One way or another, most of us have an unhealthy relationship with pain. Either we’re scared of it, or we try to overcome it. In both situations, pain is the enemy. But our relationship with pain doesn’t have to be of enmity. If we understand it, it can become a great asset in training and in life.
This especially goes for runners: we’ve become socially conditioned to believe that running is just painful. According to society, when you run, pain is gonna happen anyway, and because running “is injurious”—it’s just that way—well, there’s no point in listening to it, to what it’s telling us about our bodies, and figuring out how to modify our running accordingly. Because running is injurious, our body will break at some point, so we might as well just wait until something happens and then go see the physical therapist.
But pain itself can help us guard against injury. We just have to get to know what it’s telling us.
Having a positive relationship with pain has been understood as beneficial for a long time. Much of stoicism centers around the idea that the mind should always remain free and in the moment, without being buffeted by the forces that affect the body. In view of that, it is interesting (and a topic for another time) that in this day and age we think of “the stoic” as the person with the stiff upper lip and the squared shoulders, keeping at bay the pain they are haunted by. Marcus Aurelius, known as “the stoic emperor,” expounded on the importance of teaching the mind to remain detached from the trappings of pain:
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
The point of including this quote is not to lavish praise on what was said by a systemically-favored old white man. Strictly speaking, I don’t agree with Mr. Aurelius. But this quote reminds us that is important to recognize that when someone is beset by pain, stress, or fear, it is impossible to defuse or engage with situations and work to transform them. A philosophy that allows the practitioner to rid themselves of such bulwarks to improvisation and adaptation—especially when the situation is so dire—should be given much attention and consideration.
In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzalez writes that one of the commonalities between survivors of wilderness accidents is that life or training has put them through what he calls a “course of familiarization with pain.” This is one of the key characteristics that Gonzalez identifies, which allows people to engage with disproportionately trying circumstances, and come out alive on the other end.
Notice that Gonzalez doesn’t talk about “pushing through pain,” or “overcoming pain.” The word he uses is “familiarization.” To turn this word—familiarization—into something more real, think of friendship. In order to become friends with somebody, you have to become familiar to their attitudes, wants, dreams, desires, and so on. That’s how you build a relationship. Creating a relationship with anything, even pain, is in essence about complexifying your understanding of it, and about breaking down your previous, simpler models of how it worked.
I’ve written before that pain is like a plane’s alarm system. It lets the pilots know exactly what is going on with the plane. A particular alarm on a plane doesn’t mean that the plane’s going to crash; it’s letting the pilots know that a very specific component is malfunctioning. Thanks to this communication system, the pilots are able to compensate effectively for any problem. If their solution had been to ignore it, things would probably take a turn for the worse. If their solution was to do more of the same, the probability of a catastrophic emergency becomes a certainty.
So the pilots engage with it in a very specific manner: they have a dialectic relationship with the aircraft. (Landing the plane immediately, indiscriminate of the specific alarm, is not a reasonable modus operandi; that’s not an example of dialogue). It’s not enough for us runners to just stop running and sit on the couch until the pain subsides. Inside of that pain is an answer: there are very specific nerve endings firing, telling us something about our bodies. The Gait Guys write that if we can move in such a way that those nerve endings don’t fire—reducing pain—and we don’t cause different ones to fire, our bodies learn exactly what was taking us towards damage, and how to avoid it.
This idea isn’t exclusive to modern medicine. Persian poet/philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (better known as just “Rumi”) said:
“These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.”
By understanding pain, by engaging in a dialectic with it, athletes can discover things about the workings of their own body that they would otherwise need to be told by a medical expert after an injury. This proposition isn’t an easy one. It takes work—but then most athletes are in it for the long haul. Developing this kind of relationship with pain will allow the athlete to develop a very specialized understanding of the body, and of what to do and what to do differently when pain or discomfort arrives.
But in truth, there are greater benefits than that. Becoming adept at engaging pain in a dialogue will mean that whenever there are new and unexpected pains, you will become more and more convinced that the best way to deal with pain is by remaining open, flexible, and keen to change and adapt as new pain arrives. You will begin to see that the typical reaction of putting up psychological barriers in defense is the less effective tactic.
That categorical jump in adaptability will have remarkable effects on your training—quickening the development of your athletic expression.