Distinguishing between positive and negative pain

Doing what your body tells you to do, or telling your body what to do?

An athlete I coach asked me a really important question: how we deal with pain in the context of the MentalWorks approach i.e. if the methods we’re training athlete’s in help block out the perception of pain, and redirect our focus away from it at times, how do we know when we should take action in response to certain pain and when to ignore it?

My answer brought in the idea that when it comes to experiences pain on the bike, there is a massive difference between negative and positive pain.

Before defining them, let me say that pain is really a gift. Whaaaat?! Yes, without pain we would not have vital signals about what is good or bad for our body. Lepers, for example, know all about the need for pain – they don’t experience pain and so cannot tell when a speck of dust is in their eye (and causing blindness) or when a bone is broken (and thus know not to walk on a broken leg).

The way we handle pain on the bike is a purely mental issue – it is about the meaning we assign to the pain. It is a mental capacity that ultimately defines our success. Pain is a major factor in our perception of effort. We need pain to pace ourselves. Sustained pace isn’t set by the burning sensation of the lactic acid in your muscles but rather your willingness to endure a threshold of pain.

Positive pain is associated with levels of discomfort induced by training stress e.g. the burning pain we experience when lactic acid builds up in above-threshold efforts. or muscle fatigue and sensations in the lungs and heart that can range from unpleasant to what is typically thought of as pain. This is discomfort with a reason and an outcome in mind. It is pain that ultimately builds fitness and is a pain we want to induce – we know we are getting stronger because of it. It serves a purpose in relation to our event goals. We ideally should push through this pain. It is neither threatening nor a sign of injury. Because athletes know the cause, are in control of their effort, and recognise that these feelings are beneficial and can enhance performance. In short, positive training pain is a good sign of effort and improvement.

Negative pain does not serve that same purpose – this is pain associated with something going wrong e.g. joint and ligament pain. This is not pain we want to push through as it is likely that there is serious or permanent damage being done the longer we endure on the bike at that time.

There are different types:

  • Negative training pain is still not indicative of an injury, but goes beyond positive signs of training benefit. An example may be extreme soreness that lasts for days. There may be an overtraining risk.
  • Negative warning pain is similar to negative training pain, with the added element of threat. It may be a new experience of pain and a sign of injury occurring. It typically occurs gradually, and allows the athlete to evaluate potential training causes and respond appropriately.
  • Negative acute pain is an intense and specific pain that occurs suddenly, often a result of injury. It is often localised to a specific body part and is labeled as threatening.
  • Numbness is rare but of very serious concern. It is when the athlete feels nothing when soreness, fatigue or pain should be felt. Instead, limbs are numb. This may be a sign of serious injury or pushing one’s body past its physical limits.

More importantly, signals associated with dehydration and bonking (glycogen depletion) are examples of negative pain that we should not use any conscious MentalWorks methods to block out. Knowing what signals are associated with the onset of dehydration is key knowledge you should have along with strategies for recovering from it while still on the bike.

Now, it must be said that not everyone has the same savvy when it comes to distinguishing between negative and positive pain on the bike, and that some people are more willing to endure negative pain. When an Olympic gold medal is at stake in a race, well, then you might want to push through negative pain. However, when it comes to being recreational athletes (like us), you’ve got choose your own level of sanity and live with the consequence. This is where enduring pain is ultimately a mindset – the pain is one factor, but the governor is how you choose to think about that pain.

It must also be said that taking medication for dealing with negative pain on the bike is a major decision to make and one that should be discussed extensively with your doctor (who understands the physiology of endurance cycling). I know too many Comrades athletes who have almost died because they “just popped a couple of Myprodols” to handle the (negative) pain of enduring through the later stages of the race.

Hopefully this post will help you “reframe” how you handle pain on the bike. Learning to push through positive pain in training and enduring at an event will improve your performance. Having the appropriate self-talk and imagery to tackle fatigue induced discomfort are key MentalWorks strategies.

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