Can You Improve Your Pain Tolerance?

Pikes Peak 2013

Suffering through the final mile of the 2013 Pikes Peak Ascent

I am in a daily plank competition, and it’s really starting to hurt.  It started at 4 minutes and now it’s up to 22, and it just keeps hurting more every week.  I’m not even sure how I’m doing it frankly, as there have been so many days I wanted to quit. I won’t go into the details of the competition, because that’s not the point of this blog.  What I’ve been wondering is if all this painful planking is making me mentally stronger (I know it is physically!)  To be a successful athlete, you have to be able to deal with a certain amount of pain.  I know that I’ve had experiences that taught me just what level of pain I can really handle.  For instance, when I went to France and rode my bike around the French Alps on some of the classic Tour de France climbs.  There were hills that were so steep that, by looking at them, I didn’t think I could physically pedal up them without tipping over.  But I dug deep and I did it, and in the process I learned just how much my body could hurt and still not blow up- literally.  I also think that I made some breakthroughs in my ability to handle pain during races this past summer.  It was mostly mental adjustments that I made- accepting it would hurt, and finding a way to deal with it such as reminding myself of my goal or why I was doing the race.  You’ve probably heard that when it comes to exercise your mind will give out long before your muscles.  It’s so true…but what to do about that?!

I’ve read that athletes have a higher pain tolerance than the general population, and that elite athletes have higher pain tolerances than their recreational counterparts, but this is one of those “which came first, the chicken or the egg” situations.  Do elite athletes develop a higher pain tolerance because of their training? Or do they get to the elite level because they can naturally better deal with the pain of training?  I’m not sure that can be answered, just like I still don’t know if the chicken or the egg came first!

But, even more importantly, can you train to improve your pain tolerance?  I think that you can, both mentally and physically.

I once read an interesting article in Outside magazine (see link at bottom) about pain tolerance.  The article stated that researchers found people who had experienced more physical pain in their lives (like from injuries or childbirth) had a higher pain tolerance than those who didn’t.  One of the ways they discovered this was by having study participants stick their hand in freezing cold water for as long as possible. Those who had more past physical pain tended to be able to keep their hand submerged longer.   To me, that means that training your pain tolerance for exercise is quite possible.  So aside from sticking your hand in frozen water, how can you increase your pain tolerance for exercise?

I did some online sleuthing and also spoke to my sister Kim, who regularly sticks her feet in a bath of freezing cold water after training runs, and here’s what I found out.

*Side note: it’s important to clarify that we are talking about mental pain during exercise and the pain from exhaustion/pushing yourself hard and NOT about the pain from injury, which you should not push through!

Physical Training:

  • Do interval workouts close to VO2 max.   They hurt.
  • Try “trick yourself workouts”, such as going for your planned 8 mile run, then making yourself go a mile or two more.  Having to manage more than you originally planned helps teach your mind to deal with painful changes.  For these it helps to have a coach or running partner spring the change on you, since it’s harder to trick yourself!
  • Practice negative splits- where you run the last miles of your training run faster than the first ones.
  • During challenging workouts don’t stop just because it starts to hurt and your brain tells you to (which it will).  Instead, tell yourself you’ll go another 5 minutes and then reassess if you can slow down. After those 5 minutes are up, tell yourself the same thing.
  • Ice bath!  There is conflicting data on whether or not ice baths help with recovery, but man do they hurt.  A cold Colorado stream works well. Be sure not to give yourself frostbite though.

Mental Training:

  • Practice positive self talk: such as “I don’t feel this pain” or as Jens Voigt says “Shut up legs!”.  Think about how much you have accomplished so far, not how much you have left to go.  Try reciting a positive mantra such as “I feel fast, efficient, and strong”.
  • Have a purpose/goal for the pain and remind yourself of that goal.  Remind yourself the pain is temporary. For instance, the most helpful sign I saw during my last half marathon was one that read “Pain is temporary, but Facebook is forever”.  It’s lame, but I really wanted to post that I had PR’d on my Facebook page, and that little reminder helped me to pick up the pace during my roughest miles.
  • Don’t think too much about how tired you are or how long you have to go.  If those thoughts arise, try to let them go and instead focus on the things you can control, like breathing and good form.
  • Commit to hurting. You have to accept it to deal with it.  Visualize yourself doing it anyway, successfully, and tell yourself that you can do it despite the pain.  As one of my favorite quotes goes “ You aren’t gonna get out of this pain free so pick your pain- the pain of the race or the pain of regret!”

To read the Outside article:


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