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Use your brain to beat the pain

Use your brain to beat the pain

One common factor that puts people off exercise is the discomfort that can be experienced during and after it. But rather than succumb to the sensation of pain and become a ‘victim’, it is possible to use your mind to reduce the feeling of pain and even eliminate it all together.

There are numerous examples throughout history and throughout different cultures where thinking mechanisms and mind control are used to influence physiological process in the body. Tibetan monks, for example, enter a deep meditative state and are able to control their blood pressure and body temperature as a result. When considering pain from exercise though, it’s essential to differentiate the different types of pain you might experience as a result.

Different types of pain

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). If you’re not used to exercise, or you put your body through a particularly gruelling work out, it’s likely that you’ll experience DOMS 24-72 hours after the work. This is a good pain to have; it is an inflammatory response as a result of muscle damage i.e. a sign that your muscles are adapting to new activity and getting stronger and building resistance to future bouts of similar work.

Stitch pain. Stitch pain is a result of stress on your peritoneal ligaments, and whilst this pain isn’t a sign of your body getting stronger or fitter, it isn’t dangerous; just a little unpleasant. Use your mind to change how you breathe in order to deal with stitch pain by taking deep breaths from your stomach instead of high up in your chest.

Muscle burn. Muscle burn occurs during exercise when you reach your lactate threshold (exercise intensity at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the blood stream). It is an unpleasant burning sensation, but if you can cope with the sensation and push past it, then you’ll push your threshold to a higher level; enabling your body to work faster, for longer, and stronger, and also increasing the rate of fat burning.

Nausea. Nausea caused by excess exercise is not something to try and work through. It is sign that you are dehydrated, over-exerted, or have low blood sugar level.

And finally, if you experience acute, sharp and sudden onsets of pain during exercise, this is not something to work through either, but most likely a sign that body damage has occurred such as muscle strain or sprain. If you’re breathing heavily and quickly it’s likely that a small amount of discomfort in the chest area may be experienced, but if you experience severe, acute chest pain then this could be the sign of something much more serious.

Mind techniques to help get rid of pain

You don’t need to be a Tibetan monk to be able to use your mind to control your physical sensations. The following 5 thinking techniques can be used whilst you’re exercising to help minimise, or even offset completely, the sensation of pain or unpleasant physical feelings that you might experience:

  1. Meditate. For some the thought of being able to meditate whilst giving it your all on the treadmill is absurd, but reaching a meditative state during exercise is entirely possible and provides many benefits; not least of all that you’ll be able to gain some mental control and perspective over the physical sensations. It can also have a literal numbing effect on physical sensations. An important part of meditating is focusing on your breathing. Not just how you’re breathing, but listening to and concentrating on the sound and rhythm. Meditating during exercise requires discipline and consistency. Focus on what you’re doing there and then and make a conscious effort to stop thinking about day to day activities. It may help to adopt a mantra or motivational phrase, and focus on, and visualise your goal.
  2. Understand what pain is, and don’t get emotionally involved or personally upset by it. You need to try and detach your emotions from the physical sensation and remember it’s just a biological process. Nerve cells are being stimulated and are sending a message back to your brain, which is interpreting this as negative, so it’s just an interpretation really! It’s also worth noting that pain during exercise, providing it’s not associated with an injury, is often a temporary state, and has a tendency to come and go. Bearing this in mind might help provide additional perspective and distance from the pain.
  3. Be mindful before you start. If you can tell yourself, and truly believe, that you have the strength and mental fortitude to tolerate the pain you might be about to experience, then what you actually experience is likely to be less than it would be otherwise. Research from the University of Illinois found that runners who believed they could tolerate leg muscle pain performed better in a running test than those who doubted their ability to withstand the sensation of pain, even before they started.
  4. Think about your reasons for doing the exercise. If you start to feel pain, it’s worth reminding yourself not only what your goals are, but also what you’re actually achieving then and there. For example; “I’m going through this because I really want to run that marathon in three months time.  Right now, my heart is getting stronger with every heart beat and I’m building stamina and strength.” This sort of thinking is connecting the pain with a positive thought, rather than a negative one. Sometimes it helps to repeat and say in your head (or out loud if you like) a mantra such as ‘I’m getting stronger, I can keep going”.
  5. Distraction techniques. If you start to feel pain or discomfort it will also help to focus on something else to distract your senses, For example, start concentrating on faces around you, their expressions and what that might mean. Or start listening for different sounds, identifying them, or if you’re musical turning them into a melody or tune. Using visualisation techniques is a great way of distracting yourself from pain. Many athletes use these techniques to improve their game and performance, so not only will you be distracting yourself from pain, but you could also be taking steps to do better and reach your goals quicker.

Mind over matter is not a new concept. Using these techniques could make a real difference to how you exercise, what you achieve, and your future confidence and motivation. Pain can also be seen as a blockage to you benefiting from the natural endorphins and feel good hormones. Once the pain is gone, you’re more likely to experience these, which in turn will further reduce the sensation of pain.

The perception and tolerance of pain varies from individual to individual so why shouldn’t it vary for you personally depending on the circumstances and thought processes? They say ‘no pain no gain’, but nobody says you can’t fight the pain.