Pain During Exercise: What’s Normal and How to Deal With It

Your muscles feel like they’re on fire and your lungs are exhausted – the extreme discomfort associated with pushing yourself to your limit during exercise is probably something you recognise and dread.

Exertional pain normal to workouts is different from acute or injury-related pain, and dealing with it is as much about mental strength as training right.

Acute versus exertional pain

Although exertional pain can include cramping, burning or aching muscles, and general fatigue, it is different to acute and injury-related pain. Exertional pain is associated with positive change and how your body adapts to exercise. It’s generally safe to keep pushing yourself when you have exertional pain, but see your physiotherapist or doctor if you’re not sure.

Acute pain, however, could be a sign of injury. Examples include chest, joint or musculoskeletal pain. Generally, acute pain won’t abate if you stop exercising, while exertional pain tends to go away when you cease exercising. Of course, if you have any doubts, stop right away and seek medical attention.

Recognising and pushing through exertional pain is part of improving fitness and endurance levels. For professional athletes, managing this type of extreme discomfort is central to performing well in competitions.

Dealing with exertional pain

Experts and athletes tend to agree that you can adjust your pain level through mental strategies and training right.

  1. Mental strategies

Keeping a range of mental techniques in mind will help you tolerate and manage the normal exertional pain associated with exercise.

  • Mantras Some elite athletes use mantras to help them cope with exertional pain. Mantras seem to assist with tricking your brain into believing what you’re affirming is true. Even simple and positive affirmations like ‘Go’ or ‘Do this now’  can keep you going for longer.
  • Think strong Experts recommend believing you can tolerate pain, bringing to mind the challenging workouts you’ve done, and thinking about how strong you are. Before the race or workout, admit it will be painful. During the workout, bring to mind the fact your pain is temporary and will pass.
  • Break down the workout – Whether it’s a race or workout, breaking it down into chunks can be beneficial. Focus on achieving the next chunk or increment and you won’t feel overwhelmed by the idea of a long run or intense workout. If you’re doing reps, count it out to keep yourself focused on getting it done.
  • Switch your focus – Time goes by excruciatingly slowly if you’re watching the clock, so distract yourself with music or a podcast. When the pain gets intense, turn your attention to your music, the scenery, your mantra, or anything outside your body.
  • Motivation and purpose – Stay aware of why you want to exercise and you’ll be able to draw on your supply of motivation during the toughest workouts. Whether it’s to fit into your old jeans or compete in an event, ensure your goal is big enough to keep you focused.
  • Gratitude and confidence Be grateful you’re fit and healthy enough to work out, and adopt an attitude of ‘whatever it takes’. The mindset of doing what it takes to achieve your goal is a powerful motivator. Focusing on how well you’re doing and how good your form is can also be beneficial.
  1. Refresh your playlist

Change your playlist to freshen up the impact of rhythm and tempo. The right type of music can make it feel easier. Faster songs (with more than 130 beats a minute) are more effective.

  1. Train for pain tolerance

The burning sensation associated with intense exercise is due to lactic acid build-up in your muscles. Endurance athletes dedicate 10 to 15 percent of their training in vigorous training to boost their lactate threshold zone.

According to experts, if you keep training at or slightly under your lactate threshold zone, you can enhance your pain tolerance and delay the onset of pain. For example, you could try variable intensity running. This involves running fast for short distances and slowing down to recover.

  1. Reward yourself  

Set fitness goals and reward yourself to stay motivated. Monitor your progress in a notebook or app and reward yourself when you hit milestones. Think of each milestone achieved as cash in your fitness bank. Spend this cash on new sneakers, workout gear, or a fun group workout class.

  1. Check feedback

Feedback on your progress can keep you motivated during a workout. Use wearables to check your heart rate, exercise intensity, pace, and distance covered to tell yourself how well you’ve done so far.

  1. Work out with a friend

Work out with a buddy so you can motivate each other. Use a competitive spirit to encourage each other as you break through milestones. Explore different workout environments – gyms, parks, or the beach – to keep it interesting.

Exertional pain is a normal part of working out, and learning to deal with it is key to any successful training program. Use mental strategies to keep going when the pain gets tough, and modify your training program so you boost your pain tolerance.

Disclaimer: The Herron blog is interested in general community wellbeing and information, and does not imply that Herron products should be used for serious ailments without the advice or recommendation from your healthcare practitioner.

All information presented on the Herron website is meant for general knowledge and never meant as a diagnosis of prescription. Please always contact your doctor for health related matters.