No pain no gain

Who hasn’t heard this a billion times? I’m sure many of you reading this have even said this phrase, or repeated it like a mantra to yourself during difficult runs or workouts. It’s such a cliche. But more importantly, is it true?

On this blog, I do my best to avoid making assumptions. I prefer using skepticism when it comes to health and fitness. No idea is beyond question. If this means overturning what is considered “wisdom” by many, due to lack of evidence, then so be it. If it means offending people, then so be it, though offending anyone isn’t the intent. This is why, for example, I almost never do any stretching exercises and do not advocate it. There is no unequivocal scientific evidence in favor of stretching when it comes to preventing injuries or improving performance. See my “You don’t have to stretch!” post for more info.

As for the “no pain no gain” idea, it really is an overly simple dictum, to the point that it’s rather difficult to evaluate in any meaningful sense. And surely, few people actually take it literally. Obviously, beyond a certain pain threshold, few of us can continue exercising.

The subjective nature of pain also renders this saying not particularly meaningful or helpful. Not to mention the fact that we all have unique biochemistries, unique fitness goals, unique history of injuries and illnesses, and unique personalities. And while challenging yourself physically is a worthwhile goal that boosts health in ways that no drug can compete with, we have to know our limits. And to a large extent, even our “limits” can be highly subjective.

Like many people, even I believe a little bit of soreness after an intense run is generally a good thing. Note the “generally”. Sometimes the amount of pain we feel can be misleading; sometimes we don’t feel any pain or soreness until the day after the heavy workout.

All this ultimately boils down to yet another cliche – “listen to your body”. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t very good listeners, and our body, as alluded to before, isn’t always the best communicator. Sure, we know when we feel too exhuasted to go on, but we don’t often deal with extreme exhaustion after exercise; there’s a large grey area, and little objective criteria with which to make proper assessments. There’s a “little” pain, and “too much” pain on opposite sides of a pain continuum with so much grey area in between. This is one of the reasons I don’t use caffeine or other drugs – they cloud our judgement to the degree that they can make it almost impossible to listen to our body’s with any accuracy.

Knowing our Vo2 Max can be helpful to some degree, but it isn’t all that accurate and there are many other measurements. There’s also the “talk test” – if you can’t hold a conversation while doing intense cardio, you “may” be pushing yourself too hard.

So what can we do? Perhaps a more reliable “test” is to pay attention to our heart rate. If it isn’t back to normal after even intense exercise, this is usually a good indicator you are overdoing it. Or you are out of shape. Being fit means your body and your heart should have adapted to your fitness program. If it still beats fast well after(an hour or more) working out on a consistent basis, this may be a useful warning sign.

Besides this, avoid working out if you are in any kind of pain beyond minor soreness. If your legs hurt, exercise your arms and vice versa. Try to avoid becoming addicted to exercise and don’t try pushing yourself to your limits every time you exercise. Do this maybe once a week or a few times a month. Question every bit of fitness advice you receive and go ahead and make your fitness routine uniquely you; don’t try to be someone else, just because your friend benefitted from some new fitness program, doesn’t mean you will too. It seems everyone is an “expert” when it comes to fitness. Be careful who you get advice from, consider their credentials and experience. Unfortunately, even some people with multiple degrees and certification will spout pseudo-science.

So while “no pain, no gain” may have some truth to it, don’t take it as a commandment. It may even be harmful to follow it too literally. Whatever the case may be, now that it is spring, take advantage of the outside weather and get back into shape! You don’t need a gym membership. A park or the woods is way better.

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