I’ve written a lot lately about mindfulness – since it happens to be a central theme in our coaching. Mindfulness is not just for perfecting the stroke and improving the experience, it is also about reading the subtle signals of the body you would not otherwise notice, so that you avoid disaster.
Coach Grant Molynuex speaks to this using the term ‘body awareness’ in his book Effortless Exercise. It is one of those books that you need to re-read occasionally because new details keep catch your attention. The principles are important and powerful yet they are counter to the common paradigm for training. These principles are not easy to turn into habits.
(Sorry, for the image on the book cover – it could be misleading, since this books provides training principles for serious competitive athletes as well as those seeking freedom from injury and suffering in their fitness training.)
“Taken at it’s most basic level injury is simply stress driven into your body to a point where you experience intense pain, damage and dysfunction. Pain is the messenger. If not heeded, injury becomes nature’s way of putting a stop to unsustainable activity since you were unable to stop yourself sooner through awareness of quieter body messages. Long before anyone gets injured there are always inner energy signals of impending failure: fatigue, sloppy form, aches, tiredness, lack of motivation and depression. It’s the Western culture’s mantra of “no pain, no gain” that keeps these beginners and mentally tough athletes exercising through these clues and eventually becoming injured.
Being present during movement and learning to make subtle corrections the moment something seems amiss remains the key to circumventing injury.
- Page 111, Chapter 7: “Injuries Are A Gift” – Effortless Exercise, by Grant Molyneux
You’d think one could get badly injured once and learn his lesson, but we are cultural creatures too, and it is deep in our cultural ethos to ‘push through it’. It’s constantly reinforced in all the glory-through-sacrifice we promote in sports, and in the subconscious cues we have been programmed to follow. Being able to ignore or dampen pain is a two-sided coin. One needs to work into the discomfort zone to expand his capabilities but discomforts need to be filtered into positive signs of adaptation and warning signs of impending damage. Some signals need reinterpretation and some signals need to be heeded.
I started to cooperate with the Pain Is A Messenger insight 25+ years ago when I was prematurely retired from triathlon from my knee injury. Fortunately, in the water I have learned the lesson and am consistent in reading the messages correctly. But now that I am back into training for running, I still have the instinct to get the job done through discomfort, and ignore whispers in my body. In the pool if I need to stop because of a warning sign the wall is right there, but on a run I might be a few miles from home – tempting me to run through it and try to get back home sooner. In running, my loyalty to quality in training is as much of a discipline for me as it is a value. I have to keep working at it. Fortunately, I am aware that injury (and the subsequent time away from training) is waiting to hold me accountable to read those signals correctly.
Grant’s book is very dense with insights. I recommend reading just a part of a chapter and then work with one of the concepts for a while, then come back later for more. I mention his book occasionally, and for new readers I want to recommend it again.
And, lest we wonder if this is some isolated opinion, we can bring in Gray Cook, quite a renown physical therapist and author of the popular Functional Movement Screen used to detect vulnerabilities in structure, mobility and strength before they turn into injuries.
Pain, however, indicates a problem that needs to be examined and corrected to prevent further damage. But many athletes and fitness enthusiasts continually push, compete, and train into pain and use ice and anti-inflammatory medications for long periods to mask pain.
Most people don’t see pain for what it is. The body is smart – pain is a warning that something is wrong…
Pain distorts proprioception, which creates the ability to feel while moving… If body awareness is distorted by pain, then chances are the athlete will compensate or use awkward or unnatural movements to avoid the pain. These movements can create more problems. Compensation creates stress in other parts of the body as other areas work harder to achieve the same level of performance. New problems arise when normal body parts must work in abnormal situations or the athlete pushes into the pain, risking even greater injury with more complications.
It is extremely important to get to the bottom of the causes of pain.
- page 17 and 18, Chapter 4: Developing Resistance To Pain, in Athletic Body In Balance by Gray Cook (2003)
Gray’s book is easy to digest with tests and exercises you can do for yourself. I would consider Part 1 required reading for any coach and serious athlete.
“No pain, no gain” may work for those who have perfect form and can maintain it under the greatest stress. But for 100% of the real humans, pain is a messenger who’s signals must be read with great care. Learn which ones indicate you are moving in the right direction – the discomfort which signals the coming of growth – and which indicate you are moving in the wrong direction – the discomfort which warns of coming destruction.