"No pain, no gain..."
Remember that old saying? We don't hear it thrown around as much anymore because many of us in the fitness industry have wised to the fact that this isn't necessarily the healthiest or safest approach to training. But not all of the popular fitness profiles people follow on Twitter and Instagram are actually fitness professionals, so we do still see this mentality, just quoted differently and often accompanying images of someone staring intensely into the distance.
I'd like to set the record straight about pain. In a nutshell, these are some of the things you can hear me say to my clients and spin classes:
"This should feel hard, not impossible."
"You're breathing fast, your heart rate is high, but you should feel IN CONTROL."
"I don't want to see your breakfast."
And my favorite:
"Your muscles are like your kids- you can ignore the whining, but you have to stop what you're doing if they scream."
Aside from the verbal cues I give regarding how a certain exercise should feel, I encourage my clients to communicate often about how they actually DO feel. It's important to establish a frame of reference for an acceptable amount of discomfort to avoid aggravating the site of an old injury, or to make sure you are actually working hard enough and not backing off the moment you step outside your comfort zone. But everyone's threshold is different and it's important to work within those limitations as well, while maybe carefully working toward being able to withstand a little more soreness and exercise at a slightly higher intensity.
Just about any mother can tell you - myself included - that one's perception of pain will drastically change after labor and child birth. And if you boys haven't read it in a blog or heard it from the women in your lives let's be clear right now: It flippin HURTS. But, and I'll preface this by saying this is just my individual opinion, because it is a pain with a purpose, I think the mind can withstand it far better than, say, stepping on a Lego or getting a paper cut between your thumb and index finger (and I know you all know, that is the worst). And the difference there has nothing to do with the actual amount of pain, but the emotional reaction to the pain.
For me, personally, my perception of pain changed once again when I ran the Quest for the Crest 50K last year. When I say that it was harder than labor, I'm not exaggerating. But the fact that it was harder doesn't mean it was actually more painful. With labor, the end result is a baby. There's no tapping out half-way through and saying "You know what! I changed my mind! Put her back in I'm gonna try this again tomorrow!"
That race, on the other hand, there was always the option to drop out. The pain was not more intense but I was starting to have a stronger emotional reaction to the pain because I knew I didn't have to be doing it. What did I have to prove to anyone else, anyway? Not a single person whose opinion I value would ever say anything negative about my decision to drop had it come to that. So there I was, staring up the last, very steep, very cruel climb (400 feet over the course of a quarter mile), legs feeling heavier than the boulders I would have to scramble, thinking, "This is stupid. Why am I doing this? What business do I have here?" The gap I had built in the beginning between my time and the designated cut-offs was quickly shrinking and fears of the dreaded "DNF" started picking away at my confidence.
So why am I sharing this, after having told you that I think the saying "No pain, no gain" is unwise and unsafe? Because I think that there IS a time and place to push through pain. But only if you want to, and only if it's not EVERY time you work out.
There will be times that you might throw up (for me, it's a 10K) but your body is physically capable of continuing to move. There may be times when the soreness and lactic acid has built up so much that you can't run another step (Quest) but the determination to finish at any speed prevails because you can still move forward, even if it's much slower. And if you've had a child, you'll know there are times when your are not in control of ANYTHING at all but the end result will be the same anyway so you have to rely on your mental strength to keep you going.
But it's OK if you don't WANT to throw up, feel THAT much pain during a race, or go through labor (again, or ever).
The main difference between the pain you push yourself through and the pain you avoid is what you have determined is a realistic goal for you. For general fitness and weight loss, I do not recommend the kind of training I do. I experience some soreness, somewhere on my body, 75% of the week and because of that, I must be hyper aware of any nagging ailments and be vigilant about rest and nutrition. I have to know which pains have a purpose, and which pains indicate that I need to change something about my routine.
On the flip side, some variation in exercises and intensity is necessary to see any change at all, so clients who are unaccustomed to pain or soreness have a little more work to do mentally. This comes first with changing the language we use and the way we think about pain, because as I described before, not all pain is the same.
Soreness vs Hurting
Soreness may happen during an exercise as you feel your muscles strain to complete a rep. So long as the exercise is being performed safely and with proper form, you can continue and might be encouraged to do so despite some discomfort. What's happening here are micro-tears to your muscles that, as they heal, will result in stronger fibers and better muscle recruitment. You may feel a residual soreness the days following such an exercise, as the muscles repair.
But when something really hurts, that's when you have to pay attention, especially if it's pain that is localized at a joint or hinders your movement in any way. When a muscle strains too hard to lift a weight, the body may shift and loose form to use other muscles to compensate. You can see this when someone arches their back when they're going too heavy on a bicep curl, or they rock their entire body as they pull a bar down because the weight is too heavy for their back. In running, if you have to alter your stride or foot strike to favor whichever side is hurting, it's time to back off and evaluate if you're running too hard or too far (or maybe both) and try to determine the source of your pain.
Pain Perception vs Reality
There is no denying pain when it happens, but sometimes it's hard to determine if we're experiencing more of a mental block than a physical one. Some days are just hard. You didn't sleep enough, it was a stressful day at work, you're starting to feel run down... this will definitely effect how much discomfort you can tolerate in a workout. It's perfectly fine on these days to just do what you can and save the intense workouts for another, less stressful day.
But if you find yourself hitting a wall every single time you work out, you may need to reevaluate how you perceive whatever discomfort you may be feeling. A few key questions to ask yourself:
"Am I able to still do the exercise safely?"
"What is making this exercise feel hard right now?"
"Is what I'm feeling rooted in something else like stress or doubt?"
To quote "The Incredible Kimmy Schmidt" : You can do 10 seconds of anything!
So stop, take a breath, and try to focus only on the task at hand. Those squats feel tough as hell - don't get caught up watching others do their workouts and worrying whether they're struggling too. You're running and someone older/ younger/ bigger/ smaller/ pushing a stroller with triplets blows past you - it's not going to do you any good wondering "why am I not that fast?!" When your train of thought goes off the rails to that dark place of worry and self-doubt, you need to change your focus. For me, I count. Not to ten, but by eights. When a hill gets way too steep to run and I can feel my heart start to jump up into my throat, I time my breathing with my steps.
Right, in. Left, out. Eight times. Breathe in two steps and switch. Left, in. Right, out. Eight times. Breathe in two and switch.
This seems silly, but compare that to the alternative (and how I used to think during challenging races):
Oh my God this hill is so steep. My legs are already burning up. And this is only the first hill. I have to do this how many more times?! That girl ahead of me doesn't even seem winded. Maybe I need a Gu. Yuck! This flavor is awful and now I'm gagging. An hour into the race and I already want to throw up. How the [bleep] am I going to get through this?!
You see what I mean?
To say "No pain, no gain" leaves out the complicated interaction of internal and external input. Unfortunately, it's short and easy to remember so the thought still sticks in our minds when we wonder if we should keep pushing or back off. There's another saying making its rounds in "fitspiration" posts, however; one that I latched on to and have embraced for my own training and repeat often to my clients and classes:
If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you. -- Fred DeVito
Except now, unlike with that old saying that we will now permanently lay to rest- we have a far better understanding of what that "challenge" means and how it should and should not feel. So keep going. Keep working hard. Push yourself to or past your limits AS YOU ARE ABLE TO and AS YOU WANT TO. Not just because you feel like you have to. Just make sure that the goals you set are realistic and conducive with the work you are truly willing to do.
Next week- Shifting Perspectives: Finding Your Drive