The Surprising Purpose of Pain

Most people want to avoid pain.

It’s uncomfortable, it hurts, and it’s not really fun.

Unfortunately, I’ve decided in my life, that I don’t get the luxury of avoiding pain.

Being an athlete, you’re constantly exposed to pain. It happens when you push the limits of what you’re capable of. Every time you decide to go farther, to do more, to do something you haven’t done before, you’re exposing yourself to pain. It’s tough to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it before, but there are different “types” of pain. To the uninitiated, all pain sounds bad, but most athletes will tell you there’s an enormous difference in the type of pain they experience on a daily & weekly basis.

Ask any athlete you know & they’ll be able to articulate some differentiation between “good pain” & “bad pain.”

Pain

Good Pain

Good pain is how you feel after a workout that dominates you. Completely spent, incredibly sore and you do the awkward walk down the stairs post-squat day.

However, this pain also leads to growth. It’s a pain that leads to your muscles being broken down so they can be built up stronger. It’s a pain that makes you feel like you want to puke up your lungs so you can run faster next time. It’s the pain of transformation. The pain of getting better. Avoid this pain at your own peril & you’ll atrophy like a leg in a cast – never being used – and wasting away.

Bad Pain

Bad pain is slightly different. It’s your body telling you that you’re going too far – that you’re not just bending – but you’re breaking and you should probably stop before hurting yourself.

Ignoring this pain leads to injuries, muscle tears, broken bones, and all other sorts of hurt. Not fun.

The Surprising Purpose With Pain

The problem with pain is that it’s not something you can tell the difference until you’re familiar with it. If you look at it from the distance, you’ll never be able to tell how they differ. The grimaces look the same, the effort looks agonized & from a third-party perspective, they both look bad.

Even if you decide to jump in and find out for yourself, when you first start out (in anything) – everything hurts – you’re convinced that you’re going to die. Everything seems like bad pain & your initial instincts are to run away from it all. It’s not until you do that thing over & over & over that you start to recognize what it “bad pain” truly feels like and what “good pain” is and how both of them aren’t nearly as bad as they sound.

Why Pain Isn’t As Bad As You Think It iS

Almost all pain leads to some sort of growth.

Good pain is good because it force yourself past your limits & breaks down your muscle. That hurts. But, it also lets your body recover & build it self back up to something stronger than it was before.

Bad pain hurts too – sometimes permanently or can leave scars reminding you of the pain. If nothing else, you learn something – you learn when you need to push yourself and when you need to stop.

In other words:

Good pain makes you stronger. Bad pain makes you smarter.

Both types of pain you can learn from.

Of course you can try to avoid all pain if you like – but if you do that, you’ll find that your growth will stagnate & you’ll be less effective over time. You’ll atrophy. But if you recognize the pain, embrace the suck and dive in – it might hurt for a while, but over time you’ll get stronger, faster and better.

You’ll also find that pain is just a sensation – it doesn’t last that long. Sure you might be sore after a workout – but that subsides in a day or two. That’s the whole point of CST – to teach you that some things in life (i.e. cold temperatures) are just temporary and that feeling cold won’t kill you – it will just be uncomfortable for a few minutes.

In fact if you’re not encountering pain on a regular basis, you’re probably not doing anything that’s actually pushing your limits very much – because pain happens when you bump up against your current limits.

The point: don’t be afraid of pain. It’s just a sensation – to let you know you’re pushing what you’re used to (what’s comfortable). Instead of running away every time you think something might hurt or might be hard – lean in instead & see how you can grow in the situation.

This whole post used athletes & fitness as examples – but you’re smart readers & can apply it to other parts of our life as well. Don’t be afraid of pain, lean into it – embrace it. It’s life’s way of offering you a chance to grow.

Comments

  1. Kayla says

    Damn! Good stuff Joel. Looking forward to some good pain as I make changes in my life. Less internet, more sprinting – the concise version of my future as I see it.

  2. Kathy Walliser says

    I broke my right leg while hiking home in the snow on Feb. 15th. At the hospital they reviewed my record and said that because of my many allergies to every opioid and NSAID known, that they could not give me anything for pain. In the last 39 days I have learned that you can survive way more than you ever thought you could. Pain makes you grab every strength you can find in your innermost soul and spirit to make it through. If you had told me 40 days ago that surviving a broken leg in raw pain was going to be good for me I would not have believed it. In serious pain, there is no room for hype, pretend, fluff, excuses, or procrastination. Pain causes life to be very immediately real. By looking back, inside, I am stronger than I ever could have been otherwise. Thanks for talking about pain.

  3. says

    Some pain and inflammation is the body’s way of signaling that you’ve had a great workout and now it’s time to repair.

    I personally avoid dumping anti-inflammatories into my system and let the body recover using it’s own magic physiology. Many athletes neglect the negative effect NSAIDS have on blood flow to the kidney. This is problematic for those prone to dehydration and during long events (marathon/ultra, etc.)

  4. Chris says

    I’ve always found that sudden pain is pretty much always bad, good pain comes on slower and takes longer to take full effect, not all slow pain is good though, so be aware.

  5. Dave K says

    I went from struggling to run 0.5 miles to running 26.2 miles, over a 2-year period of training. I learned that the pain of running is okay, and the body adapts. I have also been doing cold-shower-therapy for 1 year, daily cold showers. Have begun looking much better than before. I also see that some of the best looking people are the ones who endure great physical pain in pursuit of fitness. The thought has crossed my mind many times, that achieving real beauty, in anything, is only possible through great pain. beyond physical beauty, real beauty in any endeavor is perhaps only possible through great pain.

  6. says

    Joel,

    Your posts always get me excited about life and growing as a person. This one gets me excited about pain and discomfort because I know it is necessary for growth. In this mindset, I view pain as a good thing and actually begin to build my courage more and more.

    I usually move around a lot when I take a cold shower; today was the first day that I challenged myself to remain absolutely still while breathing deeply. It felt amazing.

    Keep it up man!

    Sam

  7. says

    I guess if never push yourself you’ll never experience pain in terms of exercise, and therefore it’s almost a pointless exercise. Interesting article! Also, I don’t mean to sound like a complete arse, but the Headline “Why Pain Isn’t As Bad As You Think It iS” has uppercase S at the end. Thought you should know :)
    Cheers!

  8. says

    The difference between good pain and bad pain is a really important lesson to learn. Too many avoid doing things because of pain. They never learn to embrace the things that hurt too good.

    Pain motivates a lot of people away from some of the greatest feelings in life. It’s just a barrier to entry not everyone will pass.

  9. Fede says

    The first time I ran into this blog, I read about the cold shower therapy challenge and I was immediately hooked. I immediately ran into the shower and since then I have been doing it. Right now I’m just looking forward for it to finish. I had never taken a cold shower in my entire life before. EVER. I am also doing some other “impossible things” at the time. All I can say is that I am in the progress of becoming a new person. This 2.0 version of myself is unbeatable. Thanks man, I am a big fan since then, and it’s only been 20 days since I first read this blog.

    Pain is good. Actually, the real secret to success is to become a masochist. #JustDoIt #LifeHacks

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