We know workouts can hurt. Your muscles burn, your lungs are on fire and you simply feel like you can't do one more rep. It happens every time you hit the gym. But did you know that every time you push through, every time you finish that last rep, you may be increasing your pain tolerance?
A new study published in the journal Pain and conducted by researchers at the University of Manchester, used brain scans from volunteers and found that people who experienced chronic pain had more opiate receptors in their brains than the pain-free participants. Opiate receptors bind with the endorphins produced during intense physical exertion. Endorphins, as you know, are the feel good hormones that provide you with that post-workout high. So, the more receptors you have, the more of that high you will feel.
While more research still needs to be done, the study's authors believe that the number of natural painkilling receptors increases to help you cope with long-term pain. This means that more you learn to endure pain, the less of it you will feel.
This information can easily be translated to exercise. "For strength to increase, the muscle must feel some increase in stress, usually perceived as 'the burn.' This mild burn is what we call 'good pain,'" explains Andrew Cosgarea, M.D., co-director of the orthopedics department of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. The more you work inside this 'burn' zone, the less heavy weights will hurt and the more reps you will be able to do. Cosgarea says that it is important to remember that you shouldn't give up at the first sign of discomfort.
Having said that, it is important to remember that while some pain during a workout is good, more is not better. Doing too much and pushing yourself too far can lead to injury and more pain, not less. Muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and bones are living structures that react to the stress of exercise very slowly, Cosgarea explains. "If they see stress too fast or too much over time, they begin to fail, which is what causes bad pain" he says.
But how can you tell if you've gone too far? Good pain should only last for as long as you are doing the activity. Being a little sore after a workout is fine but if you are experiencing severe muscle pain to the point where it limits your movements and activities outside of the gym, you've likely gone too far.
Remember this the next time your muscles start to shake in your final reps or you find yourself gasping for air after your sprints. Making it through those pains can help you push even harder in your next workout! And who isn't looking for an even greater post-workout high?
Does this research ring true for you? How do you push through your workout discomfort?