That Marathon Was More Painful Than You Remember

In the throes of a marathon, you are very aware of the pain – from quivering calves to chafed skin to sore feet. But six months later, it appears marathoners can be quite forgetful.

new study published in the journal Memory may explain how limping runners in the finisher’s chute go from “never again” to “sign me up!”  The author, Przemyslaw Babel, polled 62 runners in Poland on their perceived pain level immediately after finishing a marathon. He then split the participants into two groups, asking 32 participants the same question three months later, and 30 participants six months later.

The findings show the more time that’s passed after a marathon, the less pain runners remember feeling.

“The major finding of this study is that pain induced by running a marathon is not remembered accurately,” the study says.

“Typically we think pain is just physiological, but people need to understand that pain is also an emotional experience,” Eddie O’Connor, a head sports psychologist said. “For marathon runners, as the time goes on you recreate the memory to remember more of the positive aspects of the race.”

That means you may forget the popping blister at kilometre 37, but you won’t forget the swinging medal around your neck as you sip a beer.

The study’s author, Babel, draws the same conclusion, writing in the text that marathons are, “harbingers of a happy event.” In this case, crossing a finish line. Those emotions can eclipse many memories of painful experiences during the race, which the data proves.

According to the study, three months after their marathon, runners reported the race was 10 percent less painful than what they originally reported right after finishing. Six months after the race, runners remember feeling 20 percent less pain.

O’Connor believes this finding can actually help runners manage pain in the middle of their race, not just six months after the fact. He said if runners understand that pain during exercise is an emotional response as well as a physical one, then they can manage it more efficiently.

“You can tolerate pain more if you look at it as an investment,” he said. “A part of you has to want to hurt to run fast or even finish. If athletes in the middle of the race can switch from a desire to feel comfortable, and give positive meaning to pain, then they can manage it. They can run with it.”

In other words, as you plod through the final Ks of a marathon with a grimace on your face, try and associate the pain with the positive emotions of crossing the finish line. Because according to this new study, that’s exactly what your six-month-in-the-future self does – right before signing up for another race.

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