How to Unlock the Power of Pain Science to Achieve Your Athletic Goals This Year
Has pain ever gotten in the way of your fitness goals? You’re not alone. For an athlete, having pain is common, and when pain becomes persistent, it can really get in the way of staying consistent with training. If you’re training for a specific competition—whether it’s one against others or you’re competing with yourself for a PR—pain can feel especially limiting.
The good news is that understanding pain science and applying it to your active lifestyle can be part of a solution that will reduce your pain and help you achieve your goals. As a health coach at Hinge Health, I work closely with participants to help them overcome their pain and achieve their goals. Here are six ways to unlock the power of exercise therapy and pain science in the New Year to eliminate joint pain so you can maintain training consistency and continue improving in your favorite sport.
1. Get clear on your goals.
It’s important to establish your goals and understand how reducing your pain fits into the big picture. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Your “why” provides guidance for each decision as you work to reduce your joint pain. For example, it can help you weigh pros and cons and track your progress along the way, and it’s also what will propel you forward and drive you through the tough training days.
Getting clear on your athletic and pain-reduction goals involves two simple steps. First, ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish through your training. What makes achieving that goal important to you? Second, envision what it would mean to you to eliminate pain throughout that journey. How would reducing your pain affect the training process? How would it affect your outcome?
Give good thought to what it would look like for you personally if you continue to train with your persistent pain and what it would look like to take some time to follow the next five steps to reduce your persistent pain: get curious, slow down, work with your pain, move in new ways, and dig deeper than the physical.
2. Slow down with exercise therapy.
If you’re athletically minded, there’s something exhilarating about pushing yourself so you can cross the finish line or set a new personal record. Slowing down can seem counterintuitive. But even though exercise therapy, like the programs provided by Hinge Health, may feel simpler and easier than your usual progressive workout routine, it’s invaluable in the journey to reduce pain and improve the health of your joints.
Imagine your favorite professional athlete and consider the time they put into training. We often see them working hard, sweating, finessing their power moves and jukes, and performing exhausting drills. What we don’t see is the slow, less impressive movements and recovery tactics they use to keep their joints healthy. If you want to achieve your big goals, the slower and smaller components of training are vital to getting you there.
Exercise therapy supports you to increase strength and flexibility in smaller movements that mimic the bigger movements we make, both in our training and everyday life. Strong and flexible tissues around our joints means more stability and resilience to the stress of training. In a routine progressive training load, it can be easy to work the same patterns repetitively, which can lead to increased pain. The variety of movements in exercise therapy increase the body’s repertoire of movement, which helps restore the physiological balance needed to combat and prevent pain.
Exercise therapy can also help desensitize the pain system. When pain is persistent, the pain system can respond disproportionately to a simple situation. Using gentle and purposeful movement in a controlled environment can help retrain the brain and body to “know” that those simple movements are familiar and safe. By taking time to perform slower movements, you’re holistically setting your body up for success when you gradually introduce bigger movements and increase load.
Exercise therapy is a powerful tool to use for its benefits physiologically and neurologically. It acts as an active, supplemental treatment for pain to complement your already consistent workout schedule.
3. Work with your pain, not against it.
Our bodies in general are incredibly adaptable. Consider how a runner’s body adapts to training for a long-distance race. The runner starts small and slowly increases training volume over time. As a result, the runner’s endurance and muscle strength build over time. The same is true in the way our bodies adapt to other endurance sports or anything that requires increased strength and conditioning.
The pain system is just as adaptable, and you can harness its ability to adapt to help reduce your persistent joint pain. If you repeatedly find that an activity you’re doing leads to pain, that’s a signal to investigate further. A great first step is to find out what amount of that activity you can do before the onset of pain. From there, you can start to rebuild and increase your training again slowly. This process creates the space for the pain system to re-adapt to a higher activity load over time.
Going through this process gives your body time and space to strengthen and heal. Working with your pain, not against it, can also help you stay encouraged, motivated, and mentally resilient.
