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Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance)

What makes painful workouts so much fun? Or assuming there’s some self selection at work here, we could ask the question a little bit differently: Why do athletes find painful workouts so much fun?

Now not all of the workouts I do are painful. Most days of the week I workout out twice a day and I wouldn’t be able to take that kind of intensity all the time. Nor does it make sense from a training point of view. But still the best workouts, the ones that are the most fun, are the painful ones. And as philosopher, I find this appreciation for pain more than a little puzzling.

But let me begin by describing two of the painful workouts I’ve done this week.

Here’s Monday’s Crossfit workout: The snatch ladder (be mature, no sexual jokes please, we’re all grown ups here)

The snatch ladder from the Crossfit Games looks like this

30 Snatch (M 75 / F 45 lbs)
30 Snatch (M 135 / F 75 lbs)
30 Snatch (M 165 / F 100 lbs)
Max Rep Snatch (M 210 / F 120 lbs)

“This workout begins from the standing position. The athlete will complete all reps at the first weight before advancing to the next weight. Score is total reps completed in 10min.”

We tried this event as our workout of the day on Monday. I’ve got to say it was 10 min of torture. Yet, lots of us loved it and therein lies in the puzzle.

Tuesday’s rowing workout was more painful though and more fun. Rowing workouts are notoriously tough. A friend regularly does something she calls “the erg of death.” I get that.

Though I’m new to the rowing world, cycling workouts are much the same. The best series of cycling training videos, for indoor workouts on the trainer or the rollers, is called The Sufferfest.

Gallows humour about throwing up and passing out is routine. Like the Crossfit tshirt says, “Yes, you will pass out before you die.” And we all know the sayings: Pain is weakness leaving the body. What doesn’t kill you…etc etc etc.

The rowing torture took place on the erg at the London Rowing Club. Here’s the drill: 2000 m for time, rest 3 min, 1500 m for time, rest 3 min, 1000 m for time, rest 3 min, 500 m for time. Collapse on the floor gasping a mere shadow of your former self. Crawl to car, drive home.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details but I did manage the final 500 in 1 minutes and 56 seconds. I was very happy that I finished faster than I started even after all that effort. But I had nothing left in the tank at the end. My legs were screaming for those final 200 m and I was gasping for air. It helped that I had a coach and some other rowers who’d finished ahead of me cheering me on but still that last bit of our workout really hurt.

And I loved it.

So here are some questions about pain and athletic training and performance I’ll be talking about in the coming weeks. Here I just want to raise the questions. Later I hope to say more about them. In the future I’d like to write a philosophical paper on pain in the context of sports training.

1. Are athletes masochists? Now before we all snicker, let me say I don’t mean sexual masochists necessarily. Sexual masochists take sexual pleasure from pain delivered in a sexual context. But you needn’t find sexual pleasure in pain to find pain enjoyable.

Here’s Lance Armstrong:

“Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it’s absolutely cleansing. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain… Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. ’Pleasure?’ I said. ’I don’t understand the question.’ I didn’t do it for pleasure, I did it for pain.”

And my former track session leader at the Forest City Velodrome used to run from one corner of the track to the other yelling “suffer” as we did 500 m efforts.

2. Are we right to use the language of pain and suffering here at all? While some of us relish talking this way–guilty as charged–others are put off by talk of how much the efforts hurt. They find it demoralizing. As with childbirth (another kind of pain with which I’m intimately familiar) some athletes prefer to talk about intense sensations rather than about pain.

“Wow, that was an intense workout.”

And it’s true that athletic pain from effort is different from pain from injury. It’s not like someone is chopping your arm off without anesthesia. I’ve often compared childbirth which I’ve experienced three times, all without pain relief, to the pain of athletic effort. And I do tell friends that if you’re familiar with that sort of pain, childbirth will be, to that extent, familiar.

I’m not even sure I’d erase the pain, if I could magically do that without drugs, from the experience of childbirth. It felt like an accomplishment much the same way that finishing an endurance sporting event does.

3. Cyclists sometimes say that the person who can suffer the most will win the race. The ability to suffer, to take it, is highly valued. It’s a fascinating question I think, the psychological limits of our ability withstand great suffering.

Consider the article The Transcendent Pain from Bicycling Magazine: “In which we dig deep into the history and the latest research of the revered art of suffering and discover some good news: You can always go harder. Or is that the bad news?”

