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Injury Prevention: Pain and Discomfort in Training


Can you distinguish between pain and discomfort? Knowing the difference and how that applies to your training can be critical to a healthy training cycle and injury prevention.

Injury Prevention: The Role of Pain and Discomfort in Training

I am a RRCA Certified Running Coach and NASM Personal Trainer, but I not a medical professional, and I am not YOUR trainer. The following post is meant to help you understand and investigate your training journey, but always consult with a professional if you are experiencing symptoms.

Do you know how to tell the difference between pain and discomfort? Get my injury prevention tips and keep yourself in marathon training! @suzlyfe

 In my mind, the motto “No Pain, No Gain,” is a loud of bollocks. I am a much greater fan of the “Get Comfortable with being uncomfortable,” as well as the quote that I posted last week, “Make it hard but make it possible.”

About a year and a half ago, I posted about the difference between fear and nerves: in my life, fear indicates an innate, visceral response that indicates the potential for danger and actual harm. On the other hand, nerves indicate anticipation and excitement, but not necessarily ensuing harm or danger. Think about walking a tightrope with or without a net. One might make you nervous, but the other should actually be truly scary. 

I make this distinction to help me illustrate pain vs discomfort: Pain is an indication that something has gone too far (think tightrope, no net), while discomfort is an indication that the boundaries are being pushed (tightrope, with a net). 

Injury Prevention By Distinguishing Between Pain and Discomfort

But how do you tell the difference? Let’s start with discomfort, as it is the precursor to pain: Discomfort is pre-injury, and the amount of recovery that is necessary is dependent on how close to that injury-point that you are. 

Some examples of Discomfort when Training:

  • Burning in the muscles as you push yourself.
  • Wobbly muscles due to exhaustion (think how you feel after a long run, speed session, or lifting session)
  • That moment when you question yourself, and wonder if you can do it, but you feel game. (like wondering what the heck your running coach was thinking when she put together your sessions, but trusting that she knows what she is doing, and therefore learning to trust yourself).

Pain is a bit different: Pain is actual injury, from which recovery is prolonged, and necessary. 

Acute pain is a key indication of injury! Learn other ways to tell the difference between pain and discomfort with these training tips from

Some examples of Pain during Training:

  • Searing pain in a particular area of the muscle. 
  • Prolonged muscle soreness that impedes your life and actively alters your gate. 
  • Mental Burnout (see my post on how to avoid mental burnout during training).

Some notes about making the distinction between pain and discomfort:

  • Pain has prolonged negative effects both mentally and emotionally.

Pain immediately changes your plans, makes you change plans for the future, and changes your personality. This is your body and brain’s method of protecting itself: think of the last time that you had a really bad stomach bug or food poisoning. How long did it take you before you had that food again? Same concept.

  • Discomfort is more generalized and fleeting

As mentioned previously in the post, discomfort is generally more of a sensation or state of being, and it is temporary. When you feel burning in your quads, you can still think, even if you are think about when will it end. Because that is the thing: you know that it will end, and it generally does after you finish the action. Pain, on the other hand, it consumes your feelings and thoughts, and it doesn’t go away after you finish.

  • Pain is typically fairly acute.

When my stress fracture set in, I could pinpoint exactly where it was, though the area of pain moved around in the later weeks. With as many weeks into healing as I am now, the Pain has become Discomfort: I have moved from shooting, searing pain that caused me to limp severely, to a sort of ambiguous feeling that something isn’t entirely right (what I would characterize as a discomfort stage).

  • The line between pain and discomfort is fairly thin, especially when you are recovery from a true injury

Now, don’t you go thinking, “oh, so she is telling me that I can push through discomfort. When I get to the discomfort stage, I am free to start pushing things again.” Not entirely true. Our bodies are quite resilient as a rule, and so as long as you are not coming from a state of injury, you can come close to the threshold without crossing it, and still recover relatively quickly. But if you are coming back from injury, the body is already working so hard to fix itself that it doesn’t have the same resiliency, especially if you are potentially reinjuring yourself. Think walking on cracked ice. 

what doesn t kill you bears

How can I apply this to my training in order to avoid injury?

Learning to distinguish between pain and discomfort is a personal journey. And yes, I will call it a journey. I, obviously, still have some work to do on the subject! But I also think that my two stress injuries this past year also demonstrate the steep curve that can exist between pain and discomfort.

Hindsight is indeed 20/20: looking back, I can see some warning signs but having never had those warning signs together before, I didn’t know what they were warning signs of. I should not have run on that Friday after what appears to be the initial injury, but I did do at least one thing that was somewhat smart, and that was to get off the treadmill when I knew something was very wrong. I could have ended up with a true fracture, not just a stress fracture. (#winning?)

Learn the signs of pain:

  • Acute pain that does not go away with brief rest
  • Pain that alters your natural gait or range of movement.
  • Any time a sound is associated with a pop of pain, it is usually not a good thing.
  • Mental and emotional distress as a result
  • Inability to recover from injury, physical or mental.

These are just some guidelines. As previously stated, training, pain, discomfort, etc, is very much personal. If you are unsure as to whether something truly is pain or discomfort, do not hesitate to seek out professional advice. Regardless of the the outcome, you will learn more about your body and, hopefully, prevent future injury. 

Can you tell the difference between pain and discomfort #run #runchat #fitfluential Click To Tweet

What are some pieces of advice for distinguishing between pain and discomfort? How do you express the difference to others (friends, clients, etc)?

Linking up with Tuesdays on the Run (Erika, Marcia, and Patty) + Fit Foodie Mama, Fruition Fitness, Angelena Marie, and Fitful Focus for Wild Workout Wednesday and Jill for Fitness Friday!

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