How To Boost Pain Tolerance

Matt Fitzgerald has an interesting new article on pain tolerance and running that’s worth checking out. In it, he describes the results of a classic 1981 British Medical Journal study (full text freely available) on pain threshold and pain tolerance in swimmers.

What’s the difference between threshold and tolerance? Threshold tells you when a stimulus becomes painful; tolerance tells when it becomes so painful that you can’t take it anymore. The 1981 study compared three groups: elite swimmers, club-level swimmers, and non-competitive athletes, using ischemic pain (how many times they could squeeze their fist while blood flow to the hand was cut off) as a pain test.

The first key result: all three groups had basically the same pain threshold. So the elite athletes weren’t gifted with some strange insensitivity to pain; they hurt just the same as everyone else. But there were enormous differences in pain tolerance: the elite athletes lasted far longer than the club athletes, who in turn lasted longer than the non-athletes. Put simply, the top athletes were willing and able to suffer more and for longer. Intriguingly, this isn’t something they were born with. Another part of the study involved measuring pain threshold at three different times during the season. Their pain tolerance was modest early in the season when training was relatively low-key; it was highest during peak season when they were training hard (and suffering every day in practice); then it dropped again after the end of the season.

The message here? Suffering is something you have to practice – and you really do get better at it. So embrace the pain of training!

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