Pain, Damage, and Functionality

Pain – in short – sucks. Damage though, that’s when you get into trouble.

Brachial Plexus - one of the many routes that signal to us what's happening in our bodies.

Pain gives us information about what’s happening to our body. Sometimes that information deals with instantaneous stimuli, such as when you miss clipping in an bang your shin on your own pedal (maybe that’s just me). Other times it can slowly build, indicating that you’ve continued to do something that your body doesn’t enjoy, like riding with your hands in the same position too long. It’s a defense mechanism, designed to make us aware of something that may ultimately cause damage.

Damage however, is the real issue.

Damage affects functionality. A tired muscle might be sore and have some pain but can still be useful. A pulled muscle yields extreme pain, and can end up being useless. Pain tells you that you’re either working your way up to being damaged, or you’ve already been damaged, at which point your functionality might be impaired and continued action will only increase damage and decrease functionality.

If you pay too much attention to pain, it has this odd way of consuming your mental awareness, and encompasses more and more of the world around you until that’s all there is. It’s like standing in a crowded party. If you stand back and just listen, you’ll hear all these conversations going on at once. But once you focus on one person’s voice, the din in the room tends to diminish. Not that it’s gotten any quieter, just that you’ve filtered out the rest.

Focusing on pain can be like that, making you ignore everything that’s okay with your body in favor of what’s not. This is mentally exhausting, and can drop your exertion in an attempt to decrease the pain, even when your functionality hasn’t been affected and really, you can keep going.

The key isn’t ignoring pain either, or preventing it. In endurance athletics, there’s almost no way to prevent some kind of pain. Minimize it, sure. Push it to the back of your mind, definitely. But you can’t stop it, because we put the body through more than it can handle. Some would say that’s the goal, and you ignore it at your own peril. The key I believe is to understand what that pain is telling you, determine if there’s any damage associated to that pain, and verify your functionality – make sure you can keep doing what you’re doing.

Me (hurting but not injured) after the 2011 Williams Half-Marathon in Tulsa.

In November I ran my first half marathon. That’s a good distance for a decent runner, let alone a cyclist that wanted to try something new. It would be my 11th run of the year, so I knew to expect pain – all my shorter runs never ended with anything less. When I ran the Tulsa Run 15k, I had a pulled tendon in my ankle, and was forced to walk quite often. In fact, I pushed way too hard because I wasn’t listening to my body.

So this time as the miles started to pile on and I’d feel some pain in my knees or my ankles, I’d immediately tell myself to “check my functionality.” I’d go through a mental check list, paying specific attention to my running form to see if I unconsciously modified my gait, maybe started leaning to one side, changed my stride, or started to favor one leg more than another. If everything felt the same, then I knew I was okay to keep going, and that the pain was just telling me that this wasn’t a natural thing for me to be doing.

The further along I got, the more often the pain would increase to noticeable levels, and the more I checked myself to see if any damage was eminent. When I passed the 10 mile marker, I felt the pain in my knee more sharply than I hard previously, and when I went through my mental check list, I noticed I was shortening my stride on my left side to compensate. At that point I slowed down to a walk. After the pain subsided, I started up again with no problems (other than being tired from having already run 10 miles). I finished the run feeling very tired, but otherwise pretty good. There was pain, but nothing that I didn’t think I’d recover from, because I listened to what the pain had been telling me, and slowed up when I needed to before I could cause lasting damage that would’ve slowed me down (decreased functionality).

As a result of this mantra, I managed to finish my first half-marathon with an official time of 2:03:23. I was seriously happy with that result.

Recently, I’ve been applying this to my on-bike time. ┬áNoticing the pain, find where it originates, check functionality for that area, adjust accordingly. Rinse, repeat. I’ve been managing to push harder than I used to, and have been better at reaching my physical limits on the road. The words “No pain, no gain” have never meant more.