The Biggest Lie Endurance Athletes Believe
“No pain, no gain,” right?
A timeless adage used by coaches, physical therapists, and training partners that sometimes does more harm than good.
We all understand the meaning behind the phrase: to reach one’s goal, there is adversity, discomfort, and resolve that must occur.
Unfortunately for the endurance athlete, we have come to embrace pain like a badge of honor. We look to people like David Goggins (an actual lunatic) for inspiration. “he ran an ultra marathon on broken legs!!”
1) dumb, stupid, and idiotic
2) probably not *entirely* true
3) okay, cool?
Toughness, grit, determination, and tolerance are core to the endurance athlete’s mentality. But where do we draw the line? And better yet, are most of us acutely attuned to what our bodies are ACTUALLY telling us?
The answer is likely “No.”
Let me explain…
One study, looked at pain perception among various athlete groups, and found that endurance athletes have significantly higher pain threshold than other types of athletes… AKA endurance athletes can ENDURE pain for longer periods. This is an excellent attribute for being able to complete an Ironman, but a poor attribute for knowing when to take a break because of injuries.
Look, I get it, being able to endure pain is cool. It sometimes makes us feel alive. We ultimately become more well-rounded individuals because to live is to experience pain and the more friendly we get with pain the easier life is.
But the flip side of the coin to ‘outlasting’ pain is injury, immobility, disability, dysfunction, loss of control, loss of life roles, loss of income, loss of purpose… things that would make any endurance athlete spiral into depression.
So, while we must embrace pain as an inevitability, we must also learn to be smarter than pain. Below I will outline my key tenets to help you enjoy your sport for years to come.
We cannot out-smart physiology: Our bodies are designed with certain ‘laws’ that govern our responses to our inputs and outputs. People who sleep 4-5 hours a night are not ‘anomalies,’ they are lying to themselves and will eventually pay for it. People who embrace the ‘no days off’ mentality are the same people who lay on my treatment table saying ‘why me?!’ We must give our bodies proper fuel, recovery, and stress management.
Manage your volume: *see above* The key to smart exercise prescription is volume management. Too much too soon, always results in injuries. Not taking time off during the week will result in lack of muscle, tendon, bone, and nerve recovery, and, will result in injury. While humans are highly resilient, we are also not machines. We are dynamic organisms that require a tremendous amount of attention simply to maintain homeostasis. If the volume feels like too much, it probably is.
Manage your intensity: *see above* Most elite level athletes have high intensity bouts of exercises that ebb and flow within their season plan… they also have tons of support staff and expertly designed programs by the world’s most brilliant minds. Most of us are not Lance Armstrong or Katie Ledecky. Most of us also do 1% of what those athletes do in terms of warm up, cool down, drills, mental training, nutrition, sleep, etc. The average athlete needs to have *some* high intensity work, but 70-80% of our volume needs to be at 30-60% intensity. Go slower and be more deliberate… your body will thank you.
Detrain: I mentioned ‘no days off,’ we now know this to be a scientifically moronic phrase. Every elite athlete ‘detrains’ within their training cycle. Many take time away completely. Some continue to exercise, but they don’t do their sport or they significantly reduce their volume and intensity by >50%. When asked about his post-Olympic plans, Caeleb Dressel responded with ‘I know I’m going to take a few weeks off and then slowly get back into shape.’ This was the most decorated Olympian last year! If the best athletes in the world take time off, you can too.
Routine maintenance: Be proactive about your care. Don’t wait until things are a problem. I have many athletes who see me for ‘tune ups,’ tweaks, and muscle recovery. They understand to perform they need to maintain their body. This is wise.
Hire help: Everyone needs a coach. Don’t be stingy. Be smart. Whether you want to run your first 5k or complete an Ironman, having a coach to help you train, monitor, and encourage you is essential.
Do what you don’t want to do: This is something a coach told me once. It struck a cord with me because this forced me to be honest. I hated cooling down after race, but because I knew cooling down is what I hated to do, it probably meant I was not getting the most out of that and my performance would suffer. Be honest with yourself to find the gap in your training.
These are a handful of helpful concepts to help us be smarter than “no pain, no gain.”
We love working with endurance athletes because they understand pain intimately, they aren’t afraid of work, and they know what it takes. Our job as physical therapists is to help athletes fine-tune their training and mentality to be able to do their sport for life. Come in for an evaluation to see how we can help you keep going!
Thanks for reading!
Jake Reynolds, PT, DPT, OCS
Board Certified Specialist in Orthopedic Physical Therapy
Follow Jake on Instagram: @theswimmingphysio
Assa T, Geva N, Zarkh Y, Defrin R. The type of sport matters: Pain perception of
endurance athletes versus strength athletes. Eur J Pain. 2019 Apr;23(4):686-696. doi:
10.1002/ejp.1335. Epub 2018 Nov 18. PMID: 30379385.