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When Running Hurts: Discriminating Between Good Pain and Bad Pain

Posted by on Jun 13, 2012 | 14 Comments

Barefoot runners are repeatedly told to avoid pain at all costs. PAIN IS BAD! It’s a signal we’re doing something wrong or we’re doing too much too soon.

Ultrarunners live with pain. Any seriously long run hurts. If we’re going really fast, really long, or traversing really gnarly terrain, it hurts even more. [Edit- Rob Youngren commented below and suggested this is more like "discomfort" than "pain." I like this distinction,]

What happens when these worlds collide?

This topic has always fascinated me, especially since quite a few barefoot runners strive to run ultras… or quite a few ultrarunners take up occasional barefoot running. The fundamental was each camp handles the ‘pain” issue leads to a lot of confusion and possible injuries.

First, let’s talk about the apparent facts. If you’re new to barefoot or minimalist shoe running, you have to go through a transition period to allow your body to adapt to the rigors your body is experiencing. During this phase, pain is almost always a bad sign and should be interpreted accordingly. Run through the pain in this phase and injuries are bound to happen.

Once your body adequately adapts, this pain will diminish and ultimately disappear (unless you dramatically increase speed or distance in a short time). The transition period has a finite length.

When running ultras, you will experience a variety of pains. At some point, pretty much everything will hurt. It’s a function of the stress being placed on your body. Most of the pains are temporary and fade shortly after the race.

When barefoot runners make the jump to ultra distances, we tend to freak out about the pain. After all, we have been taught to avoid pain like the plague. We have a difficult time increasing training volume because we’re taught that it shouldn’t hurt.

When ultrarunners start barefoot running we have the exact opposite problem. We become so adept at managing pain, we run through the “warning pains” that signal we’re doing too much too soon. We have a difficult time using pain as an injury signal unless it is extreme. Unfortunately, almost all of the “transition” injuries new barefoot and minimalist shoe runners experience don’t start with extreme pain.

The Solution

Awareness.

Yup. That’s it. Awareness.

For the ultrarunner, simply knowing that new barefoot and minimalist shoe runners can injure themselves if we run through pain should be enough to take a step back and interpret pain as a warning signal.

For the new barefoot runner, simply knowing that running can and will hurt if you run long enough can help learn that discrimination process. The transition period doesn’t last forever. If we push our boundaries, we’re going to experience pain. Being able to accurately judge “injury pain” from “long run pain” is a critical skill we must develop.

I know quite a few of my barefoot friends have made the jump to ultras, and many of my ultra friends have experimented with barefoot and minimalist shoes. What are your experiences?

For those that are newer to ultras and are looking for a way to manage the discomfort, give this a try: http://barefootrunninguniversity.com/2011/06/05/just-say-no-to-ibuprofen-and-some-pain-management-alternatives-including-an-adult-solution/ :-)

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14 Comments

  1. Trish Reeves
    June 15, 2012

    Jason, how do you feel about the idea of taking Ibuprofen AFTER running to reduce inflammation caused by the run? A doctor once recommended that to me, and I have used the advice during periods of healing from injury.

  2. Bare Lee
    June 13, 2012

    Excellent post as always, and the one about pain is a classic–just read it for the first time.

    One thought: I think the distinction between discomfort and pain, made here and in the pain post, is very useful, but doesn’t get us off the hook completely, because continual discomfort could be a sign of cumulative injury that will never show up as acute pain until the damage is done. In this case, awareness will only get you so far, so to speak.

    One question: do you think that the ‘runner’s high’ can mask pain too? Some have theorized that it’s an evolutionary means of making running fun, so that we’d get good at it and become successful at persistent hunting. But it seems like relieving hunger by running an ungulate into heat exhaustion and subsequently eating it would be fun enough. It seems more probable to me that the runner’s high helps mask the pain of doing so.

  3. Shane D.
    June 13, 2012

    I think an individuals pain threshold plays a big part from person to person. I have experienced pain but from a mind-body connection I knew it was pain I could push through. I have also experienced pain that I knew if I tried to push through, I would injure myself. Part of this is being tuned into your body and knowing your boundaries. One persons pain is another persons pleasure!

  4. Rob Y
    June 13, 2012

    I don’t think there is “Good Pain” and “Bad Pain”. Pain is pain. I think what you meant to say, with regards to what one experiences during an ultra is “discomfort” or “fatigue”. I can honestly say as an avid ultrarunner that it’s rare that I’ve felt “Pain” during an ultra; discomfort yes, but pain no. I felt pain when I broke my wrist as a skate-boarding teenager. I felt pain when I fractured my heel last summer offroad unicycling. I think it’s important to distinguish between discomfort and pain. Pain is a true warning sign, discomfort is something else entirely.

