The Difference Between Injury Pain and Performance Pain

Thursday, March 8, 2012 by Coach Tommy

I often hear athletes talking about various pains they are feeling. Their calves hurt or ankles hurt or IT band hurts, etc. It seems I hear the same comments over and over from the same athletes. As a coach, these comments concern me.

Training and racing triathlon should not hurt!

I define pain into two distinct types: performance pain and injury pain.

Performance Pain

Performance pain is the generalized discomfort you feel when training or racing at a high intensity. You feel performance pain all over; it’s a generalized discomfort. If you ease up on the intensity, the pain subsides. When you stop the activity you recover from the performance pain quickly. Performance pain is good and is normal in training and racing.

Injury Pain

Injury pain is usually a pain localized to a specific part of your body. The pain is acute. Usually the pain will persist even if the intensity is reduced. The pain may persist after the activity is stopped. Injury pain is not normal in training and racing and needs to be dealt with.

Brukner andKahn1 identified four stages of athletes presenting injury pain:

Stage 1: Pain after exercise or the following morning.

Stage 2: Possible pain at rest which becomes less painful with use (disappears after warm up but returns later)

Athletes often attempt to “train through” the pain by using OTC medications like NSAIDs (Advil, Aleve, Mortin) or analgesics (Tylenol)

Stage 3: Pain interferes with activity, can’t complete normal workouts.

Stage 4: Pain requires athlete to take time off.

It’s important that the athlete recognizes these stages and takes steps to correct the problem that is causing the injury pain. These corrections need to happen long before reaching Stage 4. Some possible problems could be:

  • Training plan structure
  • Training plan volume
  • Training intensity
  • Athlete’s muscle strength or weakness
  • Equipment fit (bike fit, running shoes)

This is by no means an exhaustive list of possible problems. The point is to do something to find the cause of the injury pain. Soliciting the help of a sports doctor, chiropractor/ART, physical therapist, coach, or other professional is highly advised.

1Brunker and Khan, Clinical Sports Medicine 3rd Ed., 2007


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