4. Athletes are known to have high pain tolerances and medical researchers have sometimes wondered what makes athletes different. Is it just self selection (people who don’t like pain quit sports) or is there something more? Can the ability to tolerate pain be learned?

From the journal Pain, “Higher pain tolerance in athletes may hold clues for pain management,”

5. What tricks or techniques do athletes use to push through the pain?

“Your mindset plays a huge part in your ability to tolerate pain. If you want to be a competitive cyclist, you have to know how to go deep into the pain cave.  A cyclist’s ability to suffer often determines who steps onto the podium and who is standing off to the side. Whether you’re climbing a 10% grade, bridging a gap, or sprinting for the finish, there will be times when you need to dig deep and go harder than you ever thought possible – so how do you it? “I’ll tell you what racing’s about. It’s about suffering. It’s about pain – racing hurts.” Andrew Juskaitis.”

In the article “Suffering: Preparing to Push Yourself through a Hard Effort,” in the journal Podium details a variety of methods cyclists use to cope with pain.

I’ve tried some of them–counting to 20 before I’m allowing to downshift when climbing, for example–but others are new to me. I thought I’d try some out and report back.

6. Finally, what does it mean to talk about the ‘good pain’ of a really tough workout? I gave a talk on gender and cycling at the Trent University and some audience members were genuinely puzzled, claiming never to have experienced anything they’d call a good pain. All the athletes in the audience though knew exactly what I meant. I think for another blog post I’ll try to answer that question. Wish me luck!

18 thoughts on “Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance)

  1. Thanks for this: very interesting! As someone who believes in the “intrinsic badness of suffering,” this presents something of a problem for my view. It’s tempting to say that this is a good example of “pain without suffering,” but what’s especially interesting about painful workouts is that most clear cases of pain without suffering (from lesion studies or pharmacological interventions) are cases where people have the sensory component of pain (the ability to localize it, describe it, and evaluate it’s intensity) but lack the affective component. Yet in painful workouts, the pains clearly still have the motivational or affective component, and people still seem to find the pains a good thing. Nevertheless, I still think that painful workout experiences are different in kind from genuine suffering seen in, say, a political prisoner being tortured or someone suffering from extreme hunger because of a lack of resources.

    I need to look into the science more, but my guess is that the athletes sense of control over their lives modulates the actual pain experience. For example, it’s well-documented that anxiety increases the unpleasantness of pain, and it’d be hard to believe that being forced to experience pain against your will isn’t much more anxiety-inducing than choosing to push yourself for a goal. If this influences the actual experience, then it seems to me that we can distinguish between cases of genuine suffering and the “suffering-like” experiences of athletes pushing themselves. This is possibly reflected in a quote from one of the articles you presented: “For Emmerman, it starts with labeling: “You keep saying ­‘suffering,’” she chides me by phone from New Mexico, where she is racing the Tour of the Gila. “I call it ‘physical discomfort.’”

    And, not to get all moralistic here, but if it turns out that there’s an experiential difference between what athletes experience and cases of genuine suffering, isn’t there an argument to be made that people shouldn’t be describing their painful workouts as “suffering”, even if doing so is motivational, especially considering how much genuine suffering there is in the world? It may seem like a stretch to think that this type of talk could desensitize people to genuine suffering, but I’ve heard people respond to claims like, “This action is wrong because it causes X to suffer” with statements like “Yeah, but suffering is not actually a bad thing.”

  2. But I also worry we lose something if we fail to recognize that athletic training and performance involves significant pain. Ditto childbirth. Call it ‘intense sensation’ if if makes you feel better but…

    Then what makes pain positive in this case? A few factors. When I do my post on ‘good pain’ I’ll have more to say about the features that make painful workouts good. I think they’re things like knowing it leads to improvement (in things like one’s lactic acid threshold and VO2 max) and being in control, as you note (I can make it hurt worse or I can back off and make it hurt less).

    But even our experience of illness and injury pain can vary. I’ve had some ongoing pain that wasn’t connected to anything getting worse, there was no point in stopping what I was doing, it was just a really annoying symptom. Yes, listen to our bodies but sometimes our bodies have pointless messages. Once I realized that nothing bad wasn’t about to happen, I wasn’t ill, and it wasn’t going to go away if I did something differently then I was able to experience the pain in a more detached–much less urgent– way.

    And as for political prisoners, context is everything. There are lots of relatively minor pains that would be unbearable in that context. The lack of consent, the lack of control, the worry about your future…those are all factors that would amplify the pain, not mitigate it.

