Don’t be afraid—discomfort might seem like your worst enemy, but it can actually be your greatest ally.
Running and pain typically go hand in hand. Many people abandon or avoid running altogether for this very reason. But pain isn’t something to fear. In fact, pain can be a good thing (up to a point).
Unlike the pain you feel when you twist an ankle, the pain you may feel during a run isn’t necessarily bad. (See below for more information on how to tell the difference between “good” and “bad” pain.)
If you want to understand the relationship between running and pain, look to the elite. High-level runners don’t try to avoid or dissociate from pain; they pay close attention to it—especially during races and key training runs. “They use that information to gauge their pace,” says John S. Raglin, Ph.D., researcher and professor in the School of Public Health at Indiana University Bloomington.
More specifically, elite runners use unpleasant sensations as a way to gauge how hard they’re working during a run or race, which helps them decide when to speed up and when to slow down.
If you’re chasing a time goal in an upcoming race, or you just want to learn more about yourself as a runner, do as the elites do and pay attention to how you feel while you train. As Raglin notes, noticing and accepting the unpleasant sensations that come with running is key for progressing as a runner. With time and experience, you’ll be able to use these sensations to gauge pace, intensity and even progress. You’ll know when to push harder—and when to back off.
That said, there are times when dissociating makes sense, like during the final sprint to the finish line, Raglin says. At this point, all the decision making is done, and all you have to worry about is getting to the finish line, ASAP. Or, you may dissociate during long, easy training runs, or runs that don’t involve a lot of strategy (e.g., a marathon training run where the only goal is mileage).
So as long as you’re checking in from time to time during your run to make sure you’re still on track, you can take advantage of dissociation techniques and other strategies to distract yourself from the unpleasant sensations (see below), Raglin says.
Just keep in mind: If you want to progress as a runner, you shouldn’t try to avoid pain altogether. Thankfully, the more experienced you become, the less you’re emotionally bothered by pain. In fact, you’ll likely come to expect it: “As you get more aware of what it feels like in these sorts of situations, it’s like, ‘Well, that’s just the price of entry,’” Raglin says.
Tips to Conquer the Pain
Kay Porter, Ph.D., mental preparedness coach and author of The Mental Athlete, shares a few of her favorite mental strategies for overcoming painful moments during a race or training run:
Use your imagination. Imagine a cloud of energy coming into your quads or feet and propelling you forward. Or imagine that you have a rope tied to your waist, and a runner ahead of you is pulling you along. Choose a visual that resonates with you.
Make your body a promise. During painful moments, promise your body a nice reward, like a massage or a soak in the hot tub. Then, follow through with that promise. Otherwise, any future promises you make won’t sound very convincing.
Pick people off. This strategy works best during races. Zero in on another runner who’s ahead of you and pick up the pace until you’re able to pass him or her. Once you’ve gotten in front, return to your usual pace.
Good Pain vs. Bad Pain
Sometimes the pain you’re feeling during a run is actually your body’s way of saying, “STOP!” Pay attention to sharp or stabbing pain, or any new sensations that aren’t typical of your experience at a certain pace or distance. In any of these instances, it’s best to slow down or stop altogether.