How Pain Tolerance Affects Running Performance

In one study, elite athletes had a higher tolerance for pain as amateurs did. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Learn why suffering tolerance plays a major role in running performance.

Imagine two runners, Bill and Ted, who have identical physical running ability — that is, equal VO2 max values, lactate threshold heart rates, and all that. Now suppose that Bill and Ted are talked into competing head to head — not in a running race, however, but in a test of pain tolerance. Let’s say the contest consists of sitting on a radiator that is heated very gradually. The runner who leaps off first loses.

Bill and Ted plant their rear ends on the radiator and it starts to heat up. In addition to having the same physical running ability, the two men also share equal pain sensitivity. Therefore their butts start to hurt at the same time. But while Bill is no less sensitive to pain than Ted, he has a slightly higher pain tolerance, so it’s Ted who leaps off the hot radiator first, conceding the victory to Bill.

Knowing this result, which of these two men of exactly equal physical running ability do you think would win a head-to-head 5K race? The answer is Bill again, because a running race is not that different from a game of chicken on a hot radiator. Physical running ability is certainly the primary determinant of performance in running races, but pain tolerance — or what I prefer to call suffering tolerance — is also a major factor.

The reason is that, in endurance racing, nobody is able to use 100 percent of his or her physical capacity. Research has shown that athletes always finish races and time trials with some reserve capacity left over, and the thing that prevents them from using that reserve capacity is the feeling of suffering. Runners always reach a limit to their tolerance for suffering before they hit the limit of their physical capacity. Hence the phenomenon of the “end spurt.” In studies where athletes are asked to exercise at a fixed intensity to complete exhaustion, they are able to complete a very short sprint at a much higher intensity immediately afterward. Why? Reserve capacity.

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Because running performance is limited by suffering tolerance, a runner with a greater suffering tolerance will typically outduel a runner of equal physical ability but lesser suffering tolerance in races. A tantalizing indirect proof of this idea comes from an interesting 1981 study involving swimmers. Researchers induced ischemic pain — a kind of oxygen-deprivation pain — in 30 elite swimmers by having them make a fist once every second while wearing a highly pressurized blood pressure cuff around their upper arms. Pain tolerance was quantified as the number of fist contractions — each more painful than the last — a subject was willing to endure before quitting.

The authors of the study found that elite-level swimmers were willing to continue making fists much longer than club-level swimmers despite an identical point of initial onset of pain. The club-level swimmers, in turn, exhibited a greater pain tolerance than a group of non-competitive athletes, again despite equal pain sensitivity.

In short, elite-level swimmers, club-level swimmers, and noncompetitive athletes differed in pain tolerance as much as they did physically. But were the elite swimmers elite because they had a greater pain tolerance? Or did they have a greater pain tolerance because they trained as elite swimmers? Well, it just so happens that the authors of this study measured the pain tolerance of the elite swimmers several times over the course of a competitive season. As the weeks went by and their training became more intensive, their pain tolerance scores improved. So individual pain tolerance is clearly trainable to a certain degree.

While it is seldom talked about, one of the most important objectives of a competitive runner’s training is to increase his or her suffering tolerance. The only way to do that is through familiarization. To resist suffering more successfully, dig deeper into those reserves, and perform better in races, you must first break through limits of suffering tolerance in training. Most runners have only physical rationales behind their toughest workouts. That’s OK, because the best workouts to stimulate physical improvement are more or less the same as the best workouts to teach suffering tolerance. But it can still be helpful to plan and execute your training with a conscious awareness of the importance of improving suffering tolerance through exposure to suffering.

Ironically, you may find, as I have, that suffering in tough workouts is made a bit more tolerable just by embracing those feelings as part of the point.

RELATED: Reverse-Engineering Your Training

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About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel (VeloPress, 2010) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports.

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