The Difference Between Discomfort & Pain

In the field of sports psychology, the difference between pain and discomfort has been a regular topic of discussion. Oftentimes, athletes can get these signs and labels confused: is squatting 8 reps @ 90% of 1RM painful, or just uncomfortable? Are high intensity sprint drills painful, or just extremely taxing on the lactate system and psyche?

Appraisal of the body’s feedback by the brain takes a lot of practice, but is a helpful skill to learn, especially if you want to grow as an athlete. It is also important for an athlete to know that they must tolerate the discomforts that come with increased efforts. It is almost inevitable in most sports. Those who can accept that sprinting, lifting, and holding flexed positions can pull the body out of its homeostasis can often outperform their competition. Working though physical challenges can build a great confidence and mental toughness.

On the flipside of this however, is actual pain. Be aware of the sensations that are not of your sport, but are actually warning indicators to either ease off the gas, or slam on the brakes temporarily. It is advisable to monitor the the continuum between discomfort and pain. The better an athlete gets at telling the difference and actually sticking the the mind-body feedback, the more accomplished the athlete will become.

Eddie O’ Connor From the AASP has defined the different types of pain you can experience:

  1. Fatigue and discomfort. This is an unpleasant feeling produced by effort, but not strong enough to be labeled “pain.” Athletes learn to be “comfortable being uncomfortable,” as such efforts are a regular and necessary part of most sports. With continued effort, discomfort can turn into …

  2. Positive training pain. This pain often occurs with endurance exercise, and includes muscle fatigue and sensations in the lungs and heart that can range from unpleasant to what is typically thought of as pain. It is neither threatening nor a sign of injury. Because athletes know the cause, are in control of their effort, and recognize that these feelings are beneficial and can enhance performance. In short, positive training pain is a good sign of effort and improvement.

  3. Negative training pain is still not indicative of an injury, but goes beyond positive signs of training benefit. An example may be extreme soreness that lasts for days. There may be an overtraining risk.

  1. Negative warning pain is similar to negative training pain, with the added element of threat. It may be a new experience of pain and a sign of injury occurring. It typically occurs gradually, and allows the athlete to evaluate potential training causes and respond appropriately.

  2. Negative acute pain is an intense and specific pain that occurs suddenly, often a result of injury. It is often localized to a specific body part and is labeled as threatening.

  3. Numbness is rare but of very serious concern. It is when the athlete feels nothing when soreness, fatigue or pain should be felt. Instead, limbs are numb. This may be a sign of serious injury or pushing one’s body past its physical limits.

How you react to your pain is important. If you focus on the pain or think of it as threatening, the pain will increase and interfere with your performance. On the other hand, if you view the pain as something that is natural and necessary, it can be an beneficial to your performance because it means you are working hard.

Note: Don’t be an asshole and work through a serious injury. You may think it makes you very intense, but in reality it will just prolong your suffering. I am speaking from experience.

Accepting the reality that “pain is a part of training” is beneficial. You cannot perform at a high level and not experience pain. Comfort and excellence are mutually exclusive. You can’t have them both.

Decide how much pain you are willing to experience to achieve your goals.

When pain shows up, be willing to feel it fully as part of your experience. Let your pain be in service of your greater goal. You may be surprised to find your pain suffering will be lessened when you allow pain to be a part of sport.


–O’Connor, E., Association for Applied Sport Psychology, December 6, 2010.

– Addison, T., Kremer, J., & Bell, R. (1998). Understanding the psychology of pain in sport. Irish Journal of Psychology, 19, 486-503.

-Taylor, J., & Schneider, T. (2005). The triathlete’s guide to mental training. Boulder, CO: VeloPress.

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