Playing through the Pain

Upset Young male runner resting leaning against wall.

People who play competitive sports are often told to “play through the pain”, a phrase which is meant to evoke a champion who will do whatever is necessary to win. Some people carry this mantra throughout their lives, even after they’ve stopped playing competitively and exercise simply for health. However, this idea is usually more harmful than encouraging.

In some cases, pushing through pain isn’t a bad thing: completing the last two pushups in your circuit even though you’re tired, working out even though your muscles are stiff from the day before – this is how an athlete gets stronger and improves. Discomfort and fatigue are normal parts of effective exercise and reflect physical exertion. The problem occurs when people apply the same philosophy to more serious pain as they do to non-threatening pain, believing that if they play through it and focus on the game, they’ll only become better.

It’s important to be able to distinguish between types of pain so you can respond appropriately. Fatigue and soreness that last a day or so after a workout are generally not threatening, for example, but extreme soreness that continues for several days might be, as it can be a sign of overuse. Some pain comes on gradually but can alert you to an oncoming injury, acting as a warning sign. Pain that comes on suddenly and acutely, or is isolated to a certain body part, usually indicates injury and should be examined, treated, and rested as necessary. Numbness where there should be pain is a serious issue, and medical treatment should be sought immediately.

Athletes, especially at competitive or professional levels, are often praised for playing with an injury, and criticized for sitting out to rest. But even a seemingly small injury should be treated and healed before re-entering, since a less serious injury today (such as a minor stress fracture) can lead to a very serious injury in the future (a fully broken bone). Treatment will vary depending on the type of injury, but rest is important in every case. Your doctor, trainer, or coach may be able to provide you with other conditioning exercises to keep you in shape as you recover.


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