Pain vs. Sensory Richness

We are trying to do something radical here at Agatsu NC, and we need to be open about it. So, here goes.

Being able to experience and respond to pain is good. But constant, recurring, or extreme pain is bad. It’s not normal to hurt all the time.

“But all the No Fear t-shirts say pain is good!”

People tend to get defensive when they hear this, especially when it’s a response to them explaining that they love to do X but they’ve been limited in participating due to some constant, nagging injury.

Why is this such a controversial belief? Partly, it’s that they think we are saying, “X is bad.” What we are actually saying is: you could be doing X without pain if you approach it thoughtfully. You could enjoy your activity even more.

All those Gatorade commercials and Nike gear bombard us with “NO PAIN, NO GAIN!” messages. We come to believe the slogans despite the fact that millions of years of evolution have given us pain responses specifically as a message that something’s not right and maybe we should do something about that.

PAIN VS. SENSORY RICHNESS

I want to clarify the difference between pain and what might be called “the sensation of something being so difficult that I instinctively want to say that it hurts.” Shawn Mozen introduced me to the idea of “sensory richness,” as in “Does it hurt or is it just sensory rich?” Ever since I first heard that phrase, I use it least twenty times a day. It perfectly clarifies the razor-thin line I’m trying to walk with my clients, and in my own training.

Sensory richness means you are feeling a lot of things in the moment. Maybe you are in a high-tension position. You have to concentrate on whatever you’re doing. You’re shaking, despite your best efforts at stillness. You have to actively think about how to breathe. If an exercise is truly sensory-rich, you probably won’t be able to read a book, watch a morning show, or have a complex conversation while performing it — you’re already receiving a lot of stimulation.

All that is okay. Sensory richness can be unpleasant, like a pungent odor. You may feel uncomfortable. But you’re not hurting; you’re having a very intense experience. And at the edge of that boundary is where the magic happens for getting stronger and more refined in your skills.

What we don’t want is pain. Real pain should be addressed. It means you’re doing something wrong. You’ve either caused damage or are on your way to causing damage — possibly of the permanent sort.

WHY IT MATTERS

So here you are, trying to explain to us how you’ve had two knee surgeries and a hip replacement from decades of running, but you just love the sport so much and you want to keep doing it for the rest of your life. We are going to say that’s fine, but maybe you’re not as serious about running as you thought. Because if you were, you would do the work that allowed you to keep running well and without pain. Without doing that work, you are on your way to ending your relationship with this thing you “love.” You are choosing not to take the steps to make it work.

Pain cannot be defeated by brute force. On the contrary, brute force is what invited pain in. It feeds the pain and helps it grow.

It’s true that you might see some gains by driving hard through pain. Especially when you’re in an intense, competitive environment, the ability to grit your teeth and power through a moment of pain might be what gets you the win. But it could also be the thing that cripples you for good. It might be the reason you never play your sport again. “NO PAIN, NO GAIN!” is the slogan of the athlete who (consciously or subconsciously) wants to burn out, crash, or otherwise never address their own deficiencies in self-regulation.

In other words, any gains you make from powering through are likely going to be mitigated by all the time off for injury — or an early retirement from your sport.

Unless you are a professional athlete — is it really worth it to power through like that? Is it necessary to destroy your knees trying to win your town’s Thanksgiving turkey trot?

OUR GOALS

We are not dogmatic. There are so many ways to get fit, and there is no single methodology that works for everyone. We recognize that. We want you to be able to run, dance, wrestle, climb, bike, play the bagpipes for hours, or whatever else you want out of this beautiful life.

All we are saying is: be smart enough to do the work you need to do to allow you to live your life the way you want. You can do whatever you like for a career, hobby, or your physical fitness — but if it truly hurts you, we are opposed to it. Because eventually you will break, or drop away sooner from physical activity.

Instead of powering through, why not engage your brain and learn how to auto-regulate? All our coaches have been through countless training programs and forms of physical activity, along with plenty of pain and injury. That’s what got us so intrigued about diving deeper — we want to be able to do the things we love until we die.

Also, think about what YOUR physical fitness looks like. Fitness is the ability to perform a task, according to Dave Whitley. So what tasks do you want/need to perform? And what kind of strength and abilities do you need to perform that task well for as long as you want to perform it? Are you fit for your own life? These are simple questions that unfortunately get overlooked when the average person is deciding “how” they are going to exercise. (Or even “if.”)

  • Like to run? Great! Make sure your running form is the best it can be, strengthen your hips and feet, and get serious about core work.
  • If you’re a surgeon, do the hand recovery work that will allow you to keep working.
  • CrossFitters: I know you’re going to hate to hear it but… you probably need to rest more and recover better, bro. (Example: If you’re only getting five hours of sleep a night and wondering why you’re chronically sore, chances are you don’t need cryotherapy — you need a nap.)
  • Love Jiu-Jitsu? Take some time to open up your spine and hips to counteract all that curled-in crunching you do in your training.

We aren’t saying that learning how to use kettlebells for your cardio work should replace your beloved running. We aren’t saying that CrossFit is bad. We don’t want to take you away from the things you love. We aren’t addressing the activities themselves whatsoever. We’re trying to call attention to how they’re approached.

We want you to be safe, healthy, and physically capable of doing this thing you love. We want you to do you, better. And the honest truth is that if you’re in pain, that means an ever-growing part of yourself is being distracted from living your best life.

Want to be more resilient to do the things you want to do? If you’re in the Chapel Hill, NC area, come try a class!