Pain is weakness leaving the body. That mantra was burned into my psyche at Marine Corps Boot Camp. It was part of a rigorous psychological conditioning that drill instructors delivered with ferocity. As I grew and matured as a Marine, I began to see that mantra lead Marines to burnout and injury. It became clear why so many senior Marines and retirees complain about “bum knees” and a host of similar aches and ailments that get blamed on years of strenuous physical activity in the Corps.
The mantra is not wrong, it is just misunderstood. A proper understanding of it can unlock near-limitless human performance. As young men and women are transformed from a “nasty civilian” into a United States Marine, they learn about discipline, professionalism, and fortitude; and they begin to realize how to push beyond perceived mental barriers to go faster and farther than they ever thought possible. The problem with pain is weakness leaving the body is that it is interpreted as an absolute: “I must never quit, no matter how much it hurts” to the point of injury in many cases. The mindset works fine for three months of intense physical training at recruit training, but it does not pave the way for sustained and healthy fitness and longevity.
Make Pain Your Friend, and You Will Never Be Alone
Gary Dudney, author and accomplished ultrarunner noted “make pain your friend, and you will never be alone.” Pain is something that we in the ultra-endurance world are intimately familiar with. Without getting into the weeds, pain is a natural neurological response to external stimulus, in this case, to extreme physical demand. If you train for ultramarathons, you will experience pain and you will have to get comfortable with a certain level of pain depending on the current workout or block of training. The real trick is being able to discern between normal pain, and pain indicative of impending injury.
Determining this tipping point is something each of us has to figure out on our own, and in typical Marine fashion, most of us will have to learn the hard way, after several injuries that sideline our training. But clinging on to the cursory understanding of pain is weakness leaving the body is a prescription for injury. Redefine your understanding of our sacred mantra.
Smart Training will Foster a Friendship with Pain
A well-crafted training plan is systematic and flexible, and incorporates principles such as individuality, gradual progression, overload, specificity, and recovery. The discussion about pain will come when discussing perceived exertion, or rating of perceived exertion (RPE) [RPE is a one-to-ten scale, 1= no exertion and 10= 100% max effort]. Sound training for ultrarunning should include a variety of training intensities throughout a given cycle, with the majority (about 80% of weekly volume) of running at low intensity (4-6 RPE) with some (about 10-20% of weekly volume) running at moderate to high intensity (RPE 7-10). During easy running, there should be little to no pain present, in fact, pain during these runs is probably a huge concern that should be brought up and addressed. During the faster running workouts, pain is to be expected and welcomed. Try hill repeats in the summer heat and you will have a chance to hang out with pain.
Pain IS Weakness Leaving the Body
It is true, from a psychological standpoint, the ability to deal with pain builds mental toughness. Being able to push through mile 39 of a 50-miler when everything in your body is telling you to stop, makes you stronger mentally. But, do not misunderstand the mantra as a waiver that excuses you from proper training for an ultra event. With enough mental toughness and blind adherence to the mantra, you can run yourself right through the finish line and into a serious injury. Save yourself the hassle and think about what this phrase means to you. Get comfortable with pain, but know that at some point on the bell curve (or pain curve), more pain does not mean better performance, it means injury or worse. With a good training program and consistent training, you’ll know how far you can go on the pain curve and how long you can endure there, without injury.
The Pain Curve
The Pain Curve, although this doesn’t mention “weakness”, consider the more time you spend at the summit of the pain curve without sliding down the backside, the stronger you become.