Let’s talk about pain. Cheerful subject, right? I am sure I will sound both vaguely Puritan and vaguely Buddhist when I say that pain has a lot to teach us, but it is true. There are lots of kinds of pain. For my current purpose, I will ignore heartache, grief, and hangnails.
In a fitness context, the first kind of pain to pay attention to is the kind that attends injury. It has one lesson: stop what you are doing right now. Working through a broken leg or a sprained wrist or a torn rotator cuff does nothing but make things worse. We are not, for the most part, professional athletes; there is nothing to be won by continuing after injury. In fact, it just means that it takes longer to get back to doing fun fitness stuff. Don’t do it. See your doctor and follow her or his instructions.
The second kind of pain is soreness. Soreness is fascinating! This morning, for example, my lower back is a little sore. That means that there was an issue with my form when I was swimming yesterday, probably that I did not sufficiently engage my abdominals. I now have a mandate for my next swimming session, courtesy of pain. (And it is almost always a good idea to pay attention to what one’s abs are doing!)
My triceps are also sore from swimming. Woohoo! I worked them! Thank you, pain, for providing feedback on the muscles that needed to exert themselves. I will have to pay attention to my triceps to see if they continue sore past a reasonable time to make sure I challenge them enough to build strength without overtaxing them and creating injury.
Then there is the kind of pain that we actually do have to work through. That’s the kind where you get off the couch for the first time since football season started and discover that walking around the block leaves you uncomfortably breathless. That pain says that life is going to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger). Your body wants you to know that if you don’t get moving, a dirt nap is going to be your lot in life sooner than you’d like. This small pain is a warning to avoid greater pain.
Let me be clear: I do not belong to the Church of No Pain No Gain. I’m more of a Tune-Into-What-Your-Body-Is-Telling-You kind of believer. Sometimes what your body tells you is that it hurts. Pay attention; you could learn something!
(The photo is from an exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum a long time ago. I wish I could remember the artist's name. I did a bunch of poking around to try to figure it out to no avail. The artist changed my way of looking at the world. The particular piece in question is a skeleton in a glass case with a label reading "Somebody's sister." I have not been all right with seeing human remains displayed in museums since.)