Exercise Pain Vs. Discomfort
Listen to your body and don't exercise in pain
Updated May 19, 2014
Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician.
Understanding the difference between pain and discomfort during exercise can help you avoid injury and develop peak fitness.
Exercise and Pain
Exercising in pain is a common mistake for many athletes. When it comes to exercising with pain, the advice is simple; stop any exercise or activity that causes pain. But this simple way of avoiding a serious or long-term injury is often ignored, dismissed or modified by well-intentioned athletes and coaches. If athletes would pay attention to the cues their body provides, they would be more likely to avoid common sports injuries, and maintain a safe and effective training routine. Unfortunately, many athletes miss or misinterpret these important, and sometimes subtle, warning signs.
Discomfort vs. Pain
It's important for athletes to learn to recognize the difference between pain and discomfort when training. Coaches and trainers can help athletes learn how to recognize this difference with daily check-ins, and a bit of education about anatomy and physiology. It doesn't need to be an entire lecture, but a brief chat can go a long way to helping keep athletes safe.
Pain is the body's primary warning signal that alerts us to a problem. It tends to come on suddenly and is sharp, pointed, shooting, aching or irritating. It is often located in a joint or deep in the bones. It tends to quickly catch your attention precisely because we are meant to listen and act on any feelings of pain. Exercise should not cause pain and if it does, you should back off or stop the activity until the pain stops. This seems like common sense, but many athletes ignore pain, work through pain, justify pain and in some cases even train in pain. For an athlete, this is risky behavior. The odds of developing a serious or chronic injury increase as you exercise with pain.
Discomfort, on the other hand, is often a part of exercise training and can be an indication that your workouts are pushing you to improve your cardiovascular capacity and strength. The discomfort of muscle fatigue, for example, is common after lifting weights or after a hard run. This sort of sensation is generally located in the muscles and is experienced as a burning sensation. Occasionally, an athlete will experience the discomfort of delayed onset muscle soreness, which can occur one to two days after a new workout routine or a particularly intense session. This sort of discomfort, while not pleasant, is normal. Delayed muscle soreness should only last two or three days and is only felt in the muscles; not the joints or tendons.
Any pain felt at the start of exercise should be a warning sign that something is wrong. If you have pain on one side of the body, if you have pain in a joint, or have a limited range of motion, you need to back off or stop that activity.
Safe Exercise Progression Tips
One guideline for exercise progression is to only increase your training intensity or duration as long as you are pain-free and have full range of motion without joint soreness. When it comes to exercise progression, it's helpful to follow the ten percent rule as a general guide. Simply stated, do not increase exercise time, distance or intensity more than ten percent per week. While not perfect for every athlete, this guideline may help athletes keep their training in line with the body's ability to progress. Using this guideline and following the 10 Tips for Exercise Injury Prevention can also help an athlete get in tune with his or her body as it adapts to change.
Exercise and Pain - The Bottom Line
Exercise should not cause pain. If it does, you are either doing it incorrectly, you are not fully recovered from an injury, or you may be on your way to developing a chronic injury. Smart athletes will learn to listen to the subtle, and not-so-subtle, warning signs the body provides and adjust their exercise to avoid pain and get great results.
IASP Pain Terminology, The International Association for the Study of Pain, Nov. 2008.