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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pain Is Warning, Not A Weakness

Several years ago, I stood up from one of our computer desks at home, and noticed that my left leg was a little sore. The next day, after flying out to Vegas for a family wedding, my leg was in excruciating pain. After a week of or two of attempting to work through it, I finally went and sought out a physical therapist, who diagnosed me with piriformis syndrome.  That diagnosis entitled me to several months of deep tissue massage (the kind that leaves you sweating in agony on the table, not the nice kind), a long road to being able to move any kind of real weight or train, and an on-going dysfunctional relationship with chairs. And an inability to run distances without pain, but I hate running, so I count it as a win.

During my initial meeting with my PT, he asked me if I had experienced any acute pains prior to this injury. I said I hadn't. He nodded and said "Actually, you probably did. But you're an athlete, so you probably ignored it or just pushed through it. If you were a normal person, you would have said 'ow, that hurt', stopped what you were doing, taken a couple of days off, and we wouldn't be having this conversation."


I got to thinking about this some time after seeing my eight millionth (roughly) "Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body" t-shirt. Or maybe it was a Facebook post. Who knows? Either way, I've come to the conclusion that there's something deeply wrong with the way we approach pain as athletes, particularly in the martial arts.

Don't get me wrong. I understand that there is a degree of pain tolerance and pain management that is required to train in the martial arts. We are, ostensibly, learning to fight. To paraphrase the Princess Bride, fighting is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

So yes, learning to persevere through pain is a necessary skill to succeed in the martial arts. I get and appreciate that. I really do. Even in other forms of physical training, there is a level of discomfort that must be accepted in order to achieve great heights. You don't get to a thousand pound deadlift without breaking a sweat, and experiencing some serious discomfort along the way.

I am not suggesting we should avoid all pain, nor that training should never be uncomfortable. That way lies madness and tae bo, both to be avoided.

On the flip side--I have experienced to many issues with both body and soul as a result of my training to be convinced that the methods we teach for pain management are entirely productive or healthy for long term individual growth. When we teach people to just "shut out" or "push through" the pain, what we are really teaching is to ignore the signals that their body is sending out. Now, sometimes those signals might just say "hey, this is kinda hard", but sometimes they might say "hey, your arm is no longer attached to your shoulder, and you might wanna do something about that..."

I think more and more lately about the martial arts and strength training as vehicles for growth and development, and I find that I'm questioning some of the value of what we're teaching. How valuable is all of this tough guy imagery? Where's the balance between coddling people and teaching them a seriously unhealthy mindset?

No answers yet, but I like having questions.

8 comments:

Wes Tasker said...

A great observation. I had some similar observations and questions about ten years ago that lead me to where I'm at today - practicing and studying two Chinese internal arts, Chinese Medicine, a continued study of Western methods of bodywork, and a significantly changed outlook / practice of the other martial arts I study.

Wes Tasker said...

A great observation. I had some similar observations and questions about ten years ago that lead me to where I'm at today - practicing and studying two Chinese internal arts, Chinese Medicine, a continued study of Western methods of bodywork, and a significantly changed outlook / practice of the other martial arts I study.

Maija said...

It's all chemistry right? You get a greater hit of happy chemicals if you get some pain and get the emotions involved. Much more fun than staying rational and listening to your body ... OTOH, we all do tend to be wired physically to never really get close to our possibility, so sometimes you have to will yourself to go explore further ....
Pain is so odd. I have often wondered why your body makes it intensely painful to move even when it will actually heal faster if you DO move ... it does not seem to be able to differentiate one type of injury from another ....
Tricky to control, and sometimes really important to take note of .. and sometimes worth ignoring, a little ...

Jake said...

Wes,

I'd love to pick your brain about some of the CMA stuff. It's been an area of growing interest for me lately.

Maija,

Yeah, pain is weird. There's clearly a line between succumbing to even the most minor discomfort, and totally ignoring major injury. There definitely are times when it's worth ignoring, but I know I've gotten myself into trouble that way before...

Chris Cape said...

One of the biggest lessons my father taught me as a young athlete was to make a clear distinction: "Are you hurt, or are you injured?" There are very different types of pain and it takes experience, both as an athlete and as a coach, to recognize which is present. It also takes a high level of communication between the coach and athlete to determine the correct course for the given pain--simply pushing through, or dropping back, altering, and then going forward.

Jake said...

Tony Blauer was the one who first articulated that distinction to me.

It's definitely something that takes experience to know how to manage, but the training culture has to support proper management as well. If the training environment is one of "no pain, no gain", where overtraining is a myth and the goal of every workout is to smash your body into smithereens regardless of how it feels, you're not going to get a lot of people willing to back off when they need to..

Chris Cape said...

A few random thoughts on the issue:

- There's nothing inherently wrong with getting injured during competition. It happens, and playing through those injuries is part of the game--part of what makes an athlete great. Getting injured in training, though, is nearly always preventable and is mostly inexcusable.

- Dan John talks about having a "Do No Harm" mentality as a S&C coach. A concept eluding many trainers.

- Also from Dan John, the idea that workouts should build you up, not break you down. Of course there should be hard workouts, but you still have to be able to recover from them in time for the next session.

Jake said...

- Agreed. Injury during competition is the price of competition. The problem is that a lot of people train as though training is a competition. Which it is not.

Agreed on the other two points.