Training With ... Pain

Pain itself isn’t dangerous, so there will always be a way to train with it. The tricky part is deciding when it’s in your best interest.
Ashleigh Flanagan
December 9, 2021

Your response to training differs based on many factors, including your; age, gender, heritage, health, medical conditions, nutrition, recovery, training history, training expectations, socioeconomic status/determinants of health, stressors etc. In fact, how you respond to training will vary from session to session. The more your training is tailored to meet your needs and supports your goals, the more you will get out of it.  

This series, Training with ‘…’, discusses considerations and general strategies for modifying training in situations where doing things differently will allow you to get more out of your training. 

The first blog looked at training when sick, specifically when you shouldn’t and how to modify when you do. Read the blog here.

The last blog explored how best to approach training when living with a Chronic Health Condition (CHC). Read the blog here.


Training With ‘...’ Pain

Generally speaking, the purpose of pain is to indicate potential harm and drive protective action. This action may be quickly removing your hand from a hot pot or taking time-out to rest and recover. Despite what seems intuitive, pain isn’t a direct indicator of danger or damage. Pain is a subjective, multifactorial experience that never has a single cause.

The experience of pain is both common and expected in many situations. While there are risk factors that make a person more likely to experience pain (such as mood, connective tissue and autoimmune disorders) and factors that contribute to a pain experience (such as illness, injury, stress, poor sleep or changes in training load), all pain is context-dependent. 

You should never ignore pain because you can always learn something from it, but there is no benefit in fearing pain either.


To Train or Not to Train

Pain itself isn’t dangerous, so there will always be a way to train with it. The tricky part is deciding when it’s in your best interest.

Novel stimulus pain: Challenging training is often painful. It’s common to experience pain when the load on your body is unusual, unfamiliar, and/or unexpected. Think of the burning in your legs when you do reps of heavy squats, the sharpness in your lungs during sprints, and the ache of a deep stretch. While these experiences are unpleasant, they ease over time as you develop tolerance to the training stimulus, your body adapts to meet the demands of the load, and you learn that such sensations don’t represent a threat. Of course, when you increase your training load, you will probably experience similar pain again, but as the feeling is expected, it will be easier to tolerate. It may help to consider these pains as a little voice; ‘This is hard’, ‘This is more than usual’, ‘Are you sure that you want to keep going?.’

It’s likely your pain is a result of novel stimulus if:

-Your pain improves with repetitions at the same level of intensity

- You feel the pain in areas you are loading

-The pain improves at rest

-The pain resolves in hours/days

-You are doing something intense, challenging or new to you when you experience it


Post-training pain: Pain following intense training is also common. This includes general soreness and pain sensitivity directly following exercise and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness  (DOMS- a deep achy muscle pain that peaks 24-48 hours, usually after strength training). In each case, gentle exercise is recommended to ease the symptoms, and any intensity of training is safe. 

It’s likely your pain is DOMs or post-training soreness if:

-You feel pain in the areas you trained 

-This pain improves with movement, heat and gentle stretching

-The pain has significantly improved within the week

-The training was new to you

-Your training intensity or volume increased in the weeks prior

-Your rest and recovery deteriorated in the weeks prior

-Your system was subject to increased stressors (e.g. working longer, increased stress, or illness) in the weeks prior.


Injury or pathology: Of course, while the link isn’t direct, pain can be a symptom of injury or tissue damage. Depending on the severity of the pathology, relative rest or significant modification to training may be appropriate in the short term. I recommend seeking professional support to assess, monitor and provide training guidelines when injury or pathology is suspected ie:

-There is a specific incident that preceded the pain (Eg a slip, twist or fall)

-You have bruising, swelling, reduced range or weakness

-Your pain is not significantly better after a week 

-Your pain affects your ability to work, exercise, socialise or anything else that is important to you 

-Your mobility or function is limited

It’s not unusual to experience pain training following an injury. Some level of soreness can be a sign the load of your rehab is enough to force adaptive change. It may also be impossible to do the training that will be most beneficial to your recovery without pain. If you work with a suitable professional, they will guide you through your rehab by advising you if pain, or what level of pain, is acceptable when you train. 


Chronic pain: When your pain is longstanding, it is helpful to approach your training as you would any other CHC. Check out the article here.

Check out our other blog posts about training with pain:

Pain and StretchingThink pain means you are stretching incorrectly? Read on!

Pain, Blame, Guilt and Shame Its not your fault you experience pain. Why you shouldn’t blame yourself, and why to run if your health professional blames you.

Exercise is to Pain Relief as Money is to Happiness Exercise has a significant role in managing pain, but the link is not as direct as most people think.


Next, in this series of Training with'...', we will consider training with mental illness.

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