Triathletes’ Pain Tolerance Yields Medical Benefits

Posted: March 11, 2014 by kirisyko in Fitness and Training, Ironman, SykOtic, Triathlon
Tags: ,

As triathletes we’ve learned to embrace pain, but are we better at handling it than our non-triathlete spouses and co-workers? A study recently published in the appropriately titled medical journal Pain discovered what many of us have long suspected: Triathletes do, in fact, have a higher pain tolerance than recreational athletes who don’t participate in triathlons.

“In our study, triathletes rated pain lower in intensity, tolerated it longer and inhibited it better than individuals in a control group,” says Ruth Defrin, a professor of physical therapy at Israel’s Tel-Aviv University who conducted the study with her graduate student, Nirit Geva, a triathlete. “We think both physiological and psychological factors underlie these differences and help explain how triathletes are able to perform at such a high level.”

While both groups of exercisers identified the onset of pain similarly, which was measured by dipping one arm into an ice bath and gradually increasing the temperature of a device attached to the other arm, triathletes perceived it as less intense and were able to withstand it for longer periods. The question is, why? Are triathletes better able to handle pain because we’ve learned how to deal with it in training and racing? Or are triathletes drawn to our sport simply because we are physically and psychologically better able to suffer than the rest of the population?

Defrin suspects both factors may be at play and plans to conduct a follow- up study to find out how and why. “From experiments on healthy populations, we know that there is a significant, probably inherent, variability in responses to painful stimuli and in the ability to inhibit pain,” she says. “For example, people who inhibit pain better than others will suffer less from post-operative pain. This may suggest that triathletes are drawn to the sport. On the other hand, studies show that pain tolerance can increase in athletes with continuing sport training, suggesting that chronic exercise might affect pain perception.”

Defrin says the ultimate goal of her studies is to be able to apply those methods to reduce or regulate the pain of those who suffer with daily chronic pain. Unlike triathletes, their frequent exposure to pain weakens—rather than strengthens—their inhibition to pain. But understanding more about the psychology and physiology of how triathletes embrace pain could help chronic pain sufferers. So think about that the next time you find yourself in the hurt locker: Your ability to hurt more may one day help the rest of the world suffer less.

The Lab Test:
The researchers compared 19 triathletes who competed in at least two triathlons a year—either an Olympic-distance or an Ironman—with a control group of 17 recreational joggers, swimmers and other active exercisers of similar ages and genders. Putting them through a battery of psychological tests, the scientists found that the triathletes as a group exhibited less fear toward pain. Anxiety toward painful events was reduced the most for triathletes who put in the most training per week, which the researchers flagged as particularly noteworthy in their paper (verifying the belief of many Ironman athletes who contend that frequent visits to the “pain cave” in training will better prepare them mentally and physically for the hurt they’ll experience on race day).

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  1. Reblogged this on Global Retail Recruitment and commented:
    I’m not sure! As a age grouper I broke my clavicle and 4 ribs last June and I have managed to remain miserable and in pain for 9 months! Yes I can deal with lactic build up to the point I want to stop and cry but in fact my wife who has given birth without any pain relief; and I mean none at all has the bragging rights.

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