7 Keys to Managing the Discomfort of Exercise

It’s understood that moving quickly and for long periods can be downright uncomfortable. We always have the option to control the situation by either stopping or slowing down. But you also have the option to see if that pain can be managed with other mechanisms so that you don’t have to stop or slow.

Exertion discomfort is a term that describes the typical discomfort associated with performing exercise at a higher intensity. Most athletes, competitive and non-competitive, have encountered this discomfort at one point or another. Some athletes may find it addictive and thrive on that sensation of pushing themselves. Other athletes struggle with tolerating exercise-related pain.

Depending on an athlete’s training level, terrain, intensity, and technique, they could experience general exertion discomfort in a variety of locations throughout the body. General exertion discomfort:

  • Stops after 30-45 seconds of rest.
  • Tends to be present in the muscles that are working hardest.
  • May also occur throughout the chest or cause a “whole body” experience.
  • Occurs predictably with a certain speed of movement, specific effort, or number of repetitions.

Experience will be a significant part of determining the type and level of exertion-related pain any athlete can tolerate. Experienced athletes have often learned a few tricks in managing that pain, as it is an expected and predictable occurrence. Newer athletes often haven’t yet learned the skills needed to manage the discomfort. Regardless of experience, some athletes are simply able to mentally cope with this discomfort better than others.

Here are six tips to help improve exertion discomfort tolerance.

Do a body scan. A body scan is a head-to-toe self-assessment that you perform while moving to determine if you are staying relaxed and maintaining the technique that you need to maintain. Remember that song “Head, shoulders, knees and toes?” The writer must have been a runner. A specific area of discomfort can be a clue that you need to focus in on an area and make an adjustment. For instance, if I feel a little discomfort in my shoulder blade region I might ask myself a couple questions: “Are my arms swinging nearly straight forward and backward and equal amounts?” Or “Am I rounding one shoulder forward more than the other?” The answers are often able to pinpoint the problem and then I adjust my technique to correct it and the discomfort subsides.

Take a deep, cleansing breath. This can force you to vary your breathing pattern but also works well to fully expand your lungs, expel any buildup of CO2 and let you relax your shoulder and neck muscles, where many of us carry tension. It’s a good reminder to breathe deep toward the stomach and not depend on the assistive muscles. I’ll often perform this deep breathing after doing a body scan because I have a tendency to tense at my shoulders and neck.

Vary your technique to place the demand elsewhere. One place of common discomfort is the leg muscles. Another common area is more focused at the chest and lungs. If a runner is taking longer strides then this will tend to fatigue the thigh muscles, particularly when climbing. If that thigh pain is getting out of hand then you want to tighten up your strides to quicken the turnover. After performing that change for 30-60 seconds, you may notice that your chest and lungs are now the bigger problem. Likewise, a burning fatigue at the chest can be decreased with a switch to intentionally longer strides to load the muscles more while giving the respiratory system a slight change.

Get your mind right. Positive mindset is a large part of the solution when dealing with exertion-related discomfort. If you know what to expect because you have prepared well, then you are far less likely to get caught up in the negativity that can come as you tire. In training, you must be willing to meet a point of discomfort so that it is familiar to you during competition.

Use a mantra. Or anything that you can repeatedly go over for periods of time in order to improve your technique or provide a distraction. It could be something like “quick and light” or “pick ‘em up, put ‘em down.”

Check your eating. If you haven’t taken in a sufficient number of calories, your psychological state will suffer. Our brains rely heavily on a certain level of blood sugar. As the blood sugar level drops you will tend to have greater negative emotional responses. And no one is going to perform at their best with continually negative self-talk. 

Use other effort indicators. One of my favorite indicators, especially in a long event, is heart rate. I know from prior experience what range of heart rate I can tolerate for a given time. Going above the expected range is taking a known risk. Another indicator can be pace, which is more variable if the terrain fluctuates. These indicators can provide a more objective measure of effort before you get to the point of discomfort. The goal is to hone in on and remain controlled within the performance range that allows you to achieve the most success. It takes the guesswork out of relying only on feel. 

And in case you aren’t sure yet of how hard to push yourself in exercise, consider that there are certain types of pain that are unexpected and not to be ignored. Muscle, joint, or bone pain caused by an injury could be recognized by any one of or a combination of these factors:

  • Located at a single side of the body. For example, just one leg or arm.
  • Specific to a smaller area, particularly at a joint.
  • Started after a specific injury, like rolling an ankle or twisting a knee.
  • Doesn’t subside within about 45 seconds of stopping activity.
  • Intensity might actually worsen at rest.
  • Is unfamiliar in location and intensity.
  • Intensity of pain doesn’t correlate with intensity of effort.
  • Often described as sharp or severe.

I can be reached at derek@mountainridgept.com if you have any questions.