Pain is your body’s Check Engine alarm. There is a problem somewhere and, until everything is all clear, your brain is blaring out a high-pitched alert that, after a while, is largely pointless and wholly frustrating. You can’t ignore it completely, but, with a little work, you can learn to muffle it and not let it ruin your work.
Experiencing pain is natural and never a sign of weakness. Interestingly though, your emotions can actually affect how well you tolerate pain. For example, if you lose a tough match, physical pain can be exacerbated by feelings of sadness and disappointment, whereas if you’re entering the final round of an exciting bout with a crowd cheering you on, suddenly pain can be easily ignored. In studies, women have shown a tendency to be more severely impacted by the emotions resulting from being in pain, whereas men tend to focus mainly on the sensation itself - another way of saying that women are more sensitive to pain.
And women actually tend to feel pain more than men. That’s not a judgement, that’s biological fact. Woman’s pain, physical pain that is, lasts for longer durations and derives from a greater percentage of their bodies than that of men. Additionally, there is some evidence that men have higher pain thresholds and tolerances - respectively, the points when they begin to feel pain and when the pain becomes too great to bear. There is accompanying speculation that estrogen and testosterone hormones play a significant part in how pain is experienced.
While you cannot turn off the pain signals completely, the signals to the brain can actually be strengthened or weakened. As we pointed out earlier, maintaining a positive attitude is a good first step toward keeping pain sensations from overwhelming you. There are countless meditation and deep breathing techniques to try to alleviate your suffering. You might even try visualizing the pain in your mind as a blinking light that you can gradually dim. By imagining it as a physical presence you can both subconsciously affect the pain as well as take mental focus off the sensations. While these “mind over matter” techniques may not be useful in the thick of a fight, by developing a higher tolerance you can eventually make pain less of a factor during competition.
Serious athletes will use many techniques, sometimes drastic, to be able to play through the pain, including simply ignoring the pain signals and focusing only on their performance. These athletes can build up very high tolerances to pain almost as if they’ve developed an immunity. The downside, however, is that in the long run the nerve pathways can become more sensitive to pain sensations and chronic pain may linger even after an injury has otherwise healed. This can lead to other issues including physical abnormalities (for example, favoring one leg over another) and drug dependence.
Still, the old saying “just walk it off” may apply here. Moderate physical stimulation can promote healing and allow you to experience the pain in a way that you can live with without significant risk of re-injury. We want to be careful to say that it’s one thing to endure minor pain temporarily, but it’s something else entirely to ignore the pain in a way that leads to or comes from an injury. Any coach will tell you that you can play hurt, but you cannot play injured. It’s a matter of semantics that can be difficult to define, but it boils down to understanding what’s at stake - whether you can cause further serious systemic damage and how much it might be worth it. We all love the fighter who never gives up, but it’s important to know when enough is enough.
Also, it is often recommended to try to avoid using prescription painkillers and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) if possible. Pain relief pills can actually interfere with the body’s natural healing processes (hint: inflammation is a natural healing process) and taking prescription meds can sometimes lead to addiction. Obviously if you need them, you need them, but since we’re trying to enhance our ability to tolerate pain, it’s better if you can just deal with mild to moderate pain without chemical assistance.
Pain is a warning signal and a valid part of strenuous physical activity. Your body is working to fix something. Exercise is an important part of healing so don’t take off from training for too long. You may need to dial down the intensity and/or limit your routines to avoid aggravating an injury, but pain is no excuse to be idle.
If you want to keep pain from derailing your performance you’ll need to develop a higher tolerance. As always, you know your body best; listen to it, and keep that machine running strong.