Everyone has probably heard about the no pain, no gain mentality when it comes to training…and I agree to a certain extent. However, my understanding of that phrase may be different than yours. An example of the pain I’m referring to is pushing through that extra bit of muscular fatigue to finish a race. Muscular fatigue and buildup of lactic acid are alright to push through; that’s when you’ll see some amazing athletes rise to the top.
The type of pain that needs to be addressed is not muscular fatigue, but instead the type of pain that can be successfully repeated over and over again with little to no fatigue involved. If it hurts to move through normal daily activities, then something is probably not right. There’s a good chance that your body is trying to tell you something to prevent you from further injury; that’s the kind of pain I’m talking about.
This brings me to the point of this article. Working through this kind of pain can dramatically slow your progress, and in some cases, even lead to substantial weight gain. Taking a look deeper into the process, it starts to become clear as to why this may be the case.
Our bodies are always striving for homeostasis, or the ability to remain “neutral”. When one system becomes overactive, another system releases hormones and other regulatory responses to try to bring the system back to neutral.
Let’s look at cortisol for example. Cortisol is an important hormone within our bodies. It helps in metabolizing glucose, regulating blood pressure, releasing insulin, and other vital functions, which maintain good health. Small increases in cortisol are normal, and the activation of our sympathetic nervous system, or our “fight or flight” system, will stimulate this response. Some of the benefits of small releases in cortisol are:
- Increased energy
- Enhanced memory
- Improved pain tolerance
- Immune system improvements
These are all good things. However, this brings us back to the statement of NO PAIN, NO GAIN! When we are stressed, physically or mentally, cortisol is released into the bloodstream. The benefits above are all good, but if cortisol remains at high levels within the blood for longer periods of time, the exact opposite happens. So when pain is present (pain being the stress) and is present for long periods of time, cortisol levels will remain at higher levels than they should be if the pain wasn’t there. The body is trying to return to that state of homeostasis.
Looking at the string of events in the large picture really helps illustrate this, so let’s put together an example. John wants to get in better shape so he decides to start working out. He’s all pumped up about his new P90X program and really gets after it. He’s doing awesome, but in the third week, John’s shoulder begins to hurt. John’s a big boy, so he decides to suck it up and deal with it. After all, he’s pretty determined to improve his six-pack before summer arrives. NO PAIN, NO GAIN.
John is still making huge progress and is now into the 6th week of the program, about halfway there. He’s down about 15 lbs. and is steadily progressing along the way. During the 7th week and throughout the remainder of the program, John’s progress suddenly flat lines. He only lost an additional 2 lbs. over the last 6 weeks. What gives?
It’s tough to pinpoint, but cortisol and John’s hard-headedness to work through pain most likely limited his results. John was making awesome progress but then hurt his shoulder. This increase in pain, not only while working out, but throughout the day, increased cortisol levels within the body. Over the next few weeks, his body tried to return back to normal, so some side effects began to happen:
- Suppressed Thyroid (slower metabolism)
- Decreased cognitive function and memory
- Impaired blood sugar regulation
- Increased blood pressure
- Decreased lean muscle mass
- Increased abdominal fat
If John were to play it smart and manage his pain appropriately, who knows what results he may have achieved. This is a good example of pain affecting results, but any build up of stress can lead to these same side effects. If you’re constantly stressed from work, parenthood, in-laws, financial, and a host of other issues that can increase your stress levels, then you need to ensure your training your parasympathetic nervous system as well. Working on deep breathing, rest and relaxation techniques, recovery and regeneration strategies, static stretching, yoga, and other parasympathetic activities can help get the body back to homeostasis and regulate our hormones to stay in the proper balance.
As I always say…work smarter. Take a step back and look at the whole picture. Does your life have a heavy load of stress and sympathetic activity? If you completely neglect your rest and relaxation system, you may be fighting a never-ending battle.
Jared Woolever MS, CSCS, TPI