Although almost every one views pain as something negative, it’s important to recognize that pain serves a constructive purpose. Pain is a warning signal that you may be in danger or at risk of injury. The sensation of pain tells us that we are doing something that may cause the body damage, and in this way pain is our innate method of self-protection. Just imagine the problems that would arise if you were unable to feel pain!
There are two main types of pain: chronic and acute. Acute pain is generally short-lived and gradually disappears through the course of normal healing. Acute pain typically has an identifiable cause. Chronic pain lasts for more than six months and some chronic pain sufferers may have symptoms for months or even years. This could be the result of a specific injury or repetitive strain, or in some cases it may have no identifiable cause. This article will focus on acute pain (related to exercise) and some suggestions on how to manage it, although some of the methods I discuss may help those who suffer from chronic pain.
Not all pain is necessarily a bad thing. Quite often high levels of human performance are achieved by reaching outside of one’s comfort zone and testing the limits of the body’s pain tolerance. One must learn to distinguish between pain that is good or which will lead to positive physical adaptation, and pain which is bad or indicates injury.
More often than not the difference is quite obvious. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) experienced a couple of days after a great workout could be viewed as good pain. The burning pain you might feel performing a weighted sled drag, or during the last few repetitions of a squat could be described as good pain. Good pain is often experienced as a satisfying muscle “tightness” or achy feeling. It’s that sensation of heaviness in the belly of the muscle that lets you know they’ve been working hard.
Bad pain is usually easy to recognize. It often has a sudden onset, and usually leaves you feeling weak or unstable. Even if it has a more subtle onset, it would be described as more of a sharp joint pain rather than a dull muscle ache. It might be experienced as a “pinching”, restrictive feeling that leads to a reduced range of motion and can last for several days or even weeks. This type of pain can be quite intense and could indicate an injury that requires a break from training and medical attention. We all hate this type of pain.
If you are training hard and heavy to get more jacked or improve athletic performance, you are likely flirting with pain a lot of the time. For most lifters, you can expect “good pain” to be a consistent part of your life. Get used to it. However, there are a few methods you can use to minimize or manage it.
Contrary to what many believe, traditional static “passive” stretching does not relieve DOMS or necessarily aid in recovery. The most effective methods for reducing DOMS are the performance of light exercise for affected areas (active recovery), or taking NSAIDS (such as ibuprofen). I’m not a big fan of taking any sort of drug for pain relief, so I usually focus on low intensity exercise for active recovery and other natural methods of reducing inflammation.
The key here is to use low intensity (sub-maximal), low impact exercise to promote recovery, not to try to get a training effect. The goal is to increase blood flow in order to get more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, as well as to flush out any lactic acid.
Another natural method of reducing inflammation and aiding in pain relief is to consume an adequate amount of essential fatty acids (E.F.A’s). Omega 3 fats in particular have anti-inflammatory properties as well as a slew of other health benefits.
So it just makes sense to include plenty of these Omega 3 oils in your diet. Good sources of EFA’s include fish (particularly oily fish such as salmon), nuts, seeds, avocado, flax seed oil, and other natural sources.
If you have experienced an acute injury which is causing inflammation, pain and swelling at joints in your body, apply ice rather than heat, especially for the first few days. Ice can reduce inflammation and swelling, numb the pain receptors, and speed the healing process. Heat could increase inflammation and increase blood pooling in the area, thus creating painful pressure on the nerve endings.
Although real ice will be colder, the simplest option is to put a flexible gel ice pack over the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes, a couple of times a day (especially after exercise). In the later stages of recovery vascular flushing may help to restore healthy blood flow and flush out the chemical mediators of inflammation. Vascular flushing involves alternating shorter periods of ice and heat application.
Contrast showers are a form of vascular flushing that I enjoy regularly. This involves showering with hot water then rinsing with cold or very cool water before getting out. Some claim that this aids in recovery by flushing out the lactic acid. It also improves blood flow to your central organs and you feel great after!
If you experiencing pain that won’t resolve, don’t ignore it… see a professional. I just think it’s a good idea to set high standards for the therapist you choose.
It is obviously preferable to prevent these injuries before they even occur. Warming up properly, such as performing a dynamic warm up before training, is one simple action you can take which will help prevent injury. Using proper lifting technique is another. Using intelligent training principles such as micro-progression (increasing resistance with small increments over time) also helps. You should also take necessary safety precautions, such as getting a spotter when needed.
Finally, incorporate “prehab” exercises for your weak areas, which could include external rotator cuff, rear delts, mid back, core, etc. It’s better to spend a little extra time now correcting your muscle imbalances, rather than missing training altogether because of an injury.
This article introduced methods of handling “good pain”, managing “bad pain”, improving recovery, and injury prevention. If you become familiar with the different types of pain and how to properly manage them, you will be able to continue to train, compete, and achieve your fitness and performance goals.
Written by Josh Hewett