My Relationship with Pain by Kyle Spears

It is often joked that CrossFit™ is a cult, but I think that the community is largely built on this relationship with pain . Pukie the clown is CrossFit’s Mascot, if I look on Instagram I see plenty of torn up hands, or a bloody shin from a missed box jump #nopainnogain. In the past I have pushed myself so hard in competitions that my lungs burned as if they had caught on fire. I tell myself never again will you push yourself that hard in a workout but the next week I find myself saying the same thing as I lie on the ground after I just crushed 3 Benchmark workouts back to back to back. I have heard so many of my clients and competitors talk about the “tweaks” in their shoulders, hips, knees, or back but day after day we all seem to come back and do it over and over until something finally breaks. Some of you reading this may have never experienced what I am talking about. You are likely too new into your workout regiment to have experienced any of this, not a competitor, were well coached from the start of your training journey, more cautious, or maybe are too afraid of pain. I believe it takes time to develop a healthy relationship with pain and if you are either too afraid of pain to challenge yourself or are so numb to pain that you have no fear, then I believe you have an unhealthy relationship with pain. I hope that by the end of this article readers have a better understanding of where you fall in that spectrum and that you can make better decisions as to how to train yourself so that you can have a long term approach to your competitive athletic career.

My relationship with pain began to change when I went through one of the Marine Corps most challenging schools. It continued in the sport of CrossFit™ while I was on the field at Carson with my team. I have spent years pushing my body past points that are safe. While I pushed my body past these points at appropriate times, I also have to admit to myself that I have (and maybe still do) push it past this point of safety at inappropriate times as well. In the past, I believed that the more I suffered the more reward I would get for it and the better I would become as an athlete, Marine, and person. So I suffered every day in training, pushing my body to its limits. It took a long time, but eventually my body reached it’s limits, and I broke. That behavior forced me to take extensive time off this year from hard training. I too am working on creating a healthy relationship with pain. Like any good relationship it will take time to develop and fully understand, and I may never fully master it but If I hope to have a long lasting career in this sport I understand that it must be developed.

It took me a while, but over the past year I have finally been able to understand the difference between pain and an injury. My very first day of Basic Reconnaissance Course, we were told a story about the difference between pain and an injury. We were going to wake up every day with aches and pains in our knees, our shoulders our hips, and that was okay, but we were warned there is a difference between these pains and an injury. A Marine in the class before mine was dropped because he literally couldn’t fin in the ocean. Some of you might think this is odd because putting flippers on and kicking isn’t exactly a complex skill however, this Marine had broken his ankle two weeks prior during the patrol phase of the course and did not report it. He rucked around the hills of Camp Pendleton for two weeks wearing an 80-120lb pack on a broken ankle. Unfortunately his ability to endure the pain that he was in caused him to do serious damage to his ankle. Had he spoken up sooner, he would have been recycled and able to complete the course after his ankle healed. Instead he did permanent damage to his body. Obviously training for CrossFit™ is not the same as military preparation, but I think this story can help you understand the dangers of not understanding the difference between pain and injury, and how something minor can turn into something extreme. In his mind this marine was probably being “tough” and “brave,” but in fact he may have just been sabotaging his own future.

Now, I can hear all of the hard asses out there getting mad at me for giving ‘weak minded people’ an excuse not to go hard. I am not saying that you should never enter into a pain cave. Personally, I believe that people who have never been into that cave also have an unhealthy relationship with pain. I’m just try to say that you should find a more complex view of pain and strive to find a healthy balance between competition pains, training pains, and injury pain. In a competitive realm, you have to be willing to hurt to achieve your goals. There is a reason why many athletes are constantly getting soft tissue work, constantly doing mobility, trying to calm themselves in the middle of highly painful workouts, shutting sessions down early when they cannot take it anymore, and hiring PT’s, Massage Therapists, and Chiropractors to help them better understand their limits. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are cultivating a more intelligent relationship with pain and understanding what types of pain they can push through, what types they cannot push though, what is safe, and what is unsafe. This approach is required if people hope to have longevity AND high levels of performance. The Marine in the story I explained above obviously was willing to hurt to achieve his goal, but the mistake he made was that he accepted the wrong kind of pain. It is important to understand the difference.

If you are trying to learn to be a competitor and you have never experienced lying on the floor after a workout, you will likely need to find a way to tell your brain “yes i can” when it tells you to stop. Instead of slowing down when things start to burn, or lying on the ground for 20 seconds during your burpees in an Open workout, examine why your brain is telling you to stop. Do you really need to stop, or can your body keep going? Can you really not push yourself up from the bottom of the burpee? Can you really not pick the 35lb dumbbell up again? In most cases, your mind will quit on you well before your body will quit on you. As you start to examine why your brain is telling you to stop you can begin to fight past these pain signals. You can begin to develop a better ability to push yourself in workouts. Steve Prefontaine said it best. “The best pace is a suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die.” Good training protocols shouldn’t have you cultivating this mentality every single day of training, but at some point if you want something bad enough, you have to be willing to fight for it.

However, if you are one of the people that reads that quote and gets fired up and says “Let’s go do thrusters and burpees out in the garage till my heart explodes.” You probably need to sit down and think about the quality of your training and your relationship with pain on the opposite side of the spectrum. If you have this type of mentality everyday, you will stagnate. Without lower intensity work, movement work, skill development work, periods of time where you de-load, your body will likely tighten, the injuries will become more frequent, and if you continue to push through them, you will break either physically or psychologically. My 22 year old self would have laughed at this paragraph, called me a p@#$y and went out into the garage and done thrusters and burpees until my heart felt like it was going to explode. Now, I would really like to go back in time and punch my 22 year old self. Your pain threshold in training needs to be significantly lower than that of a competition. You don’t need to suffer daily to become great. Watching Travis Mayer, Aaron Hanna, Noah Ohlsen, and other TTT athletes that have come through in the last year has made this very apparent to me. You don’t need maximal levels of pain to adapt. You need to train and elicit discomfort to adapt, but more pain shouldn’t be used as a judge of the quality training. It is okay to take a day off because your shoulder hurts, or skip a portion of your workout because snatching didn’t feel great on your hips today. If you let your body heal and then come back and hit it hard and work within your body’s adaptive capacity, you will progress much more over the long term. Quality training is so much more important than putting in the painful work. If you continue to push through injuries or pain your quality will suffer, and eventually you will stop adapting.

I’ve found that developing a healthy relationship with pain and finding the right balance is a skill. Like any skill it will take time to master. I have pushed too hard some days and other days I don’t push hard enough., But in order to continually adapt I’ve been working towards finding that balance so I can have longevity in the sport and continue to train long term. Like many of you, I have already developed the ability to go into a dark place, tear my hands from doing so many kipping pull ups, wheeze for air at the end of your workout because your body doesn’t have any O2 left, Lay face down on the ground because I went so hard in a 2k that your hamstring and butt are painful to the touch. That is the skill of competing and it’s best if you pack it away in the back of your closet until it’s time to unleash it at a competition. If you hope to be successful long term, you need to learn to reel yourself back in training, and start to understand the difference between training pain, competition pain, injury pain, metabolic pain, emotional pain, and all of the different types of pain signals you can expose yourself to in training. There are so many things you can do to improve that don’t require you to abuse yourself. There is nothing worse than sitting on the sideline, because you were an idiot. So, if you find yourself resonating with the mental toughness described in this message, do yourself a favor and educate yourself so that you can continue to do the thing that you love to do.

~ Kyle

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Kyle Spears
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