Good pain versus bad pain

And how to tell the difference! by Stephen Garvey for Cycling Weekly 23rd July 2018

There’s a line between suffering for long-term gains and pain which can signal you’re at risk of further injury. Know when to tell the difference.

As cyclists we pride ourselves on our ability to suffer and hurt; the harder we push ourselves the more we feel we have achieved on a ride, but is there a time when pain should not be ignored? We speak to Six Physio‘s Stephen Garvey about the difference between good pain and bad pain.

Type 1 pain: a pain to train

“Type one pain, burning legs and lungs, is a physiological response to workload. It’s biofeedback on physical and mental exertion. This type of pain is trainable – it depends on how experienced you are at handling it both physically and mentally,” explains Garvey. “The second type of pain is the one we need to be more aware of. Pain is a warning system. It’s your body’s way of telling you it could lead to harm. I always stress that to clients, it could lead to harm.”

Distinguishing between the two types of pain can be tricky but listening to your body and learning the difference can help you to make better decisions, “type one pain comes and goes. When you ease off the effort level it reduces. Type two pain is constant or increases, with that type of pain ideally you need to get some expert help.”

If you are struggling with type one pain, you need to look to your training plan for clues on how to improve.

“I always say ‘train the way you want to perform’” explains Garvey, “are you doing specific training for the type of event you are doing? Are you riding hills, or practicing sprints? Training is about adaptation to the training load. Can you tolerate it?”

High intensity intervals will train your body to handle those type of efforts and crucially develop the mental skills to be able to sustain and manage discomfort.

Type 2 pain: should not be ignored

Type two pain can be felt in different ways and there are lots of ways of describing it. “Clients may say they have a dull ache, a sharp pain, burning sensation or shooting pain,” explains Garvey. Being able to name your pain can help in treatment, “each pain has different connotations. A dull pain is more likely to be soft tissue, a shooting pain to do with nerves.”

If you feel a type two pain during or after a ride, what are the first steps?

“The first 48 hours are important” says Garvey, “the important thing is to stop the action that causes it straight away. In the first 48 hours there is an inflammatory stage that starts to settle down after that. Keep a pain diary to help inform your appointment.” Pain can be difficult to explain and you might forget to tell your physio about something that is seemingly unrelated but every detail is useful. “When I see someone for the first time I want to hear their story”, says Garvey, “how long have you been training? When is the pain coming on? What are you doing when it happens? If I am assessing you I want to hear the whole story, the pattern of the pain, so I can understand it.”

As cyclists we often want to push through pain because we don’t want to miss valuable training, lose fitness or have to cancel an event but seeking help early can reduce the time we have to have off our bikes, “if you keep cycling through pain, undue stress and strain can lead to injury but an assessment can establish the time frame you might need to have off, or the change to training volume.”

When should you stop training?

Not every pain necessarily means you won’t be able to cycle and need to rest, “sometimes athletes have to take an informed guess on the risks of continuing, weighing up the consequences, a professional physio can help do that for you”, suggests Garvey.

“Pushing through the pain is a difficult one, sometimes it is an educated risk, if you know what the damage will be and the likely recovery time. There are choices to be made, you have to weigh up the risk versus the benefit.”  If you are injured before a big event that you have been training a long time for, then you may take the decision to take part anyway. If it is a training ride or less important event, you might avoid it. One thing to note is that “pain affects performance detrimentally”.

Pain can really slow you down “relative amounts of rest now and recovering from the injury will result in a better performance in the long run” advises Garvey.

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