Pain Does Not Equal Intensity by max el-hag

Upgrade Your Understanding

I wish I could go back in time and count the number of times I have heard a cliché generalization like “no pain, no gain” in my tenure as an athlete, a member of a seminar, or an observer of a group fitness class. If the fitness world was personified it would be a drunk abusive militarized patriarchal figure. He would be constantly screaming at you, telling you that you’re not good enough and you failed because you were a pu$$y, and that the people better than you are just tougher. This lie that your body can be shaped and adapted purely by the power of will causes many problems. I think the biggest problem is that the people who are actually superior in fitness believe the lie they’ve been told. They think they are actually supremely tougher than the less talented and everything that they ‘have’ they’ve earned by working harder than the rest. The flip side to trusting our heroes is that people who look up to those role models in fitness think that way of pushing the body constantly past its limits will result in a perpetual adaptation machine capable of becoming the best in the world. People actually believe if they put themselves into the pain zone more frequently and throw up more in workouts, they will attain greatness.

The reality, like most things, is much more complex. When things get really complex people have a tendency to want to make generalizations because it makes it easy to try to be in control of the massively complex nature of all things. The human body is a complex and intricate system. It’s a disservice to humanity and the uniqueness of each one of our physical beings to simplify all physical development into a brute force “beat down” system. People who achieve greatness with their physical bodies may all share the common bond of ability to suffer. But, correlation is not causation and that is not what we should be looking at trying or trying to mimic. Elite athletes of any discipline were given a unique subset of DNA that allow them to succeed. They can often lose their perspective of humanity and sense of humility as they develop. And if you’ve spent enough time around professional athletes or celebrities you know that often people meet superstars and feel a sense of disappointment after coming to the realization that the human being behind the performance and public image does not line up to their dreams. I believe success is a hard thing with which to cope. We all share our humanity whether we want to admit our interconnectedness or not, and sometimes other people’s resentment of success, their envy of bodies, or their lack of understanding of the work of others, leads them to some erroneous conclusions. It’s much easier to think that everything we have earned was due to our hard work, determination, and grit. Pointing at the lesser genetically gifted or circumstanced individuals and say things like “…I’m just comfortable going to that dark place,” or “I’m willing to work harder than everyone else so it doesn’t matter what the training looks like,” or “I was willing to do whatever it took.” These statements, which generalize what really goes into the success of athletic development, only scratch the surface. What most coaches and only some athletes realize is that the genetically talented have unique muscle physiologies, endocrine systems, and anatomical configurations. As proud of themselves as they should be for their hard work, they should be equally grateful to their parents for giving them phenomenal bodies that adapt to training (or their drug suppliers for those who are seemingly genetically gifted and rely on some scientific assistance).

Normally I would not mind that this seemingly small belief structure is continuing to expand at a virus like rate, but I believe each person has a right to optimize his or her experience in this world. I’ve met many people with dreams and ambitions to be the best versions of themselves buying into this over generalization. They work hard day in and day out, measure all their food, work on their technique, but they constantly think they are doing something wrong because they are not seeing the gains. Generally, elite athletes coach the less gifted by saying things like “yes, you need to compete more,” or “you need to work on your movement,” or “you need a new coach,” or “you need to try ‘this’ diet,” or any number of things. This comes from the simple lie that we can all be the best if we work hard. We can’t. The best and luckiest can become the best. But, we can become the best versions of ourselves and there is an extreme amount of peace and serenity being able to walk around in this world confident that your body is as good as it can be, mobile, strong, explosive, enduring, and pain free. While that might not be impressive for photo shoots, product sales and Instagram likes, it will be something you value when you start to see people lose their physical health. I’ve watched too many “experts”, happy to tell people they’re mentally weak, causing them to destroy their physical health. If you own a gym, if you are an athlete, if you want to be an athlete - you need to understand that pain tolerance is one component of the athletic development spectrum. The likelihood that your mental willingness to suffer in training is your biggest overall athletic limitation is quite low. It is more likely your lifestyle, your recovery habits, your technique, your movement, your hating of your job, your lacking self-confidence, or a variety of other things is the largest restriction.

