No Pain, No Gain
Do recreational runners suffer differently than elites?
Dr. William Bridel was having the worst race of his life: swimming through nausea, cycling with severe back pain and shuff ling through a full marathon exhausted, sore and dehydrated.
“In any other context, if I was feeling that level of pain, I’d have taken myself to the emergency room,” he says. But he didn’t. Because this was an Ironman and, as it was chalked on the marathon route ahead of him, you’re expected to “suck it up, buttercup.”
A professor in the University of Calgary’s faculty of kinesiology, his experience led him to seek out other “weekend warriors” to undertake a thesis on perceptions of pain in sport.
Through his interviews, he discovered some worrying trends among the attitudes of endurance athletes and a need for us to change the dialogue about pain.
Normalizing the hurt
Research shows elite athletes consider pain to be part of sport and non-elite athletes are no different. According to Dr. Bridel’s study, respondents not only accepted pain, they expected it.
“The normalization of pain in sport is concerning, especially among non-elite athletes who have to be fit to return to everyday life after racing or training,” he says. “Often a sense of achievement surpasses the feeling of pain which can lead to a dangerous state of tunnel vision.”
Which is something Dr. Bridel experienced in his own nightmare race.
“I crossed the finish line, collapsed and as the volunteers are dragging me to the medical tent I’m yelling ,‘Best day of my life, when can I do the next one?,’” he laughs. “It was absurd.”
Boys don’t cry (and neither do girls)
“There’s a complex relationship between pain and gender,” says Dr. Bridel. “But when looking specifically at the experience of pain in sport among non-elite athletes, responses were remarkably similar from both men and women.”
“There’s this notion that pain isn’t something that we talk about in sport,” he continues. “But there’s also a f lipside where athletes will talk about their injuries to anyone who’ll listen but won’t stop training in order to prove how macho they are. Wider research has shown women tend more towards silence; which is likely due to the fact they’ve had to fight harder for their place in sport than men.”
Hurts so good
Overwhelmingly Dr. Bridel’s interviewees believed sports-related pain was all part of a bigger picture: pain in the pursuit of perceived healthiness. “We have this idea that to hurt is healthy in sport. Hurting means we’re getting stronger. Which is somewhat true when related to adaptive response, but we need to be careful how far we take this idea,” he says. “Not all pain is healthy. Not all pain is good. Not all pain makes us stronger. More often pain is our body’s way of alerting us to injury.”
Good old Vitamin I
When one respondent asked Dr. Bridel why he hadn’t asked him about Vitamin I, he had no idea what he was talking about. Then the respondent explained that he was referring to ibuprofen. “I hadn’t heard that phrase before: Vitamin I, but after that initial interview it came up several times. I admit I’ve been guilty of it myself; when you’re heading out for a long run and you grab some gels and a packet of painkillers.” But overuse of over-the-counter painkillers is by no means healthy. “Excessive use of Ibuprofen can cause all sorts of health issues including renal failure. It’s far from healthy as a strategy for pain management.”
“Often a sense of achievement surpasses the feeling of pain which can lead to a dangerous state of tunnel vision.”
Natasha Wodak pushing through the pain to pass Rachel Hannah and win the 2015 Canadain Cross-Country Championship