    • Jason
      June 13, 2012

      Rob, i like your distinction. I called both “pain” because they’re the same physiological mechanism… but the “discomfort” descriptor is perfect. TO the new ultrarunner, especially those coming from the world of barefoot running, they are too similar to discriminate. Out of habit, the new ultrarunner will stop prematurely without pushing through the discomfort.

      Ths was going to be a post for the future, but how would you describe, in as accurate of detail as possible, the feeling of discomfort in ultras? I think that may help people learn the difference.

      • Rob Y
        June 13, 2012

        Wow. This is a tough question to be totally objective about since I’ve been at this sport for a very long time.

        Pain. To me this something that stops me dead in my tracks. It is a true bodily warning signal that something is wrong. Pain also continues to manifest itself even after the activity has ceased.

        Discomfort. This is more of an “achy” feeling or soreness. Yes the feeling can be extreme, akin to pain but with the difference that it doesn’t stop me in my tracks and typically once I’ve stopped it quickly goes away without any lingering effects other than perhaps muscle tightness and general fatigue. The discomfort feeling is never sharp or instant like pain, it has a slow onset and typically I find that it doesn’t tend to increase once it sets in. I like to tell people that running a 100 miles or a 50km isn’t all too different in that running a 100 miles doesn’t hurt more; it just hurts longer! :)

        However there is the middle ground called cramping. Muscle cramps can be very painful and very uncomfortable at the same time. However, given the proper treatment (in the field) a cramping runner can still continue on. Typically (at least in my case) it means I need much more salt in my system; I’m massively dehydrated. Now extreme muscle cramping can lead to debilitating pain simple because the muscles simply won’t work or fire anymore. That’s when the threshold to pain is crossed. Properly treated cramps may just yield more discomfort but progress can still be made in the race.

        I guess that’s a good start. Pain is sharp and instant and still present even after you’re removed from the activity. Discomfort is dull and slowly builds to a plateau but reduces steadily as you’re removed from the activity.

        • Jason
          June 13, 2012

          That’s pretty much been my experience, too. I DO occasionally get sharp, shooting pains that feel like those “stop you in your tracks and continue after stopping”, but go away after a half mile or so. For me, that’s the most difficult gray area. I usually use a three mile margin- if it keeps hurting after three miles, I stop and assess.

          • Bare Lee
            June 13, 2012

            Chris, from your linked post (June 5, 2011) put it this way: “discomfort is weakness leaving your body, pain is your body’s way of telling you are doing something wrong.”

      • Janson
        June 13, 2012

        I also make a distinction between pain, and soreness/discomfort/sensations. The hardest part about learing to run barefoot and/or long distances for me was teaching myself to distinguish between the two.

  5. Neil
    June 13, 2012

    I am on my 6th week transition period now. My achilles and heels are always sore, sometimes hard to know how long to leave between runs. I am hoping by week 8-10 that my feet will begin to fully adjust, so I can train properly again. I am running with vivo barefoot shoes am I expecting too much too soon?

    • Bare Lee
      June 13, 2012

      Neil, a lot of people recommend doing the transition period completely barefoot, to benefit from all the feedback your soles can provide, and only then running with minimalist footwear. As far as expectations go, the transition can take anywhere from no time at all to several years!

  6. Brad
    June 13, 2012

    I definitely had pain on my 50K but it was not of the oh god this hurts variety. It is the pain that always rears its head on longer runs so I was familiar with it and was OK. I think the experience of logging stupid miles or maybe 120days consecutively has helped me to draw the line. I have been blessed so far to be injury free and I’m still playing it conservative.

    At the moment, I have a few nagging hurts that are concerning me but I suspect they are related to the test miles I’m putting on my NB MR00 in the hopes that they break in to my feet. I’ve got a little heal and TOFP which I suspect are related to the shoe but are concerning nonetheless. The last is not perfect for me and I feel like I need to tie them a bit tight to keep them stable.

    This particular topic has been something I’ve been noodling on for a while.

    • Jason
      June 13, 2012

      Changing shoes has always fascinated me because those of us that come from barefoot running seem to be hyper-sensitive to the changes. You never hear someone going from a Brooks Beast to a Gel Nimbus (are those ever real shoes?) complaining about little aches and pains. I think our awareness is a GOOD thing, but it is a little peculiar.

  7. Adam
    June 13, 2012

    Well, I’ve been a barefooter (living/hiking) for a few months to build up my feet before starting serious running. I had never really been a runner, but I’ve always been physically active via backpacking, cycling, and my job (manual labor). I’ve done a few runs between 1-2 miles and have had some minor pain around the ball of my foot, but it subsides pretty quickly.

    My biggest problem right now is finding a good shoe for cycling that doesn’t make me feel like I’m walking in high heels when I get off my bike like my old running shoes did. All I’ve been wearing for the past month is a pair of 4mm thick Invisible Shoes and only really at work.