Before we get into a discussion of pain though we must first decide what it is people are referring to when they say ‘pain’ or the ‘dark place.’ Pain is a very complex and deeply researched field. Going into the biological mechanisms that create the sensation of pain would be something I am both incapable of doing off the top of my head and unwilling to research to create a blog topic that would go over almost everyone’s head (including mine). However, when it comes to exercise, I try to remove the word ‘pain’ from my vocabulary and discuss the limitations that stop people from progressing faster in training. There are many types of limitations in exercise including the ability to disperse heat, fuel supply, cardio-respiratory limitations, and psychological limitations. I won’t discuss them all in this blog, but the ‘pain’ most people refer to are psychological limitations within the training session. It is true, I believe, that these are the one subset of limitations that most people should learn to push through. Because we live in a very ‘easy’ society (in relation to perhaps our farming or hunting ancestors) there are many people who have no tolerance for physical discomfort. However, after your first 1-3 years of training most people break through their initial psychological limitations. These psychological limitations morph at each stage of develop and resurface as the primary priority for elite athletes. This is why there is a premium on sports psychologists, flow states, and why so many high level athletes have a hard time winning in spite of world-class training talent. However, there are many people who take this too far and train through massive amounts of ‘pain’ when it won’t make them better. There are two major types of pain I commonly see people pushing past causing stunted progress for their goals; joint pain and energy system pain.

Before I go into those two limitations further, I want to make clear that if you take on any physical quest to improve, you are likely to deal with some chronic aches and pains. I firmly believe that optimal levels of performance start where optimal levels of health end. You must be willing to accept that if you want to be great at something physically demanding. But, the scale has been shifted so far to turning training into an abusive relationship that I feel comfortable making the generalization on the opposite side of the scale to reel people in from their self torturous training. Joint pain is a simple one. You should not be hurting every single day from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed except when you get your adrenaline pumping from training. It shouldn’t take you 2 hours to warm up for a 30 min skill session with the barbell because your knees are so sore you can’t sit in the car for ten minutes. There are a few elite athletes that are decades into their training that I might say this is ok for, but that is just pure stupidity if you have a life. Energy system induced pain is a little bit more complicated to explain. It’s often associated with increasing lactate levels (a fuel source) and the associated acidity that rises from one of the byproducts of that energy pathway. To understand this huge overgeneralization, you must understand that there are two major systems which provide energy when you do something that is breathing intensive. The first is the aerobic system and the second is the anaerobic lactic system. While both of these are operating in conjunction with one another all the time, one is the predominant player in the game depending on the duration, effort, muscle physiology of the athlete, and ability to tolerate discomfort. The aerobic system is the less powerful more sustainable fuel system that creates much less fatigue substrates. The anaerobic system is the more powerful, less sustainable, highly fatiguing system that causes most of the agony of hard breathing training. Again, this is a HUGE over-simplification of a complex topic, but it is enough to gain an understanding of what you’re seeing when people are going “hard.”

When you tax the body, the body picks the least energetically demanding way to supply the energy. Think of your body as extremely lazy and systematically designed for efficiency. It is going to do whatever it can to avoid working harder than it needs to work, which is why you constantly need to call on your willpower (or something in your ‘mind’) to do something difficult. In a test like a one-mile run for time, your body’s preference would be to supply all the energy with the aerobic system. However, in trained individuals, much of what determines actual fuel utilization is based on two major things; genetic make up and your training background. If you are lucky enough to have relatively powerful slow twitch fibers, the oxidative form of fast twitch fibers, high capillary density, large lung volume, and great adrenal capacity, you are likely to be able to produce a lot of power using the aerobic system. This would allow you to go fast without getting TOO much into the ‘pain cave.’ So, people with this profile can actually beat you in workouts while dealing with less ‘pain.’ Ironically as these athletes develop they can start accessing greater amounts of power and the training protocols that they used to use start beating them down. Which is why you see many athletes with a higher training history start talking about lowering their volume or adding in more recovery work or ‘getting old,’ when in fact they may have just been training poorly and it’s finally catching up to them. If you have poor physiology for aerobic power you can fall into one of two categories. The anaerobically powerful athletes who generally trend toward excelling at field sports, power sports, put on muscle mass really easily, and hate endurance work OR the lower end of the physical gene pool that has both low aerobic potential and low anaerobic potential. Both of the people in this second group must train with a smarter understanding of ‘pain’ in order to succeed long term in training, which I will discuss a bit later. The second determinant of the energy system used for a test like the mile run is an athlete’s training background. There is a huge shift away from doing long slow distance training in the fitness community. I think this stems from the fact that our attention spans as a society have diminished to the level of 3 month old puppies. It is boring, so many people are rushed for time, and there is much less of a neurochemical high after a long easy row at 130 beats per minute than there is after fifty nine thousand Tabata intervals on the rower at max effort while eating three grams of carbs every 29 months. However, if you talk to almost any HIGH LEVEL athlete in the sport of fitness (or any sport), they almost always had very high low intensity activity levels. That easy work could have been in the form of organized sports as a kid (or all the way to collegiate level), being an outdoors person, jogging, swimming, hiking, farm work, etc. That low intensity work often lays the foundations for the high intensity work that follows later on in the life cycle of a high intensity athlete. So, knowing that different physiologies are going to create different types of ‘pain’/fatigue allows you to know that we all can’t think of pain as the same thing. IF you are one of those genetic freaks who can constantly improve at everything and constantly go hard all the time, then you are probably ok to think of pain as something to acquaint yourself with frequently. Eventually, you will have to smarten up or you will be burnt out, beat up, need drugs, or forced into retirement from maladaptation; but for now, you might be able to get away with it. If you aren’t one of those lucky genetic freaks who I discussed AND you haven’t put a huge background into long slow work, skill development, and basic strength work, you probably should avoid constantly seeking pain in your training.

