Think back to your last injury. Maybe you were overzealous as you eked out the last few reps or bit off more weight than you could chew. Perhaps you woke up with aching joints and bruises after a bit of roughhousing. Feeling this way is not fun, especially when your life revolves around staying active.


In this article we’ll begin to unpack how pain works and, somewhat counterintuitively, discover just how useful it can be to your practice in small doses.


sports injury

Are you ignoring the signs of an impending injury? [Photo courtesy of durrah03 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]


It Isn’t An Accident

No injury is an accident. As we’ve talked over before, it's a math equation:


Injury = Demand > Capacity


Injuries happen when you overload a tissue or joint beyond its capacity to handle force. And your body will let you know. Throughout your body you have special sense receptors called nociceptors. They're the guys that tell your brain "Hey, something might be wrong here!" Based on your past experiences and current sensations, your brain organizes these signals and may or may not give pain as the output. Pain is "manufactured" in the brain.


When you're injured, your brain-body conversation takes a shift, and things that may have been easy before are now altered. If you aren't careful, you can get caught in a vicious cycle of "learned pain.” It's important not to force yourself to move aggressively into pain when injured, but sitting around idle isn't good either.


So what do you do with pain?


Pain Is a Teacher

Pain is an opportunity to explore. Pain acts as a new constraint on your movement, and this constraint can be a powerful learning experience. Pain forces us to be acutely aware of our movement.


The story of Moshe Feldenkrais highlights this perfectly. Feldenkrais, a forefather in the world of somatic education, originally developed his eponymous method out of personal necessity. A major knee injury left him unable to support himself on that leg, so he essentially had to relearn how to move. By paying attention to his body’s signals and imposing new demands on his body, he was eventually able to restore full function. His story sounds like an old wives’ tale, but we can put it into practice ourselves to experience this learning process firsthand.


If you move gently, slowly, and mindfully, you can re-map your body and bring awareness to the habits and patterns that led you to injury in the first place. You can tune in to subtle sensations, little cues your body sends to your brain. And when you listen to these cues, you can talk back and take an active role in this ongoing conversation.


The alternative is to keep doing the same things you always have and getting the exact same results. You owe it to your body to learn from pain when it occurs, but you can take it a step further.


Poke The Bear

I was recently introduced to this concept by the team at Fighting Monkey. A theme we explored was the idea that when you provoke minor injuries, you learn how to prevent major ones. You’ve likely had a few training experiences that left you feeling achy or kinked the next day. These minor aches and pains help illustrate where your body’s weak links are.


If you’ve gone for a long run and woken up with shin splints or swollen knees, a sign that you have a problem somewhere along the chain. Or if your shoulder has ever troubled you after a couple hours of sparring, you know right away there is dysfunction somewhere in this system.


Awareness of dysfunction allows you to address dysfunction. But if you don’t push your boundaries every now and then, you’ll never encounter a context for this awareness. You’ll be stuck not knowing what you don’t know.


So how do you hunt for these weak links?


It starts with getting out of your comfort zone, introducing some variation into your routine. My first major experience with this occurred after my first MovNat workshop. By introducing new behavioral and environmental demands on my body, I was instantly made aware of just what my weak links were. It’s that feeling of “Wow, didn’t know I had muscles there that could ache.”  It’s those minor bruises and bumps that highlight inefficiency. 


Test Your Boundaries

This isn’t a call to aggressively chase pain. It’s a call to hunt for your limitations. If you stay chronically comfortable, you set yourself up for the fall. You make yourself fragile. It is far better to stay curious about your boundaries, and poke past them every now and then.


Getting hurt can be a catalyst for change:

The Gift of an Injury


Coaches: Are you programming with purpose?

Programming for Injury Prevention: How to Keep Your Athletes Healthy