Sucker for Pain

I torture you
Take my hand through the flames
I torture you
I'm a slave to your games
I'm just a sucker for pain
I wanna chain you up
I wanna tie you down
I'm just a sucker for pain

“Suicide Squad” was one of my favorite movies of 2016. Will Smith, Jared Leto’s Joker, and whoever played Harley Quinn, plus a pretty solid soundtrack, made for a not-so-disappointing 2 hours. One of the theme songs was titled “Sucker for Pain.” Some might assume this song was referring to love or a similar life circumstance, but it was actually talking about training, fitness, and health.

If you’re reading this, you are more than likely a runner, crossfit athlete, triathlete, weightlifter, cyclist, obstacle course racer, or some other fitness sport junkie. Regardless of which discipline you participate in, I’m willing to bet that you have experienced pain at some point in your endeavors. Acute pain is the type of pain that is relatively new and has been around for less than a few months. Pain becomes chronic when it has persisted for 3 months, 6 months, or even longer.

Do you know anybody who has chronic pain with training? That person, maybe you, who assumes that knee pain is a part of life and that knee sleeves are a requirement to get through Crossfit. That person who assumes they’ve always had bad shins as they train for the next marathon. Or maybe you’re the guy, or girl, who can only survive a deadlift session by scheduling a corrective spinal manipulation. The point is that it is possible to enjoy these sports without being in continual, chronic pain. Here is my opinion on three reasons contributing to chronic pain in fitness sports.

1) Programming

Dr. Sean Pastuch was recently on a podcast discussing injuries and our ability to adapt to stressors placed on the body. He summarized the concept in a simple formula: load>capacity. The idea is that injuries and pain occur when the load or stress placed on the body is greater than the body’s ability to adapt to that stress. It’s an intuitive concept but one that I often see missing from training programs.

For instance: you have been out of shape and sitting at a desk for the past five years and decide to get active by running. Instead of having a sustainable and progressively periodized plan, you start by running 3 miles every day. After 3 weeks you develop shin splints, but decide to push through it because you’ve dealt with this kind of thing before. Three months later you’re back to sitting at a desk because you have a stress fracture in your tibia.

Or…you have knee pain for the past 4 months after Crossfit classes. Your solution is knee sleeves. When we look at your training program you started squatting heavy 5 days a week from the get-go: Monday back squat, Tuesday snatch, Wednesday thrusters, Thursday cleans, and Friday overhead squats.

What if we slowed things way down and programmed for the long term? Recently, I have been going through this after I hired a 1 on 1 coach for my Crossfit aspirations. We’ve substituted quality for quantity and have progressed things slowly to allow my body to appropriately adapt. I would say that my chronic pains (knees and shoulders) have reduced by at least 75%. We’ve even done bodybuilding style exercises to develop requisite strength for higher skill movements.

What about pains that go away only when you’re working out? You know, the shoulder pain that kills you all day but isn’t even noticeable during workouts. There is a pretty widely understood phenomenon called stress-induced analgesia. Basically, stress (exercise) provides pain relief. This is useful for zebras being chased by lions so they can forget about their pulled hamstrings. The problem is that the stress induced analgesia gives us a false sense that there isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed.

Bottom line: follow a sound training plan, and don’t assume that more is better.

2) Hubris

Hubris, for all of my non-Liberal Arts educated folks out there, means pride. I must admit that chronic pain that I have had in the past was a definite result of my own pride. Instagram is filled with PR’s and devastating post-WOD sweat angels. There aren’t many Instagram posts about lower intensity aerobic focused workouts. There aren’t many posts about reducing intensity to focus on technique or time under tension.

I have always wanted quick results, especially with Crossfit. Spending 6 months to a year to learn a movement the right way was never an easy thing for me to do. Why would I go slow when I can go straight to heavy-ish weights? Why would I go slow and focus on muscle-up technique when I can already knock out a bunch, just do more of them!

Bottom line: be intelligent, and think quality over quantity. Aim for the long haul instead of the immediate future.