When Sport Hurts

Above: Leanna Lee/ Credit: Something Else Productions

-By Ayesha Rollinson

It’s what we do right? We make ourselves hurt. Some of us want to hurt a lot and some of us want to hurt just a little, but as athletes, we all endure pain. We stress ourselves appropriately, progressively and with intervals of rest. This cycle of stress and rest forces our bodies to adapt incrementally, making us more powerful, faster, and more resilient mentally.

We can expect to feel pain during and sometimes after a workout. Muscular discomfort is what we might call “normal” exercise pain and is typically experienced during and after a session. Pain in the joints, tendons or what feels like close to a bone is not usually normal, especially if it is still present two or more days after a training session.

According to an article published at John Hopkins Medicine on good vs bad pain, “Pain that does not go away with rest is not normal. Pain that begins to affect your function outside of sports, such as walking or sleeping, is not normal. Pain that is constant or increasing over time and does not go away is not normal. Pain that does not improve with treatment may be something to be concerned about.”

Normal workout pain will be resolved within a few days. Occasionally you can do a little more damage to your body in a workout (or in daily life) than you intend, and the pain is prolonged to 10 to 14 days but still doesn’t become anything serious (like a stress fracture or a tendon tear).  In my experience, it is common for athletes to experience one or two of these episodes every year.

I want to address what happens between day three and day 15 of pain:
At about day three you know that you may have a slight injury that could become a major injury if you don’t back away from your training plan. You should be working on resting the area of pain (this does not mean you have to stop exercising!), rehabilitating and strengthening, as well as mobilizing the area near the pain. Over the next 11 days your pain level should decrease and go away.  Note the words GO AWAY.

If pain lingers more than 14 days, you need to see a professional and you need to self-advocate once you do. Push to get imaging done instead of just taking home a bunch of exercises to make yourself stronger. I’m not making a plea here for excessive testing. I have seen too many masters athletes not get the care or diagnostics they need to resolve a minor injury. I attribute this trend to two main issues; a high pain tolerance in masters athletes and therefore an underreporting of degree of pain to doctors, and an adaptation to pain/discomfort such that we simply come to expect it.

If you have done all the right things to recover from this minor injury you should be back to no pain within 14 days. If you haven’t done so and instead trained through injury, you might even be the type of person that needs to be shown proof of a major problem to stop training. Although not always conclusive, getting imaging can yield more concrete diagnosis and treatment and help you build a repertoire of accurate pain perception. Knowing when to push through and when to back off is among the most crucial skills an athlete can develop.


*This article first appeared in the September 2020 Team Atomica Newsletter.*