Fostering body awareness, acceptance, and improved performance.

Is pain the sign of a good workout? – Part 1

On our Moving Well Podcast, Nikki and I recently discussed muscle soreness and whether it is the sign of a good workout.  I thought this was a topic that needed to be expanded on with a blog post because there are so many misconceptions and bad information about this topic out there. Here is the podcast for your reference.

Pain and Working Out

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Bishop performs lunges carrying a 100- pound sandbag in the well deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD 23) during a squad competition.

First off I want to clarify about what is and is not ok as far as pain and working out goes.  Contrary to popular belief, pain is actually not weakness leaving the body.  The vast majority of time pain is your bodies way of signaling something is wrong, you at potentially damaging yourself and you need to stop what you are doing asap.   This is even more important if you are dealing with an injury! Stopping at the first hint of pain is the best way to prevent reinjuring yourself and repeated visits back to the doctor, chiropractor, and physical therapist for the same injury.

That said there are some reasons people continue to exercise while in pain.  You may have a condition like arthritis that pretty much always hurts and that hurts even more when you don’t move.   This type of condition will often feel painful when you start moving and then get a bit better once you warm up.  If you have this type of condition I highly recommend talking to your health care professional about what level of pain you should be experiencing and follow their guidelines.

Sometimes like the Marine in the picture on the left, people continue to work through pain because they are in a competition.  I will admit I ran through some knee pain once during a 1/2 marathon that I was not properly prepared for.  I was 9 miles into the race and knew that once I was done for the day I could rest and recover.  I had paid my money for the race and I decided to keep running.  It might have been smarter to stop and I was very uncomfortable for a few days afterwards but knock on wood I have no lingering issues from that decision. Professional athletes regularly play or compete through pain and injury.  I often like to point out to clients that they are usually not being nearly so well compensated for their own activities.  Many athletes also deal with crippling pain and dysfunction after they retire as a direct result of this.

I encourage people to look thoughtfully at why they are doing their sport, activity, or workout.  If it is for primarily for health and wellness no activity should hurt so much it decreases your function or causes you to lose fitness.  For example I once had a client who had been participating in a functional fitness program that involved a lot power lifts and moving heavy objects.  She began to have shoulder pain so bad she had difficulty lifting the laundry detergent when she was doing laundry.  If your functional fitness program causes you decreased function in daily life you have actually lost fitness even if you p.r. is higher.  I once overheard a conversation in the gym about how great one instructor’s cycling class was because they had difficulty getting on and off the toilet for a week after taking it.  Again this person experienced a loss in fitness.  Hopefully it was temporary but that should never be a goal.  Sometimes it is easy to get so caught up in the experience that we lose sight of the big picture of why we are doing the exercise in the first place.  Pain and general health and fitness are usually not compatible.

Sometimes people are choosing to work out for other reasons.  If we go back to our marine, I am not super concerned that they are working to a painful level in their competition.  He will likely find himself in a war zone where he won’t have the option to say ok everyone we need to stop this fighting because my back is having a little niggle of pain and I need a break.  Being able to continue to work through the pain could be the difference between life and death in that situation.

Ex-military and former athletes can sometimes be a challenge to train because they have become used to disconnecting from their body in order to get their tasks done.  This is an extremely helpful trait when training for performance or extreme conditions.  However if you goal is aging gracefully, keeping as many of your original body parts for as long as possible, and being able to be healthy a vibrant even in old age it can be counterproductive.

Finally an example of a pain sensation that is appropriate during a workout.  It is totally permissible to experience a burning sensation in your muscle only (definitely not in joints) as they are worked and experience fatigue.  This is lactic acid accumulating due to anaerobic metabolism and will make you decide to stop what you are doing pretty quickly.  It should go away very shortly after you stop.

Stay tuned for part 2 when I discuss pain after a workout.


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