    My thought about athletes–again, still lots of thinking to do here–is that over time, through training–you come to put a positive valence on certain kinds of pain, in certain contexts.

    There’s a great scene in the movie about the Tour de France where the reporter is talking and one of the cyclists screams at him to shut up, “can’t you see that people are suffering out her.”

    Watch the trailer here,

  3. I agree athletes experience pain, but I think the term “suffering” carries additional implications. So I think there are different answers to the question “Are we right to use the language of pain here?” and “Are we right to use the language of suffering here?”

    Assuming that there’s a moral difference between painful workouts and painful torture, my question is whether the moral difference can be explained by differences in the actual experience, or whether the moral difference is explained by other features (lack of consent, control, etc) independently of the experience. Can context transform a bad experience into a good experience independently of how the experience feels?

    I’m also curious whether we can detect differences in brain activation between the type of pain experienced by athletes and what I’m calling genuine suffering. This, of course, can’t be tested very easily since it’s hard to get someone to “feel the burn” inside an fMRI machine where they have to remain still, and more importantly because we can’t really do tests that involve invoking genuine suffering. It also wouldn’t directly answer the question of whether they are different experiences, but given the extensive literature on the role different brain regions play in pain, it might as least help to answer that question.

  4. I think a lot of the “positive” spin on the pain of athletes has to do with pushing ourselves to the limit physically. It’s interesting to think about whether it would even be possible to conceive of elite athleticism, or even just the everyday idea of physical improvement, if it didn’t involve some notion of pushing past boundaries, going beyond comfort levels, etc. What would progress look like, for example, if running a marathon were as easy and painless as running around the block? What, exactly, would the sense of accomplishment be in running the marathon? So while I agree that there is a link to the idea of improvement, I also think that pushing past limits is what makes these things accomplishments in the first place. I was reflecting on this in the context of mountain climbing, where the same sort of thing takes hold. It’s physically trying to do, for example, a high altitude climb — in lots of ways it should be impossible. But it wouldn’t be the activity it is if it wasn’t that way. And “that way” speaks a lot to the pain and/or suffering that makes it a challenge in the first place. The machismo of it in cycling is not unique, but I don’t think it gets at the whole story (not that you suggested it does, of course).

  5. In my personal experience, the pain is the sign that you are pushing beyond yourself – breaking barriers – accomplishing something – whatever words you want to use. It is controlled, focused aggression to crush anything in the way of you transcending yourself, i.e. your own limitations, I suppose. But the concepts of transcendence and victory are at the heart of it. You are not always victorious, even in the sense of setting new personal bests, but the feeling of going to crush whatever is in your way remains and as long as you don’t go backwards performance-wise, you feel good about it. Transcendence is not an experience one would normally have, at least I do not think, when and if tortured. You are not feeling the pain as a sign of accomplishing anything much less transcendence. There is much talk of the chemicals released when pumping iron, and how they are similar to those released during sex. Whether they are released when tortured, I do not know. But as everyone who works out knows, exercise is addictive and you need that feeling, BUT it won’t work if you go to the gym and require a feeling of pleasure; it hurts too much and you’ll be disappointed that you have to endure that much pain to feel that particular form of pleasure. So you have to go in with the controlled, focused aggression of which I earlier spoke, and the pleasure you then feel is likely a complicated thing which has many components – feeling of crushing your barriers, feeling of victory, the elation of accomplishment, the anticipation of becoming more than what you were, the sense of continued dedication to becoming something beyond yourself, the chemical release, etc., etc. But clearly, at least I would think, all of these components underlying the pleasure you feel in athletic training or performance, are not all present if and when you are tortured! And unless you have a rather serious problem, you are not addicted to pleasure which might be derived from being tortured! I know that I have hardly even begun to understand or approach this topic on a philosophical level, but these are my thoughts, primarily at least, on an experential level. And believe me, I know how macho it sounds.

  6. On ‘good pain’ – I am tempted to borrow from the language of environmental ethics here (Teaching a summer school course on it at the moment, so it is fresh in my mind). Elliot talks about valuing authenticity in the natural world. One phrase is that we value ‘the specific genesis and history’ of a particular environment. We could run the same line for pain. This pain is good because of how and why I have it. That pain, which seems identical in its effects, is bad because it arose differently.

    For example: If I cannot walk up stairs because i pulled a muscle getting out of bed, the pain of that pulled muscle is bad. If I cannot walk up stairs because I’ve been doing heavy leg work, that pain is so good.

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