Why Athletes Can Handle More Pain

Most athletes rely instinctively on brain over body tricks to power through pain

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We see it all too often: The NFL running back who’s tackled by a 270 pound linebacker; the ultra-marathoner who pounds through 100 miles of trails; and the soccer striker who battles injury and dominates the Olympic Games. So what helps athletes who get knocked down get back up again? Scientists have found that compared to the average Joe, athletes rely on certain cognitive strategies to help them deal with the pain.

Researchers reporting in the journal Pain looked at 15 studies that examined pain threshold and tolerance in athletes and non-athletes. While both groups had similar pain thresholds (the point when pain is felt), athletes consistently tolerated more pain (the maximum amount one can handle before it becomes unbearable).  Many “game” sport athletes showed a higher pain tolerance than endurance athletes, although this varied by type of sport. Another study looked at gender and found male athletes tolerated pain better than women.

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More clues point toward a common cognitive strategy athletes use: Association/Disassociation. Association occurs when people concentrate on the act itself (like dribbling a soccer ball or calculating running splits), while dissociation occurs as people think of something positive to distract them. Both strategies help increase pain tolerance and performance in athletes by reducing physiological stress but in different ways. Dissociation may increase pain threshold when working at a low to moderate intensity level, while association is more effective at higher intensities. Using these instinctive tactics may also vary by gender, as women tend to be more dissociative than men.

The one thing missing from these studies is why athletes can handle the hurt. Researchers didn’t crack the code, but they suggest resistance to pain can be learned over time, and an increase in exercise intensity can lead to endorphin release. Others suggest it’s because athletes are incredibly motivated to push through the pain in order to break a personal record, win a medal, or prove they’ve performed to the best of their ability.

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Unfortunately, joining a kickball league won’t instantly make us power through the tough stuff. Pain tolerance depends on a range of factors, like genetics and the type of sport. For example, researchers found people who carry a specific gene variant are more likely to report higher levels of pain, while contact-sport athletes may be able to grin and bear it more than others. One thing is pretty certain though — tolerating pain has a lot to do with mind over matter. So whether you’re a world-class athlete or a club frisbee fiend, when the goin’ gets tough, stick to positive thinking to help hurdle the discomfort.

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This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Terra Castro and Phillip Page. Contributing research by Laura Skladzinski.
What’s your take on athletes and pushing through the pain? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author at @lschwech.
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