The Pain Game – How to push through

Aug 15, 2020

Man lifting weights

There is no way to avoid it. Pain is an inevitable part of an athlete’s life. It comes in various shapes and forms, whether it be the challenge and discomfort which is part of successful training; the muscle burn which is important for increasing strength; or the fatigue necessary for pushing physiological boundaries to exceed personal limits.

Pain is a complex integrated interaction between sensory input, emotion, and conscious thought processes. The experience of, and response to pain, is not only unique to each athlete’s individual personality, but also to time, circumstance and environment.

Researchers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany did a study to see whether athletes had a higher pain threshold than non-athletes. It turns out that athletes perceive and recognize pain in the same way as non-athletes. However the difference is they do not react to it in the same way. So athletes do not have a higher pain threshold, but they (particularly endurance athletes) develop better coping skills and can therefore stand pain for longer than non-athletes.

An important distinction needs to be made between “good pain” and “bad pain”. An example of “bad pain” would be the pain associated with an injury – a torn hamstring, a sprained ankle, or a strained muscle. Adrenalin, distraction or extreme focus can facilitate remarkable feats of pushing through pain, even “bad pain”. There are countless examples of sportsmen and women who have continued competing despite serious injury. However, the moment the event is over and the adrenalin and focus are no longer masking it– the “bad” pain kicks in and can be extremely overwhelming.

“Good pain” is pain associated with pushing the body to new limits, past fatigue and extreme discomfort, but without damage or injury.

Many athletes “back off” from pain and are therefore not able to push through to the next level of performance. The fear of pain is very real, and can create a stumbling block to performance from a physical and mental perspective. Physically, fear, anxiety and stress (in reaction to pain), creates more muscle tension, which in turn hampers energy reserves and technique and form. From a mental perspective, the smallest dose of uncertainty or ambiguity about the ability to cope with pain, creates a “threat state” in the brain. At a non-conscious level, if the brain has not successfully rehearsed a positive reaction to pain, the brain will take every action to avoid and protect itself from the perceived threat. In this “threat” state, an athlete’s ability to perform old habitual behaviours is heightened, and the ability to react in new, constructive ways is diminished. Therefore, if you are not well-rehearsed in dealing with pain in a constructive way – it is highly unlikely that you will do anything but repeat old less constructive patterns whilst in a “fear” state.

The fear state is not an optimal state for performance, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular efficiency. Blood flow to the muscles and brain is  restricted, resulting in fatigue and compromised attention and decision-making. As a result, self-confidence plummets, a sense of control is lost, and performance decreases.

If an athlete has had previous negative experiences with pain, such as having to bail, or hitting the wall and not being able to push through, the  brain will be triggered into a threat state when the athlete approaches a similar situation.

Seasoned athletes are able to turn their pain into a drive-state, which motivates them and compels them to action, in direct contrast to the less experienced athlete who is likely to throw in the towel at the same point.

According to Dr David Martin, senior physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport, the pain barrier re-sets each time you break it.

The truth of the matter is, it is always going to hurt, whether in training or racing, so it’s a matter of embracing pain and even at times welcoming it.

Rafael Nadal goes as far as saying if you are fit, passionate, well-prepared and ready to compete, the suffering is something you can “enjoy”.

In their book “Flow In Sports”, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and Susan Jackson describe how “…(especially) marathon runners, long distance swimmers and cross-country skiers… draw on enormous reserves of will and stamina to complete their events. And yet, even among these most excruciating ordeals, athletes describe moments when they are able to ignore the pain and enter an effortless rhythm that transforms the agony into ecstasy. Often, athletes refer to such times as “being in the zone”.

So, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.


  • Develop a constructive relationship to pain. Learn to see “good pain” as an ally and something that you can master, rather than as an enemy. Pain provides crucial information about how your body is performing, which is ultimately beneficial in enhancing performance if used appropriately.
  • Keep calm and composed in the face of pain. Do not panic or tense up.
  • Your perception of self-control, and the value you place on pain, is instrumental in how you will experience and respond to pain.
  • Manage the pain, otherwise it will manage you. If the focus is on the discomfort of the pain, or it is seen as a bad sign – it will increase and interfere with performance.

It is quite normal to feel like quitting for a moment in time, but it’s about not acting on those feelings. Your reaction to pain is important.

  • Don’t focus on the things that tell you that you can’t continue. Focus on the opportunities.
  • Pain can be a cue to change perspective. Reflect on what you are saying to yourself in reaction to the pain? Are you reminding yourself of previous negative outcomes or imagining another failure? By changing the narrative into something positive, for example – “this is a crucial breakthrough point; this is where I take it to the next level; “many others are feeling the way I do now”, you are allowing the pain to become a positive catalyst rather than a road block.
  • Pain is temporary. Put things into perspective by reminding yourself that it will be over in a finite space of time.
  • Because concentration and focus can be negatively affected by pain, developing well-planned and rehearsed distractions to dissociate from the pain, ensures that pain will not sabotage your mental state. For example, focusing on cadence, counting strides, having short-term visual focal points, or small intervals of time or distance. Pre-rehearsed visualization techniques can also be useful. Find an image that works for you – maybe a large winch that you imagine is reeling you in, or a tail wind assisting you. Do not allow your mind to wander aimlessly as you will easily be drawn back to the negativity of the pain.
  • Remember why you are competing and what drew you to the sport in the first place. Having a broader meaning or purpose to what you are doing, creates perspective and becomes a coping mechanism in itself.

As with all mental training, these techniques need to be practiced consistently in training if they are to work well in a race. Many athletes spend hours doing their physical training, but do not do the equivalent mental training before race day. Very often it is the athlete’s mental state on the day that dictates performance.

Lesley-Anne Pedlar

Lesley-Anne Pedlar is a Performance and Sports Psychologist based in Johannesburg, who works with sports individuals and teams to help them reach their full potential, perform at their best and achieve sustainable results. Read more about Lesley-Anne Pedlar


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