The Difference Between Good Pain and Bad Pain

Fitness // Chris Jones // 13 May 2013

You are pushing yourself in a training session, then you begin to experience pain. How can you tell if you should keep going till the end of the session or stop to avoid injury? We give you the tools to recognise the difference between good pain and bad pain.

For anyone who exercises, there inevitably comes a time when you will feel a bit of discomfort. When you reach that point you’ll no doubt wonder whether you should keep going and push through it, or if doing so could cause an injury. There is such a thing as ‘good pain’, which is the pain you feel during exercise but in the absence of an injury. Then there’s ‘bad pain’, which is the pain you feel when you have suffered an injury.

How do you tell the difference between good pain and bad pain? How do you know whether to tell your trainer that enough is enough, or listen to them as they yell at you to keep pushing? In other words, what are the signs that you may have injured yourself and you should stop your workout?

Signs You May Have Injured Yourself

  • The pain you’re feeling is ‘sharp’
  • The pain you’re feeling is ‘shooting’, or accompanied by numbness, tingling or pins and needles
  • There was a sudden onset of pain
  • The pain developed in association with something ‘popping’, ‘clicking’, ‘snapping’ or ‘giving way’ underneath you

How to Recognise Good Pain

What does good pain feel like? Think about when you climb a really tall set of stairs or a steep hill. As you start to breathe harder, you get less oxygen to your muscles. When that happens you start to develop lactic acid. At the beginning you feel almost nothing, then it becomes slightly uncomfortable, then if you’re able to keep going, it becomes really uncomfortable. So we would say that one point of differentiation from bad pain is that good pain has more of a gradual build-up.

The location of the pain is also a clue. Good pain will be generalised to a region, whereas bad pain is quite specific. For example, if you’re ‘feeling the burn’ in your quads from climbing stairs (good pain), then most likely the entire front of your leg will feel it, all the way from your knees to your hips. On the other hand, if you tear or strain your quadriceps (bad pain), the location of the pain will be a lot more specific – you’ll feel sharp pain right at the point of the tear and in a small area surrounding it.

Experts in Action

I’m sure you’ve all watched something like the Olympic Games, where you can see prime examples of the two types of pain. For instance, in the 100m when someone tears their hamstring, they grab their leg as if they’ve been shot. They feel sharp, shooting pain that has a sudden onset, the leg gives way underneath them and they’re unable to continue.

Then you see someone in a longer-distance event with a grimace on their face as they push on and on. They’re definitely in pain, but the pain has built up gradually and doesn’t affect their ability to keep running (well, for a while at least). While this is not a nice feeling, this is the ‘good pain’ we’re talking about.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Injury

The reality is that sometimes you may not see an injury coming. When you watch sporting events you see people sprinting and all of a sudden the pain grabs them, without the slightest hint of a warning sign. But there are definitely things you can do to reduce the risk of suffering an injury.

While there have been a few studies questioning the value of stretching alone, a number of studies in the past couple of years have shown that a progressive warm-up that includes a variety of exercises is very effective in reducing the number of injuries people experience.

The Warm-Up Before Exercise is Essential

In 2008, The British Medical Journal published a study which followed about 2000 sportspeople who were taught a warm-up consisting of eight minutes of slow jogging (cardio), some stretching, strength and balance exercises, then two minutes of faster jogging. The study went for nearly a year and the result of doing the warm-up showed significant reductions in:

  • The overall number of injuries
  • The number of overuse injuries – nearly half the risk
  • The number of severe injuries (those requiring a month off from training) – and again, the risk was about half

A 2012 review (published by BMC Medicine) confirmed these results. The review looked at a number of previous studies and concluded that a warm-up consisting of a combination of activities including stretching, strengthening and balance exercises reduced the risk of lower-limb injuries.

All you need is a few minutes of light cardio, followed by a few stretches. For instance, jog for five minutes then stretch your calves, hamstrings and quads if you’re doing a running/legs session, or do five to ten push ups then stretch your chest, shoulders, and neck if you’re doing upper body weights. Then do a bit more jogging at a higher intensity or another five to ten push ups.

This should at least wake up your nervous system and stimulate a bit of blood flow to your muscles prior to your session and will actually help you perform your workout at a higher intensity.

I can’t think of an Olympic champion in any sport who doesn’t warm up for their event, any golfer who doesn’t spend time on the range before their round, or any professional tennis player who doesn’t spend time hitting a ball before a match.

Ease Into Training

It’s also important to increase the intensity of your training gradually. The prime time to hurt yourself are when you start a new activity, or when you rapidly increase the intensity of an existing activity. To give you an example, if you’ve never included running in your fitness program but start doing so, that’s a time when you’re prone to injury. Or if you usually run 5km three times a week but change to 10km five times a week, that’s also a time when you’re prone to injury.

12WBT programs are structured with this in mind. The intensity of the workouts builds over the 12 weeks. They are also developed to allow rest in between. The potential for problems comes when people deviate too much from their plans. Some members run into trouble when they get ambitious and deviate from the prescribed Exercise Plan.

They are not aware that it takes a period for the bones, joints, muscles etc to get used to the high impact of running. They go via their fitness level rather than thinking about the impact on their joints. In the thrill of the moment, they are tempted to push themselves to run a further distance than is prescribed in their Exercise Plan. The golden rule of running training is that there is no more than a 10% increase in the distance run from week to week, and 12WBT programs reflect this. While running has many benefits (including calorie burn, weight loss, toning, better bones etc.) like any form of activity it takes time and patience to build the body up, avoid injuries and reap the rewards.

Listening to Your Body

Often when you’re working with a personal trainer it becomes even more difficult to know what to do to avoid injury. Usually this is because you’re paying them not just to come up with an exercise program, but also to push you harder than you might push yourself.

At the same time, you want a trainer to listen to you if you think something might be wrong. I see a lot of people who have been pushed too hard by trainers and ended up with an injury.

I know there’s a fine line between pushing yourself and hurting yourself. I recommend that you always look for a trainer with qualifications or who your friends have used and recommended. Don’t be afraid to set some boundaries up front. You should explain the level you’re comfortable being pushed to. It’s more important to be able to back up and be ready for your next session than it is to get that one extra rep or set done, especially when you feel something might be wrong.

Rest and Recuperate

Another thing you should think about is having enough recovery. Rest is when the improvement happens – when your body rebuilds so you’re able to do more next time. Make sure you get plenty of sleep – it’s especially important to go to bed early each night once you start training. And make sure you give yourself a complete rest day at some point during the week.

It just comes down to using a bit of common sense. Build up your training gradually. Warm up a little before going too hard. If something doesn’t feel right, you’re better off missing part of a session and being okay for your next session than trying to get a little bit more done and having to miss the rest of the week.

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2 Comments

Meet the Author, Chris Jones

Chris Jones is a registered Osteopath working in Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Applied Science (Osteopathy) and Master of Osteopathy degrees. Previously, he studied a Bachelor of Sports Science (Exercise Science) at UNSW. Read author's full story here

2 Comments

  1. Beth Reply

    Thanks for this info Chris I now don’t feel so bad about getting injured in a personal training session earlier in the year, I know it wasn’t my fault she didn’t listen to me, and doubled my training weight in a week 🙁

  2. Feeling sore? Or is it more? | Flow With Maylee Reply

    […] from The Difference Between Good Pain and Bad Pain, by Chris Jones, you may have injured yourself […]

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