We see it all the time: The NFL running back who’s tackled by a 270 pound linebacker; the ultra-marathoner who pounds through 100 miles of trails; and the soccer striker who battles injury and dominates the Olympic Games. So what helps athletes who get knocked down get back up again? Scientists have found compared to the average Joe, athletes certain cognitive strategies that help them deal with the pain.
Illustration by David Cushnie Bell
Pain Is Temporary, Pride Is Forever? — Why It Matters
A recent review in the (appropriately-named) journal Pain revealed what many have already guessed: Athletes can tolerate high levels of painPain perception in athletes compared to normally active controls: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Tesarz, J., Schuster, A.K., Hartmann, M., et al. Department of General Internal Medicine and Psychosomatics, Medical Hospital, University of Heidelberg, Germany. Pain, 2012 Jun;153(6):1253-62.. Researchers looked at 15 studies that examined pain threshold and tolerance in athletes and non-athletes. While both groups had similar pain thresholds (the point when pain is felt), athletes consistently tolerated more pain (the maximum amount one can handle before it becomes unbearable — fun!). Interestingly, many “game” sport athletes showed a higher pain tolerance than endurance athletes, although this varied by type of sport. (We’re guessing there was a different pain tolerance between wrestlers and bowlers.) Another study looked at gender and found male athletes tolerated pain better than womenThe influence of athletic status and gender on experimental pain responses. Manning, E.L., Fillingim, R.B. Psychology Department, Erskine College, Due West, SC. Journal of Pain, 2002 Dec;3(6):421-8.. But don’t fret ladies: That study sized maxed out at 48 people, so more research is probably needed before any conclusions can be drawn!
The one thing missing from these studies is why athletes can handle the hurt. (We’re looking at you, Ironman athletes.) Researchers didn’t crack the code, but they suggest resistance to pain can be learned over time, and an increase in exercise intensity can lead to endorphin release. (Hello runner’s high!) Others suggest it’s because athletes are incredibly motivated to push through the pain in order to break a personal record, win a medal, or prove they’ve performed to the best of their ability.