Good Pain, Bad Pain

Sam posted earlier about why athletes love pain or rather, love painful workouts.  I do not consider myself an athlete. And I don’t love pain. But I am pretty good at ignoring it sometimes.

My yoga teacher has often talked about good pain and bad pain. Good pain challenges us beyond our comfort level but doesn’t push us too far, like the pain involved in pushing out that last rep, or the pain of staying in warrior I for longer than you would without a teacher calling upon you to lunge deeper, or that pain of sprinting during those running intervals. Bad pain says “STOP! You’re about to injure yourself (or you just did).”

Last week I felt a little sore in my right hip after my first serious run since being out of town for a couple of weeks.  The pain wasn’t new — it was the same pain that drove me out of running about twenty-five years ago.  Bad pain.  I backed off from running and set my mind instead to the final 12 days of the 30-day hot yoga challenge.  Towards the end of last week (after just 5 days), my lower back started to feel, well, uncomfortable.  It needed stretching out more frequently than usual.  Some of the yoga poses became more challenging.  By Monday, I wanted to take a day off yoga but, hey, I was in the middle of a challenge! I pushed on.

But the pain was BAD pain.  I didn’t heed its warning. On the contrary, I went to not one, but two yoga classes on Tuesday (one hot, one not).  And instead of taking it easy, I felt spurred on by the challenging class and by being beside someone I knew and by my ego saying what a good, strong yogi I am. I wrenched myself more strenuously into the twists than I sometimes do.  I jumped back with vigor from my forward bends into high plank.  I kept meticulous form in each vinyasa flow (and there were many because it was a flow class), moving from high plank to chatturanga and through to upward dog without resting on the ground for even a split second between.

On a day when I felt 100%, pushing myself like this would be a good thing. But that day, already feeling tired and already feeling a low back flare up, it required that I ignore very clear signals from my body.  Ignoring like that was a big mistake.

When I went to my personal training session yesterday morning, I got two burpees into it when I could not continue.  We spent the next fifteen minutes stretching. The subsequent workout was the easiest one I’ve had ever with my trainer.  I didn’t even break a sweat. Contrary to his usual advice, he asked me to back off of any activity for the next two days, rest my back, and apply heat to the (apparently) spasming muscles.

I have a super tender lower back today and wouldn’t even dream of going to a yoga class.  Thankfully, standing and walking are the two most comfortable things I can do right now (other than lying down).  I walked all over the city yesterday and my back felt good.

I think the combination of the challenge and the competitive and even show-offy spirit worked me into a state of denial where I ignored bad pain.  It’s especially easy for people who are used to being alienated from their bodily signals to do this.  I have a history of distorted body image, chronic dieting, and disordered eating patterns that left me unable even to determine when I was hungry. I have since dealt with that, but it is still easy for me not to listen to my body.

What I learned from this is that hard training requires a really good relationship with my body.  The old adage, popular around the gyms I worked out in in the early nineties, “no pain, no gain” called upon us to push through the pain if we wanted to see results.  Today, I see that it’s not quite so simple. Not all pain is worth pushing through. And it takes a lot of awareness to be able to decipher the good from the bad.

This is doubly complicated in people with a high pain threshold. I can tolerate quite a bit.  Two-hour tattoo session? Bring it on, I say!  If you’re good at setting aside pain, it’s easier to ignore bad pain.

If I had paid closer attention, I would have taken a rest from the yoga challenge before I was forced to the sidelines by this back strain.  Now, simply because I do not have adequate mobility at the moment, I need to rest from just about everything I love to do (other than walking).

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