Are pain and discomfort holding you back? Sports psychologist Evie Serventi explains how to tell when it’s time to push yourself or when to ease back

Everyone perceives (and feels) pain differently. We all have a choice in how we respond to pain (and how much we suffer) that is, we have an element of control around pain. Knowing this can make all the difference to our approach to pain and the impact it has on our performance.

‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ says runner and renowned author of the book ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, Haruki Murakami. His motto is an effective mantra for athletes. It reminds us that pain is part of our sport yet performing well comes down to understanding pain and having an instinct about when to push harder or when you should back off a bit and reduce the intensity during exercise.

Recognise the signs

Physical pain has distinct biological and psychological components that represent stimulus and response. The biology of pain is like an alarm system; a signal is transmitted through the central nervous system telling you that something is wrong. The psychology of pain is the interpretation or meaning we give to that pain signal – the internal self-talk and beliefs about it which then drive our emotional reactions. This is true for those who experience immediate and acute pain, and those who deal with chronic pain.

Dissociate with pain

How do we know when to push and when to hold back? In other words, should we all be pushing into the red? ‘If you want to improve, then the answer is that on some occasions is yes we should,’ says Dr Natasha Gilchrist, an Age Group triathlete and avid cyclist who lives in Perth, Australia. The active GP points out that pain is a very important part of making a diagnosis and a useful guide to treatment – however, not all pain is bad and when we exercise, we often feel discomfort, fatigue or pain but continue despite it.

‘In fact, an athlete’s ability to continue despite this pain can mean the difference between winning and losing. Personally, there is no doubt that part of the reason that I moved from everyday athlete to age group athlete was because I could suddenly push through the pain. It was the same pain that had always been there, but it wasn’t making me stop or slow down anymore, I possibly even started to enjoy the pain.’

Crossing the line

Dr Gilchrist agrees that at times we all need to listen to our body, regardless of our level or experience. ‘Most people, even those just starting out, will be familiar with the generalised pain and fatigue of training. When the pain is more localised, say to one knee, ankle or hip, that is when you need to reconsider and think about stopping.

‘Aches and pains that stop quickly when you cease your activity are often fatigue related. Those pains that continue, are sharp and focused and either force you to stop or make you limp or change your gait are the ones to watch out of. Certainly, if a pain is associated with any redness or swelling, it should be taken as a warning to stop and you are likely to need to rest or seek medical help.

‘By far the most concerning pains from a medical point of view are chest pains and severe headaches. I’m not talking about the mild chest tightness you get when you have pushed yourself. I’m talking about crushing chest pain that does not settle. Any severe and sudden headache must also be taken seriously. Both of these symptoms require immediate medical attention and the cessation of the exercise,’ says Dr Gilchrist.

‘There’s no escaping from it: exercise hurts when you want to improve and push yourself,’ says Dr Natasha Gilchrist, an AG triathlete. ‘The best advice is to listen to your body. If you experience generalised muscular fatigue and pain during a session, know that you are getting fitter, releasing more endorphins and getting closer to your goal. If it is severe pain, especially if it is in your head, chest or localised to a specific area or joint, stop, rest and reassess. Stop and seek a medical assessment if you are unsure.’