Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Playing with Pain!

Frozen peas on my bad knees for 10 minutes
after my run.

Ugh, does it ever seem like a chore just to get out of bed in the morning?  What about standing up to get out of a low sitting chair?  If you are a competitive athlete, you deal with the consequences of pushing your body beyond its normal limits everyday. For those of you with the attitude that you’d rather “wear out than rust out”, keep reading.

I grew up playing football.  From the age of 10 through my freshman year in college, I spent the fall and winter months on the practice field and playing games.  While many practices were focused on teaching the fundamentals of proper tackling and blocking techniques at ‘half speed’ (not full contact), most were at full speed with ‘live’ drills and scrimmages.   Games were “all or nothing” physical confrontations with the other team’s players.  And even though we were well protected with helmets and pads, minor injuries were a common and expected outcome of playing football.   As a little kid, you learned quickly that you needed to ‘play with pain’  (minor pain, not serious injury) to gain the respect of your coaches and your teammates.  The kids who couldn’t handle it either sat on the bench or were quick to quit football and join another sport.  Mental toughness, focus, discipline and the importance of teamwork were attributes drilled into our little brains.

When I finally ended my football playing days after my freshman year in college at a Division II school, I jumped right into triathlon.  I learned quickly that many of the same skills I had learned being a “hard-nosed” football player (a term used for being tough on the field) could be applied to the competitive triathlete.  To race well, you need to drive yourself during training, tolerate various levels of physical discomfort and train when weather and other conditions are not ideal. (Who likes diving into that cold water for swim practice at 5 am or heading out for a cold, wet training run?).   You also have to deal with a slew of aches and pains that might force a ‘normal’ personal to call-in sick and stay in bed all day.  This is what I consider playing with pain… working through minor aches and discomforts in order to continue progressing your fitness to that next level.  The question every triathlete driven to succeed needs to ask themselves is “how much pain is too much pain and when does pushing through pain actually create additional problems?”.

Unfortunately, there are no black and white answers to this question as it must be dealt with on an individual basis.  To help arm you with bigger decision making muscles, I’ve asked for some feedback from Dr. Mark Klion, a multi-time Ironman finisher, Orthopedic Surgeon and creator of the BodyWorks MD Injury Prevention and Treatment DVD Series and Tony Schiller, a former pro and top Masters triathlete. 

Let’s face facts; young athletes have it easy.  You used to be a young athlete, so you know what I mean.  They can load huge volumes of training on their bodies and adapt quickly with little or no repercussions.   A young athlete can even get away with having poor technique and avoid injury, but this all changes as an athlete ages.  As noted by Tony Schiller, older athletes (we’ll say 40+ for the sake of this article), don’t have that same luxury.  Even though the aging athlete still thinks they are 10, 15 or 20 years younger and might even feel that way, their bodies tell a different tale (not to mention the mirror).  As such is the case, the aging athlete must work harder to avoid injury by changing their perception of how much volume and intensity to incorporate into their plan while also focusing more on good biomechanics.  Tony said,  “... the biggest mindset change you (the aging Masters athlete) need to make is from a "volume-based" workout schedule or plan to a "recovery-based" workout plan. This goes against everything we've always done. You still can outline your ideal volume planner, but give it far more time to achieve than your past schedules allowed. Then humble yourself by not carrying it out in a pre-set schedule of days/weeks/months. Instead, let your body dictate its own schedule based on when it's recovered. In other words, the 100 mile ride you might have done while tired and sore at age 30 gets delayed as many extra days as are needed until your fatigue lessens and your energy returns.”   

This is a great prescription for reducing your chance of incurring a debilitating and season ending injury. But what about the normal, day to day aches and pains that most every serious, hard training athlete must endure regardless of age?  Using my own example, I am aware that every run I take can be the one where I land funny and tweak one of my (bad) knees or get an awkward strain in my hip.  Post workouts, especially long or intense sessions are almost always followed by residual soreness in various areas of my body for the following 48-72 hours.  How do we manage these consistent and minor, yet potentially devastating aches and pains?

Dr. Mark works with competitive athletes from various sports at all levels. One of his ‘red flags’ to look for is swelling in the injured area. Swelling indicates the surrounding tissues are damaged and likely requires immediate attention.  In most cases, trying to ‘train through’ pain that causes swelling is a very bad idea and can only lead to further complications down the road.  On the other hand, discomfort that lessens after warming up might be a sign that one can continue with their training, but only at a lower intensity and by taking precautions like running on a softer surface or spinning a lighter gear on the bike.  It’s my experience, both as a coach and as an athlete dealing with discomfort from training, that most of these nagging “ouches” ebb and flow depending on the day and how hard the training has been over the past 48-72 hours.  Following the good doctor’s advice, I have found that icing the affected area for 10-15 minutes several times a day (never applying ice directly to the skin!), elevating the limb, using compression technology, light post workout massage, strengthening the surrounding muscle groups through resistance training and taking ibuprofen as needed (or with a prescription from your physician to knock out inflammation) all keep the machinery in good working condition. And don't forget stretching for greater flexibility. A good pre and post workout stretching routine is a must for any serious athlete. (A topic for another article. In the meantime, check out our series of Flexibility Videos.)

Based on the valuable insights given by Dr. Mark and Tony, I suggest that all athletes look carefully at their training plan and make sure there are rest days and lower intensity ‘active recovery’ days scheduled throughout, and frequently.   Also, especially in the case of the aging athlete, consider hitting your weekly training volume goals over a 10 or even 14-day period, rather than the typical 7-day cycle.  Add an extra day or two of recovery training after a hard session.  Train intuitively and don’t just finish a workout in order to be able to log the miles for the sake of logging miles.  If you feel like you need a day (or few days) of rest, it’s probably because you do.  And don’t over race.  Listen to your body because it’s always going to tell you something.

Also, spend more time working not only on your conditioning, but on your technique in each sport. By doing so, you’ll improve your efficiency of movement and will use less energy to cover a given distance. This is especially important to the Ironman and other long distance endurance athletes.  Remember, it’s not just about how big your engine is and how much horsepower you can produce … it’s how you use it, so developing better technique and efficiency is a key to success.

In summary, all competitive athletes must learn to deal with some level of pain and discomfort. This means ‘playing with pain’ much of the time.  The smart athlete plays with pain, but also does everything possible to manage it and to minimize its negative consequences on their health and performance.

I want to thank Dr. Mark and Tony for their contributions to this blog.  If you’re injured, were injured or are planning on becoming injured some day in the future, check out his line of DVDs at www.bodyworksmd.com.  And if you’re a stud triathlete who lives in the upper mid-west, just know that if you’re beat by a man almost twice your age, it’s probably Tony. Learn more about him at www.tonyschiller.com

Good luck and train smart,
Coach Troy


  1. Great article! Compression socks/tights and ice baths have really changed my ability to recover. Its also nice to know another former football player has been so successful in tris!

  2. I smiled all the way through your great article Troy. I have been doing all those things for many years. Having never been an under
    '40' athlete, I wouldn't know what training with no discomfort was like. It is a way of life. I have been very lucky though, no major pain issues. I am very careful. Latest injury was an exception. It is not a chronic problem and is now gone. :)

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