No Pain, More Gain

A chain of events today lead me to a discovery. To others the discovery may be insignificant, but for this TOJ it may help me raise my level of fitness and even run faster on the rare occasions I care about time, like in the Bolder-Boulder 10k in a few months.

My brother-in-law stopped by the day before his 60th birthday. This winter has been cold, so he's been logging miles on a treadmill. He said he had a "revelation" earlier in the week about running (he likes exercise, but is not running nut). He had been to the dentist and given a mild narcotic to lessen the pain. A couple hours later, he was at the gym for a workout. He jumped on the treadmill and punched in a 5K distance. He said he doesn't like to watch the time and distance on the display, rather just tries to maintain a good pace until the treadmill slows as he nears the full distance. When the treadmill stopped, he noticed he'd run it faster than normal. His revelation was that maybe when he ran, he wasn't dragging because of his heart and lungs; they were doing just fine. He was slowing down because of his reaction to the pain in his hips, knees and lower back, which always became more acute with each step during a run.

Coincidentally, just after he left, I went to surf some of my favorite exercise sites. One of them is,/ which does a nice job of tracking scientific articles on exercise and aging. The latest post was about a randomized double-blind study (the gold standard of research) in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The researchers studied a group of conditioned English cyclists. Half the cyclists were given acetaminophen (aka Tylenol), the other half a placebo before they did a 10 miles time trial. They reported that the cyclists who took the Tylenol had a higher power output, heart rate and blood lactate concentration, and, as a result, covered the distance an average of 30 seconds faster, a substantial difference in a short bike race.

However, I had never connected that the pain itself caused me to slow, rather than heart and lung limitations resulting in pain. The conclusion of the cyclist study is what really drew my attention: "This findings support the notion that exercise is regulated by pain perception, and increased pain tolerance can improve exercise capacity."

I have a physician friend who is a very good 59 year old 10K racer, usually finishing around 42 minutes. He routinely pops an anti-inflammatory before the race because he's had knee problems. Time and again, he's recommended I do the same both to run faster and speed
recovery afterwards. Obviously this is not a trade secret. Among competitive athletes, it is well known that similar effects occur with ibuprofen (like Advil and Motrin), which is known as Vitamin I.

We often think that our limits are set by heart rates and VO2 max and focus training on nudging those numbers up. However, it might be that many times, as my brother-in-law discovered, our hearts, lungs and other physical factors are not what is holding us back.

For a TOJ, unlike younger athletes, workouts start at a certain base level of pain and go up from there. On a 1 to 10 pain scale, a TOJ may start in the range of 2 - 4. As you age, any strenuous exercise will feel more painful due to natural physiological changes, wear and tear, and old injuries to nerves, musculature, tendons, ligaments, and bones. So pain is a companion at any serious exertion level. This study to confirms what my brother-in-law and others have discovered : if you can decrease or delay your pain, you may be able to increase your overall fitness and performance level (if you care) because you can work out at a higher rate of exertion.
Over the next few months, I'll see if what is true for trained cyclists is also true for TOJs. Would you please pass me the Tylenol?

Note: If you have a serious chronic injury, obviously you should not use any medication to mask the pain just so you can exercise because you will make the injury worse.

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