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  • Richard Ulm

You should never train with pain. What?

I often hear “you should never train with pain”, usually by a chiro or a PT talking to athletes and coaches. I understand the logic of this message and don’t disagree with its intent, but it is just patently false. A statement such as this, of course, is context dependent and requires answering two critical questions. Are you training or are you exercising? And what is the character of the pain?

First and foremost, we need to make a distinction between training and exercising. The line between these two modes of intentional movement can be quite thin. The difference is not so much a matter of intensity, but more an issue  of priorities. One can exercise with impressively high intensity and still not be “training".

With exercise, the ultimate goal is health and longevity…what James Fitzgerald (founder of OPEX) would call “Vitality”. No doubt, one can have other, secondary goals such as qualifying for the Boston Marathon, squatting double body weight, getting your first pull-up, or completing Sinister, but none of these secondary goals trumps the ultimate goal of health and longevity. Secondary goals can be challenging and will require diligence, effort, time, and dedication, but at no point should they compromise the ultimate goal of health and longevity.

This is a thin line, one that is challenging to define. Remember, it is a matter of priorities. Quite often, people don’t really know the answer to the question: “what is your ultimate goal for intentional movement?” It is easy to get myopic, to get sucked into the short-term, secondary goal when in truth you are just trying to get into terrific shape without compromise to your health or longevity. For most non-athletes (“athletes” being professional athletes competing for money or at least their primary job is sport), whether they know it or not, they are exercising, not training. This doesn’t mean that they are not trying hard; it just means that they are not training “proper”. For these athletes, the statement “no one should ever train (exercise) with pain” is totally accurate. While the temptation may be strong, there is really no reason to train with pain. Training with pain comes with the inherent risk of injury, perhaps severe. For those exercising, this is an unnecessary and dangerous risk, one that they should not take on.

Training, however, the goals are different. Instead of the ultimate goal is not healthy and longevity, but performance - e.g. qualifying for the CrossFit games, competing in the Olympics, breaking a world record, or getting their IFBB pro card. For these humans, these athletes, the performance goal supersedes health and longevity. This comes with an inherent risk, one that each and every athlete (every human who chooses to train for something) must accept. This choice is completely up to the individual. For these athletes, the statement “no one should ever train with pain” is not accurate and following such a credence will limit their performance and, therefore, their ultimate goal.

This leads me to the second question of importance: what is the difference between pain that one should push though and pain that one should pull back from. For the exercising athlete, all pain should be avoided. For the training athlete, however, this line is much harder to define and much easier to cross. For these athletes, this distinction is as important to define as it is difficult to delineate. This line is so damn challenging to define because every sport is different, every moment in a training cycle is different (e.g. out of season vs. in season), every situation is different, and every athlete is different. Long story short, you cannot find the line until you cross the line. Unfortunately, if you are striving to achieve maximal performance in a given task (throw a javelin as far as possible, squat as much as your body is capable, get as lean as possible, etc.) pain, and therefore risk of injury, comes with the job. If you are training in the truest sense of the word and you dogmatically follow the credence “you should never train with pain”, you will simply never achieve your maximal performance. What makes this challenging, risky even, is that if you push too hard, you increase your chances of getting irrevocably injured - perhaps in such a way that you will never reach your potential and, worse yet, in a way that will permanently compromise your health and longevity. This is the risk that all training athletes must accept.

How then does one decipher the difference between pain that one should push through and pain that one should pull back from? Is it dull, diffuse, and bilateral? If so, you can likely push through. Does it get stay the same as the workout continues? If so, you can likely push through. Are you more sore the following morning or do you feel about the same? I you feel the same, than this is “pain” through which you can likely push. Does the pain persist for days? Weeks? Months even or does it subside after a few training sessions? If it subsides, than pushing through was the right choice.

If, however, the pain is sharp, localized, or radiating, than you need to proceed with caution. This is not a pull-the-ripcord moment, but definitely one that you need to note in your training book, one that you need track. If it persists, if you are worse the next day, if it progresses, than you need to strongly consider altering your training to avoid injury.

These may be frustratingly general guidelines, but they will help you navigate these difficult waters: training with pain, figuring out whether this is pain through which you need to push or pain from which you need to pull. This is a line that all athletes must find. Those who find it will achieve maximal performance with minimal risk of injury (as minimal as it can be) and be able to train for a longer period of time - often necessary to achieve maximal performance. Those who don’t will either never reach their potential because they either never pushed hard enough or got irrevocably injured in the process, ending their career.

In conclusion, those exercising need to keep the ultimate goal of health and longevity in your sites. At no point should you “train” (exercise) with pain. When you experience pain, pull back, modify, rest, or stop the workout altogether. Live to fight another day. Let your body progress at the rate it can progress. There is no need to push. If you are training (proper) than you need to learn how to find the line, the line over which you get injured. Sure, you have to cross the line to find the line, but avoiding serious injury is critical to the mission of achieving maximal performance in a given task. Take note of all pain and follow the guidelines listed above. Hopefully this will help you achieve your goal of maximal performance without severe injury. If you are not sure if you are training or exercising, you need to have a quiet moment, dig deep, and answer the question: am I training or am I exercising. It might help to start with the question “why am I doing this?” Finding the answer this challenging but essential question is of the highest importance.

Best of Luck!

Dr. Richard Ulm

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