Cleere’s Corner: Pain Can Be Your Friend

Pain can be your friend!

By Dr. Michelle Cleere

“The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most” (Eddy Merckx). “Shut Up Legs” (Jens Voigt). “As long as I breathe I attack.” (Bernard Hinault).

You probably know the “attack” well – the moment when a rider picks up the pace and breaks away on their own. When this happens, you have to make a choice in a split second – you either go with them or you give up.

When you choose to go with them on the attack, it takes guts and it can hurt, but the alternative is dropping off and letting someone else win the race.

Not only are those short bursts of effort physically painful, they can be mentally painful as well. In most cases, the mind gives up way before the body. But you can change that.


Pain versus injury

Pain and injury, while they often go hand in hand, are not the same thing. Just because you’re hurting doesn’t mean you’re injured.

Pain is a tricky thing. As an athlete, you have to figure out how to mentally push through some pain and that can be a good thing, but it depends on the type of pain. It’s important to be able to differentiate between being in pain and being injured.

Here are some good questions to start with that’ll help you decide if you are possibly injured:

  1. Did something specific happen? Do you remember a specific situation where you felt a pop or snap? When you are injured, there is usually a specific event that’s brought it on.
  2. Is the area swollen or bruised? There usually are visual signs of an injury.
  3. Do you have a loss of function? The biggest difference between being hurt and injured is a loss of function.
  4. How badly does the area hurt? On a scale of 1 (very little pain) to 10 (terrible pain) where is the pain? If it’s above a 5 or 6 or jumps quickly up above that, the chances are good that it’s an injury. “The type of pain is also important. Sharp, stabbing pain, burning, tingling, or numbness are all symptoms that require medical attention.” (Source:
  5. How long have you had this problem? When I was coaching triathletes, we’d suggest they lay low for 3 days, come back slowly, and if the problem persists, talk to a doctor.

Performing with pain

In racing, legs and lungs are usually both burning but there’s research that says cyclists actually race better when they feel that pain. Pain helps riders judge the effort they are putting out.

“Pain of some description is actually good for cyclists, and experiencing pain helps drive us on.” (Source:

What happened when research participants took Tylenol before a race? They managed to ride significantly faster because they still only felt the same level of pain compared to producing lower outputs on a placebo. This suggests that the pace you can maintain isn’t determined by a physiological limit (lactic acid) but the pain level you’re able to endure that determines the pace you can maintain. When pain is reduced, performance improves because it’s less pain than you are used to.  (Source:

Train for pain

The research goes on to say that pain tolerance is trainable. This includes physically training your muscles to deal with heavy workloads and working on your heart rate and blood lactate levels. This also includes your brain – mental training. Pain can transmit stress signals that are interpreted as a threat, to our brain which then triggers anxiety even when there’s nothing wrong. If you are experiencing normal pain, you have to learn to mentally push through it. One way of pushing through it is to interpret it differently. We can learn to interpret normal pain as something good. For example, as I was cycling yesterday, I was cranking in such a high gear my calves were killing me. I realized how my calves were feeling and interpreted that as good pain. It fueled me to continue cranking. 😊

Just one note on being injured. Injuries can be psychologically difficult to deal with at many levels. If you’ve been injured, it strengthens your pain signal and you will want to re-establish your relationship with pain so you don’t misinterpret, push too far, and injure yourself.

Most humans hate the feeling of pain. It’s painful. What’s important is that you understand the difference between pain and injury and learn how to physically and mentally train for pain. Unconscious pain can be your foe, but you can turn it into your friend when you make it conscious and understand how to use it to your advantage.


Dr. Michelle

Elite Performance Expert

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