Are Triathletes Tougher Than You?

What makes an athlete tough? A willingness to suffer? The ability to block pain? Or the cumulative effects of hard workouts that callous the body and mind?

A study out of Israel suggests that a higher pain threshold helps athletes endure multi-hour feats.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University recruited 19 triathletes and 17 non-athletes. The triathletes – individuals who did at least two triathlons a year – included Ironman competitors, and the non-athletes ran, swam, or did other forms of exercise to stay fit, but did not compete in races.

All participants underwent a battery of pain tests, including one that in involved applying a heating device to their arm while submerging the other arm in cold water. Participants also answered a questionnaire on pain perception, fear of pain and perceived stress.

During the tests, the triathletes identified pain just as well as non-athletes, but displayed greater tolerance for it, leading researchers to conclude that one reason triathletes can perform at high levels is because they feel less pain than casual exercisers.

“In our study, triathletes rated pain lower in intensity, tolerated it longer, and inhibited it better than individuals in a control group,” says lead researcher Ruth Defrin, Ph.D., a professor in the department of physical therapy at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine.

The findings add to previous research connecting greater pain tolerance to endurance sports.

Defrin attributes the lower pain perception in her study to both physiological and psychological factors. It’s unclear, though, if the athletes do triathlons because they feel less pain, or if they experience less pain because they train for and compete in triathlons.

“It is very difficult to separate physiology and psychology,” says Defrin. “But in general, experience is the sum of these factors.”

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