Understanding Pain in Exercise: A Guide for Beginners and Seasoned Athletes

Understanding Pain in Exercise: A Guide for Beginners and Seasoned Athletes

Pain is a complex and often misunderstood part of our lives, especially in the context of exercise and physical activity.

Continueing our pain science series on the Sound Of Movement podcast episode 360, with expert physiotherapist Phil White this week we dive deeper into the topic of injury identity and best practices for rehab.

Whether you're starting a new workout regimen or engaging in a challenging physical activity, understanding the difference between the pain from an injury and the discomfort after a workout is crucial. 

This article (and podcast) explores the concept of pain, how our body responds to it, and how to distinguish between healthy discomfort and potential injury.

What is Pain?

Pain is the body's way of signaling that something is wrong. It can be acute, like a sudden injury, or chronic, lasting for weeks, months, or even years. Pain's intensity and quality can vary greatly, from a sharp stab to a dull ache.

Differentiating Pain from Discomfort

  1. Post-Workout Discomfort: After a rigorous exercise session, it's normal to experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This discomfort typically arises a day or two post-exercise and signifies muscle recovery and growth. It's a normal and healthy part of getting stronger and more fit.
  2. Injury-Related Pain: Pain from an injury is different. It's often sharper and more immediate and may occur during or immediately after an exercise. This pain indicates that something might be wrong, like a strain, sprain, or other injury.

Understanding Discomfort in New Activities

If you're new to exercise or trying a different physical activity, it's essential to recognize that some level of discomfort is normal. Muscles that aren't used to certain movements or intensities will protest, leading to soreness. However, this should be mild and temporary. Over time, as your body adapts, this discomfort will decrease.

When should you be concerned? Here are some red flags:

  • Pain that is sharp or severe.
  • Pain that occurs suddenly during exercise.
  • Swelling or redness in the affected area.
  • Pain that doesn't improve with rest and over-the-counter pain relief.

As someone who has endured severe back pain from a horse riding accident, I can attest to the importance of understanding and respecting pain. This experience helps me empathize with others dealing with chronic or acute pain.

The widespread issue of opioid addiction highlights the mismanagement of pain on a global scale. Often, pain is not adequately addressed, leading to over-reliance on painkillers.

Healthy Pain Management Strategies

  • Recognize Your Limits: Know when to push through discomfort and when to stop to prevent injury.
  • Proper Technique: Use correct form and technique in exercises to avoid unnecessary strain.
  • Gradual Progression: Increase the intensity and duration of your workouts gradually.
  • Rest and Recovery: Allow your body time to heal and recover after intense workouts.
  • Seek Professional Advice: If you're unsure about the pain or discomfort you're experiencing, consult a healthcare or fitness professional.

Understanding and respecting pain is vital in any fitness journey. By distinguishing between the normal discomfort of muscle growth and the warning signs of injury, you can safely and effectively pursue your fitness goals. Remember, what might be a regular post-workout ache for an experienced athlete could be a significant discomfort for someone new to exercise. Listen to your body and respond accordingly to ensure a healthy, sustainable approach to fitness.


This article is intended to provide general information and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you need personalized guidance join our UMS-Tribe Membership here.

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