I feel like the major misconception that causes people to destroy themselves day in and day out is the belief that pain is synonymous with intensity. This is NOT true. Say I asked two athletes to run a mile run for time, but gave different instructions to both. The first athlete I tell to sprint the first 400m as fast as they possibly could and then finish the rest of the mile for time. The second athlete I have work hard, but distribute the speed equally over the course of the mile working on sustainability. The first would likely result in more pain and the other in more intensity. If you’ve watched enough of the CrossFit Games, you know that they constantly mention how methodical and paced Rich Froning Jr is in the beginning of workouts, not chasing the rabbits. This is his way of doing his work like the second miler explained above. The first way (sprint out of the gate) is almost guaranteed to result in a worse score but more pain. The second is going to result in less overall pain throughout the work interval and more intensity. This is because intensity is a time dependent variable. What is intense for 30 seconds is not the same as what is intense for 3 minutes, which are both not the same as what is intense for 10 minutes. More aerobically talented people naturally work closer to a mile paced like the first instructions with linear pacing. Likely, in their beginning years they actually don’t have access to the power that is required to push through their anaerobic threshold and so are always praised for working hard and being able to repeat efforts. Whereas someone with a more powerful energy system profile (even if they are weak and just have low aerobic potential) need to build volume at less hard intensities over long periods of time to be able to improve long term. If you ask someone who has a very large discrepancy between their maximal work rate and their maximal aerobic work rate, then telling them to ‘GO HARDER’ is likely a recipe for killing their long-term training progress if you intend to improve their long term fitness. There are many people in the market that have this low intensity higher volume training need. It’s hard for some of them to accept because they are also weak and not explosive. So learning to suffer well becomes a mark of valor for people with nothing exceptional they can do with their bodies. Training people like this towards pain therefore does not lead to progress and in fact challenges their low resilience bodies to adapt to even greater levels of stress. I do believe we should work towards creating more ‘intensity’ in training. In order to create more intensity for people we MUST be striving for progression, not pain. That long term progression is laid on a foundation of optimal movement, a polarized distribution of energy system work much of which comes in low intensity format and a small amount in the ‘pain zone’, structural integrity, proper nutritional fueling as opposed to aesthetic management, and a long term plan. The seeking of pain as a form of intensity will create shorter term results that people like, but longer term damage from which one cannot recover. I’ve met with high level athletes in the sport who are broken beyond repair, dealing with injuries 24/7, and never going to reach their potential because of their stubbornness to constantly think they can do more and go harder. This is a recipe for disaster in almost every field and the human body is no exception. Our adaptations at the elite levels of performance take a long time to develop and you must be patient if you expect to improve long term.

For some strange reason in the human condition, it is easy to become addicted to pain. People can get trapped in abusive relationships, enjoy the pleasure of cutting oneself, or get sexually aroused by the sensation of pain. It doesn’t surprise me then that there is a tremendous desire to hold on to the concept that one must be on the verge of death in their training to succeed. I’ve had so many conversations with people where they justified to me all of their training past practices in spite of their empirical data showing clearly that they have stopped getting closer to their goals. Letting go of this unhealthy relationship with training pain and understanding when you should be suffering, when you should be mastering a skill, when you should be going lighter, and when you should be operating at low intensities is the key to long-term progress. The best athletes in the world have this intuitive understanding, but sometimes are paid to say different things OR are unaware of their own superior physical intuition. If you are someone who is constantly tired, constantly in joint pain, barely making PRs anymore, and emotionally burnt out from your training load, it’s probably time to upgrade your understanding of pain and energy system development. Internalizing the negative mind state that causes you to suffer will likely turn into you loathing your time in the gym or being dependent on something that does nothing but cause you to break down and move backwards in the gym. Pain is something you should use with caution as a way to increase intensity over time, not something you should walk around with as a badge of honor to give you a sense of accomplishment to support your ego. Be tough, not dumb!

~ Max

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Max El-Hag

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