The Pain Gradient

I have this theory about pain.

Sorry, shouldn’t call it pain: ‘discomfort’ is the more fitness-industry-acceptable description.

Most personal trainers would shoot you down for quoting pithy phrases like ‘no pain no gain’ but you know what?  At some point we need to accept that some of your training is just going to hurt.

In a good way of course, and anyway it’s all relative so it’s ok.

Pain-O-MeterIf you’ve ever given birth or been seriously injured I’m sure the dying stages of a marathon represent mild-discomfort on your personal pain-o-meter.

But back to my theory.

When you’re sitting there comfortably in your chair, I would like to think that your exertion is pretty minimal.

If you’re huffing and puffing reading these words you’re probably on the wrong website.

So when you start running – at any speed – your perceived exertion immediately goes up.

With me so far?  Good, that’s the easy bit and I’d be worried if you were surprised to hear that exercising is harder work than sitting down.

Now imagine that you start your run at a steady pace; let’s say about the speed you would run a 10k.  Probably doesn’t feel tooooo bad to start with but what happens as the minutes tick by?

Your pace has stayed the same but what guess what?  It gets HARDER!

Welcome to the Pain Gradient

If you’ve misjudged your running prowess from the start you may find that this pain gradient eventually trips over a threshold.

This isn’t necessarily the same as your lactic threshold that I’m always batting on about but at this point you either have to slow down or spontaneously combust.

But wait, here’s The Thing.

You know, THE Thing, that you’ve stuck with me this far for and are just chomping at the bit to discover… well here we go.

The Pain Gradient is NOT linear.

Think about it.

You go from sitting on your butt to running 8 minute miles and at first this gradient is pretty steep.

It’s a big ass, sudden, in-your-face increase in your Rate of Perceived Exertion.

[ ----- Coaches are sneaky ----- ]

By the way RPE is just coach talk for your pain-o-meter.

If you have a coach they probably ask you things like “so Bob, on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is easy and 10 is as hard as you can work, where would you say you are right now?”

You’ll also notice we stand outside the range of your right hook when we ask you this question, especially if we’re anticipating a response in the upper end of the continuum.

Another little ‘insiders’ tip is that if we chat away to you whilst you run and ask you about seemingly mundane topics like the weather or what you had for dinner last night, we’re probably just assessing your ability to respond.

They don’t really give a monkeys what happened in EastEnders last night but if you are able to wax lyrical about the suspense of the sub-plots and strained relationships between the lead characters, you’ll find the pace gradually increases until you can no longer answer.

At some point your diaphragm should be used for stability rather than controlling the flow of air past your vocal chords.

This is the Talk Test.  Do not be fooled.  Personal trainers are not to be trusted.

[ ----- / Coaches are sneaky ----- ]

So your level of discomfort increases at a given rate.  To start with it goes up disproportionately with the time you have been running for.

Your survival-oriented brain acknowledges this signal and screams at you something along the lines of ‘Holy Mother of God, if this keeps on getting harder at this rate I’m screwed!’

But it doesn’t (the rate that is)

Remember, the Pain Gradient is NOT linear.

It may start off with that steep, ladder against a wall gradient but pretty soon it’s going to flatten out.

The Pain Gradient

The Pain Gradient: non-linear

Unless you’ve gone out too fast that is, then you really are screwed but normally, that level of pain becomes more or less a constant.

This is important to understand, because if you can handle the level of pain at the start of a run, as long as it doesn’t creep over this pain threshold theoretically you should be able to keep going.

This is, of course, an obvious reason to ease into your run with a period of slightly slower paced running.  If you gradually build up the pace this initial increase in intensity isn’t quite so sudden and so you don’t panic quite so much about being able to sustain it.

We call this period ‘warming up’ – you may have heard of it before.

The Pain Gradient could also explain why so many runners find the first 5 to 10 minutes of a run the hardest.

“It takes me a mile or two to get into my rhythm…” or “I just want to stop for the first 10 minutes…”

Your brain is telling you that if things keep on getting harder at this rate pretty soon something’s going to have to give.

It’s just trying to protect you, bless it, but if you can remember the Pain Gradient theory and override this basic survival instinct, start off at a slightly slower pace and gradually build it up, I think you’re going to be ok.

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