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How Do I Know When To Stop 'Pushing Through The Pain' During My Workout?

05/18/2015 07:00 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2015

pushing through pain

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The Question: How do I know when to stop pushing through the pain during my workout?

The Answer: We've all heard the infamous training phrase, "No pain, no gain," but there is a limit to how many times we can mutter "ouch" during a sweat session, and how high on the pain scale we can climb, before suffering real consequences. To better understand where to draw the line, The Huffington Post spoke with Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, about the ways in which he typically advises his patients.

"My general take is that if it doesn't hurt a little bit, you're not getting [more fit]," Metzl told The Huffington Post. "Pain and feeling uncomfortable is definitely a part of the exercise prescription for anybody who wants to help take their fitness to the next level, so that's important to think about. On the other hand, there is such a thing as unhealthy pain and being in an uncomfortable place."

So how do we know when too much is too much? It turns out there's a relatively easy way to distinguish between a few sore muscles and an actual injury that could grow more serious without proper care and attention.

"Pain that changes the way you move, pain that is in your bones and soft tissue is unhealthy pain," said Metzl. " So if a shin splint is changing the way you run or a shoulder problem is changing the way you swim, then you have to get that checked out, because that could be making a problem worse and creating another problem. That's the red flag I use."

Not all exercise pains lie within the muscular and skeletal systems, though. For example, if you're working to improve your cardiovascular fitness, there is a limit to how labored you want your breathing to be, or how high your heart right should go during the peak of a workout.

"Certainly, huffing and puffing means you're working harder," said Metzl. "But if that crosses over into feeling dizzy or fainting or those kinds of symptoms, then you've got to get that checked out as well."

Some may be familiar with the Borg scale, which measures levels of personal perceived exertion during exercise using a scale of one through 20. Many sports medicine physicians ask patients to fill out the scale as a part of their intake paperwork, and while it proves useful as a diagnostic tool, it does have its limitations. A 2008 study comparing hypertension patients' increased blood pressure levels to their subjective feelings of intensity during exercise using the Borg scale found that the patients' own assessment of pain was not enough to provide a true measure of the effects of exercise.

Another limitation is the fact that people's pain thresholds vary dramatically, meaning the same numbers can mean entirely different things to different athletes. A study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health explored the potential roles both genetics and environmental factors play in determining a person's pain tolerance, but the extent of their effects requires further research.

When it comes to pushing through the pain, Metzl finds that women are more likely than men to move beyond the point of injury and worsen their condition before seeking medical attention.

"I think women are tougher than men, I do," he said. "In general, if a guy gets a bad pain they're like, 'Alright, this is terrible, I'm going to stop.' But women are just tougher and they will push themselves, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is it makes them great athletes, but the curse is they sometimes make injuries that are moderate much worse, because they push through pain and don't listen to their bodies' cues."

The most common exercise injuries tend to be the result of overuse and overtraining. When left unacknowledged, tendonitis can turn into tendinosis, and a stress injury can become a stress fracture. It's critical to pay attention to your body's cues and address these types of pain in their early stages. Notice if your form is changing to compensate for a pain, and ask yourself if the pain is recurring and grows worse each time you perform that type of exercise. When it comes to knowing whether to push through the pain or get it checked out, your intuition can be mighty powerful -- so long as you listen to it.

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"Ask Healthy Living" is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical advice.

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