Pain is NOT weakness leaving the body.

At one point or another, we’ve all been given those well-intentioned pieces of advice: push through it. Pain is inevitable. Not really, no. Pain is the body’s way of telling our conscious faculty—our “executive control”—that something is wrong. The sensation of pain happens so that we are aware of what is making us stop, so that we can consciously pick activities that won’t damage whatever is hurting.

Instead, we tune out the pain. We ignore what’s going on—and by doing so we become incapable of changing the conditions that led to pain in the first place. And the culprit is that well-intentioned advice: pain is weakness leaving the body.

And yet you might retort: “But, sometimes, doesn’t pain tell us that we had a good workout, because our muscles are sore?”

The problem with that retort is the “sometimes.” Lumped into the category of pain are soreness, discomfort, localized exhaustion, aching, sharp-pain, tearing pain, etc. Because, in the English language, pain can mean all of these things (and many more), it is an exceptionally poor word to use when giving advice as to when and why to maintain exertion.

In that case, is soreness weakness leaving the body? Perhaps—if you actually rest the body afterwards. To be more accurate, soreness leaving the body is weakness leaving the body. But it has to leave. Just ratcheting up the soreness will do no good: soon you’ll start to feel pain in a related area because the sore (tired) muscles will stop working with their neighbors. And that pain just means that the system is breaking down. In other words, something is about to go horribly wrong.

Think of pain as analogous to alarms on an airplane. If you look at the control panels of an airplane, a lot of it is devoted to alarm indicators. When something goes wrong—even if its effects are tiny—the plane has a way of telling the pilots what is happening. That’s what it’s designed for. Imagine if an alarm warned the pilots of a fire in engine # 2, which they answered by ignoring it. That’s ridiculous!

But a lot of the time, that’s exactly what we do to our bodies.

But when we’re talking in the English language, it’s almost impossible to communicate which subcategory of pain we’re talking about—even if somehow, by sheer coincidence, the people involved in the conversation categorized the same sensations under the same words. Let’s illustrate this: if what I see as red isn’t exactly what you see as red, then my discomfort is probably going to be quite different from your discomfort.

Remember, this isn’t about what “pain” really means (or doesn’t mean). It’s about whether we can communicate that meaning effectively—an unlikely possibility, especially in a “can-do, go-get-’em” setting like the gym or the running club. In those contexts, there isn’t a lot of time for words, let alone for long, esoteric discussions about the meaning of pain. At the gym, we communicate in sound bites. In a physical setting, where we are interacting with an abundance of mechanical energy, a sound bite that doesn’t communicate what we want it to communicate can have disastrous consequences, particularly when it is being directed at the beginner or the unprepared.

And that’s what usually happens: an seasoned athlete, with ample experience discerning “pain” from “discomfort”—who uses the word pain to refer to both sensations—gives advice to a beginner athlete, who has no clear understanding of which kinds of pain (under the “umbrella” of pain) refer imminent damage and which don’t. Because of that, when these sorts of sayings enter the public domain, they often create a situation where beginner athletes are goaded into a state of imminent or actual injury—and they think they are becoming better athletes for it.

This constitutes one of the many glass ceilings to athletic performance. A lot of beginner athletes own their “beginner” status—good for them—and, in the spirit of humility, they ask for advice. But when they’re answered by one of these well-intentioned sayings, their athletic development can become compromised: as it currently stands, the linguistic construct of “pain” confuses the untested athlete’s perception (as well as the interpretation of what they perceive). By taking the advice of the experienced athlete, the beginner is liable to go down a path where the conditions for injury are seen as a positive thing. Once injury does happen (and it probably will), we won’t be able to see it coming; it source will be a complete mystery.

Our experience is full of these events: “My hamstring just tore. It came out of nowhere.” “Nobody could have predicted that her ACL would tear.” “His heart attack was a freak accident. He was so fit!

Personally, I attribute most of these bewildered reactions to the fact that a lot of the language that we use is too vague and overreaching. Furthermore, we’ve become accustomed to using sound bites—language that captures a lot of meaning in a little bit of sound. But that very benefit is a drawback when there is a need to communicate a concept as precisely and parsimoniously as possible.

It ain’t particularly surprising that vague language leads to bewilderment. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a popular theory in linguistics, hypothesizes that the structure of a language (and the linguistic categories we use) shape our perception. If we become used to communicating a concept such as pain in a particularly vague way, our understanding of that concept—and its boundaries and limits—will be similarly vague.

The adult human body is a machine that weighs, on average, anywhere between 150 and 250 lbs, and is capable of generating a massive amount of power. (Remember: Newton’s Third Law says that each action has an equal and opposite reaction. The more power a body produces, the more it is forced to absorb). If we’re not as explicit as possible when discussing how to develop and upgrade this machine, we’re liable to break it.

Let’s treat this machine with the care and attention that it deserves. Any aerospace technician would be exceedingly careful when describing the rating and the length of the bolts used to secure an aircraft engine. It only follows that, when it comes to our bodies, we do the same.

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