Don’t Train Through Pain, Train Around It.

I have been lifting weights, exercising or playing a sport consistently for the past 14 years. From what I can recall, I don’t think I have ever taken more than two days off in a row from any physical activity (much to the annoyance of my wife, I even trained the morning of our wedding and every day of our honeymoon). Due to my consistent (or addictive, whichever you prefer) training, it is not hard to guess that I have sustained my fair share of injuries, most of which could have been avoided. Doctors have attributed most of my injuries to “overuse”. Just as it sounds, they were often a result of ignoring pain due to my pride of wanting to be the “tough guy” in the gym or from fear of losing my “gains” if I took too much rest. Either way, most of my injuries started with a warning signal from my body in the form of an isolated ache or irritation. A signal, which I often ignored, and as a result, the aches eventually turned into chronic pain. After a couple of surgeries and rehab that I still continue to do today, I have learned my lesson: do not train through pain; find a way to train around it.  

Athletes versus Average Joes 

Before starting a conversation on pain, I want to clarify whom this post is intended for. This discussion is not for athletes. As mentioned in a previous blog, an athlete’s training goal is not to increase their longevity in life. They compete in a sport that sometimes requires them, particularly in the middle of a competition, to train through pain. This post, on the other hand, is for “average Joes”, or really anyone who is not an athlete. Those of us whose goal is to lose body fat, gain muscle mass, be more active with our kids, etc., but not at the expense of suffering through chronic pain. So, if you fall into this category, heed my advice. I may be able to save you a lot of money in chiropractic bills. 

Pain versus discomfort 

Do not train through pain, but it is ok to train through discomfort. Let me elaborate on the difference. Pain, as defined by WebMD, “is your body's normal reaction to an injury or illness, a warning that something is wrong…often attributable to nerve damage.” When I refer to pain in this post, I am referring to the body’s chronic warning that you are hurt and that you ought to stop the activity that is making it worse. 

For those who have little experience in physical activity, discomfort is often confused with pain. Discomfort in training usually comes in the form of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which is the aching or stiff feeling in your body that comes days after participating in rigorous activity. While severe muscle soreness is at times “painful”, the main difference is that the pain is not chronic. After a few days, the soreness subsides and you can return to physical activity. In fact, the best way to combat the discomfort of DOMS is actually by continuing to participate in the activities that caused it. Continuing moderate exercise will help increase blood flow where you are sore, which will help speed up your recovery. 

Training through pain versus not training at all

Like many areas in life, people have a hard time finding a happy medium, particularly when it comes to training while in pain. People usually fall into two categories: those that push through the pain and those that stop training altogether. Both are poor solutions to the problem. 

The first category is foolish. Chronic pain is your body telling you that you are injured. If you keep participating in activities that are causing chronic pain, odds are that your injury will not randomly heal on its own, and at worst, you may become permanently injured. If your goal is ultimately to lead a long, happy, vital life, training through chronic pain is counterintuitive. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who when they get hurt, stop exercising altogether. While some extreme situations call for a period of absolute rest, most injuries do not require you to avoid the gym. Discontinuing exercise for an extended period is not a good idea for many different reasons, most simply because it gets you out of a healthy habit and leads to a sedentary lifestyle. After a couple of months off, you will have created the opposite habit of not exercising at all. This will make it even more difficult when the time comes for you to get back into routine. Unfortunately, we all know people who stopped exercising due to pain, but were never able to regain the motivation to start back up.

Vitality versus pain

Achieving vitality is about finding the middle ground. Neither ignoring pain nor discontinuing exercise is the answer. Both bring you closer to sickness and further away from vitality. The answer is simple, but may require some help: find ways to train around your pain. Most injuries can be avoided through proper exercise modification. For example, someone who struggles with shoulder pain while pressing can modify workouts with a landmine press. The landmine allows the lifter to press at an angle, versus directly overhead. This is one of many examples of how a minor modification can help you continue to reap the benefits of exercise while avoiding further pain. 

Exercise modifications are also one of the primary benefits of attending a coached facility like Vital Fitness versus a “globo gym” that only offers access to equipment. Although coached facilities cost more, you are paying for access to trainers that can properly adjust workouts if you need to exercise around current pain or an old injury. It is also significantly better than the alternative solution of trusting the always-reliable internet to be the source of your fitness questions.