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Triathletes May Better Tolerate Pain, Study Suggests

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It's no secret that triathletes are some of the toughest people out there. But what makes them able to endure long swims, bike rides and runs, all in succession? A small new study suggests their tolerance of pain might have something to do with it.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University found that triathletes may perceive pain intensity differently from non-athletes, which could then translate to a higher tolerance.

"In our study, triathletes rated pain lower in intensity, tolerated it longer, and inhibited it better than individuals in a control group," study researcher Ruth Defrin, a professor at the university, said in a statement. "We think both physiological and psychological factors underlie these differences and help explain how triathletes are able to perform at such a high level."

However, more research is needed to determine if triathletes start out with higher pain tolerances so they are able to endure triathlons, or if being in top physical shape from triathlons helps to increase pain tolerance.

The study, which is published in the journal PAIN, included 17 non-athletes (defined as people who participated in exercise, such as jogging or swimming, but on a non-competitive level) and 19 triathletes (defined as people who trained and competed in at least two triathlons a year, including the Ironman triathlon).

All the study participants underwent a series of pain tests -- which involved withstanding heat from a device applied to the arm, as well as extreme cold from holding an arm in a cold bath -- and answered questions about their thoughts toward pain. Researchers found that while pain was identified equally among triathletes and non-athletes, the triathletes thought the intensity of the pain wasn't as bad as the non-athletes. Triathletes were also able to withstand the painful experiences longer than the non-athletes, and reported being less fearful of pain than non-athletes.

"The results suggest that triathletes exhibit greater pain tolerance and more efficient pain modulation than controls, which may underlie their perseverance in extreme physical efforts and pain during training/competitions," researchers wrote in the study. "This capability may be enhanced or mediated by psychological factors, enabling better coping with fear of pain and mental stress."

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