Why pain is a good thing (and why you should stop fighting it)

One of our mottoes is “train don’t strain” and we have rubbished the “no pain, no gain” attitude which has done such horrendous damage to the fitness industry and modern athletics, just as Arthur Lydiard did 60 years ago. But pain can actually be a good thing, if you understand why you feel pain in the first place.

In the book “Why we get sick” the evolution of all our natural defense responses (fever, diarrhea, inflammation, coughing, morning sickness, vomiting, pain, fear) are explained and not surprisingly pain and fear serve very useful purposes. People who cannot feel pain, due to rare disorders, are almost all dead by the age of thirty.

Pain is simply a signal that tissue is being damaged and it has to be sufficiently aversive to motivate you to set aside what you are doing (such as holding a boiling cup or running on a broken leg). Without these signals, you would be in the E/R constantly and very soon after that in the morgue.

When it comes to chronic pain, such as shin-splints, Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis, this means you have to stop battling the symptoms. The pain is simply your body attempting to prevent structural damage and get you to cease damaging activity. Symptomatic relief such as icing, NSAIDs and static stretching just exacerbate the problem by allowing you to persist with the damaging activity.

Time to dispense with RICE

This is the key message for all of us is in “Why we get sick” and the new discipline of “Darwinian Medicine”: be extremely careful messing around with your natural defense responses. When you suppress a fever, take an anti-diarrheatic, put ice on an inflammation or use an anticongestant,  studies show that you will regularly recover much slower than if you had let the body’s natural defenses run their course. Well-meaning advice to use Rest-Icing-Compression-Elevation is almost certainly going to slow down healing of your injury and should be avoided. I always struggled to put together the pieces of the puzzle but once Tony Riddle pointed me in the direction of Evolutionary/Darwinian Medicine, most of the answer became quite clear.

Chronic injuries are like the flu virus: the virus is not attacking you, you are setting up the conditions for it to flourish, inadvertently or knowingly, by the choices you make in your lifestyle or the stresses you are subjected to (for an article about how chronic stress shuts down your immune system, check out Tony Riddle’s latest piece).

Taking responsibility for your injuries

So the chronic injuries are not attacking you or “something that happens to you”, they occur because you setup the conditions for them to occur. In running this generally comes down to compromising your posture through sitting all day and other factors that destroy your natural movement pattern. Your body has no choice but to strike back against such misuse of its systems and punish you with pain. Your body, unlike your intellectual mind, has your best interests at heart at all times and cannot allow you to get injured to a point where your survival is at risk. If the body worked any other way, you would not be here today, rather natural selection would have rooted out anyone with such genes (because they would have died in higher numbers). This is one reason excessive recklessness is  a rare trait.

Your friend the pain

So take this message away: pain is your friend because it allows you to avoid crippling injury just as fear is your friend because it helps you stay out of harmful situations. Next time you come home from a run with a niggle, stop looking for ways to make the pain go away and focus on finding out why the body is doing this to you. It is almost certainly down to poor movement patterns, something that can be easily coached back into you.

Don’t believe us? I recommend reading “Why we get sick” by Randolph M. Nesse and George C. Williams and “Why Zebras don’t get ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.