4. Move outside of your workouts.
We all know that keeping active with workouts is great for overall fitness, and it’s also required if we want to train for something specific. Working out daily, though, unfortunately does not make us immune to the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. It can be important to explore how we spend the rest of our time.
Consider thinking about what your lifestyle looks like outside your regular training. Do you work out once a day and then find yourself sitting at a desk for your workday? How do you spend time outside work when you’re not in the gym? Periods of immobility can result in decreased blood flow and increased inflammation, both of which are bad news and can lead to an uptick in pain.
If you realize that you’re inactive outside your workouts, sprinkle in movement throughout your day. This could be done with specific exercises or stretches to address your painful joints. You might also consider going out for a lunchtime walk or winding down in the evening with some yoga.
Don’t underestimate the positive impact this could have on how you feel mentally, too. Research shows that a lifestyle with a variety of activities encourages positive emotions.
5. Investigate beyond the physical.
It’s natural to focus on the physical causes of pain if you’re an athlete. You may be more attuned than most people to thinking of the musculoskeletal structure, how we move, and how we could move better. While pain can be caused by a physical injury, research shows that pain involves our brain and nervous system, too. If you focus only on the physical contributors to pain, you are failing to address the bigger, more complex picture and the body as a whole.
While the main role of pain is to protect us from danger, the involvement of the brain and nervous system in our experience of pain can mean that our pain system becomes overprotective. It can be triggered by even the smallest things. Pain management that focuses on a mind–body approach, and not just a body approach, can be more effective in the long run.
Even the way we view our pain and movement affects how we experience pain. This case report details the incredible journey of an Olympic weightlifter to a full return to his sport after extensive back surgery. His treatment included not only physical therapies but also learning about his pain and confronting fear as he gradually reintroduced movement.
Poor sleep can be another nonphysical pain contributor. Research shows that for the athlete, good sleep is associated with peak performance. It’s also key in preventing injury and maintaining healthy stress and immune responses, all of which are important pieces in the chronic pain puzzle.
The examples I give here are just the tip of the iceberg. Other factors affecting pain include inflammation, stress, under-doing it or overdoing it, other health problems, poor nutrition, changes in immune function, and an overprotective pain system. As you explore, remember to keep it simple and make small changes. Narrow down what you think might be the biggest nonphysical factors in your pain, make them priorities, and focus on one step at a time. This can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and help you measure your progress.
6. Stay open-minded and be curious.
Being an athlete requires hard work and dedication to your lifestyle. If you’re experiencing persistent pain with your current approach, consider mixing things up. As you’re introduced to new ideas, take note of what’s new to you and what’s familiar to you. What are you willing to try out to see what results come for you?
The process of making lifestyle changes comes with a lot of experimentation. It can be important to remember that not everything that works for one person will work for the next. If you find something doesn’t work for you, it’s not always a loss, though. Knowing one thing doesn’t work simply opens the door to trying something else. Keeping this mindset of experimentation can help you persist and ward off discouragement.
Each experiment can create an opportunity to revisit your vision or your “why” for doing what you’re doing. Weighing your potential next steps against your vision can give you clarity as you decide the next best step to take.
Persistent pain as an athlete can feel discouraging and limiting. However, there are many tools to be discovered through exercise therapy and pain neuroscience that will support you in carving a clear path forward. Apply the same hard work, discipline, and dedication you do to your training to managing your pain. Ultimately, investing time in understanding and working through the barrier of pain means healthier joints and a healthier lifestyle, which translate into improved athletic performance.
Find out more how Hinge Health’s Digital Musculoskeletal Clinic and our integrated care team including physical therapists, health coaches, and physicians can help you and your members overcome their MSK pain. Request a demo today!
Heide is an NBHWC-certified health coach. She's passionate about guiding people to discover a pain-free life through the magic of healthy movement. When she's not coaching, you can find her lifting weights, walking to a good podcast, or cooking up something delicious.