says:

    Terry I agree. My best running races always ended with being able to run more. However “bad” times are often followed with pain and limping around. I don’t know how to push in the water as my times show. But on foot I know more than most. My recent 3:15 a 20 year pr was brought on by learning a new running technique, chi running. Every since I’ve worked on that principle my times have been going down. So now I’m thinking that in my sub 3 hour days they could have been in the 2:40s. So I’m chasing the 3 hour mark again which would place me in the world class age grade group. However in order to get the job done sometimes we need to push the limits, and sometimes that hurts toward the end of a race which would be no time to let up. Good article.

  3. Leo I think you’re among those runners with the experience to know the difference between ‘good hurt’ and suffering – or pain that signals impending injury. And as your post notes, you’re even in striking distance of being world class for your age. How many who read that “Health” (note, this is a general newspaper, not a publication aimed at high-level runners) are similar to you? Hardly any. Some who will read this indiscriminate advice will be encouraged to ignore pain signals which they should heed, and join the already high marathon-injury statistics.

  4. Great post Terry. It would seem the Times didn’t do their due diligence on this piece…

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