What does “High Pain Threshold” Mean?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 10th, 2010

Several hours after today’s practice I had an acupuncture appointment. While inserting a needle, Gila, the acupuncturist, said she thought that highly trained athletes have a high pain threshold. We talked about that as I reclined there resembling a pincushion. My take on pain threshold is that athletes’ pain receptors are no less sensitive than those of non-athletes. In fact I’d guess that athletes are more sensitive to pain since training develops a higher level of bodily awareness. So what does it really mean to have a high pain threshold?

I told Gila that I thought an athlete’s high pain threshold is more a function of their  ability to focus on other things. I don’t mean dissociation – I.E. purely distracting thoughts. I think the key is constructive concentration. Focus on process — things that positively impact your performance.

I also think that intention matters. In my previous blog I made note of the fact that, during a “quality” set, while increasing the setting of my Tempo Trainer, my brain and psyche had one keen focus – to keep my stroke under control, to feel relaxed, and even leisurely.

The effect of keeping my stroke long as Tempo increased was that I swam faster. But I wasn’t thinking “Swim Faster.” In fact I was thinking “Feel like you’re stroking slowly.”

The metabolic effect of swimming faster is that I was working harder. But I wasn’t thinking “Work harder.” Instead I was thinking “Feel as relaxed as possible.”

And I was indeed peripherally aware of an increasingly intense sensation as the tempo – and my pace – got faster. But that sensation, while intense, wasn’t unpleasant or uncomfortable.

So, it seems that — besides training yourself to focus your attention so keenly on constructive things that you block out awareness of things that could be uncomfortable if you dwelled on them – another element of a high pain threshold is being able to reframe an experience some might find unpleasant, into something positive because you associate it with performing near your peak capacity.

It’s frequently said that the psychological demands of swimming the English Channel are greater than the physical demands. If so, wouldn’t mental conditioning deserve at least as much thought and focus in your training as physical conditioning?

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