How to manage and overcome pain during running

Running is an endurance activity: it relies on the ability to endure for a prolonged time while sustaining unaccustomed speed and exertion. You can walk for many hours but you can’t run many hours if you haven’t gone through adequate preparation to do so.

Like all such activities-and those who run know this well-while running it is not unusual to reach and even cross the pain threshold. Maybe it doesn’t happen if you run 10km (as much as it can happen to you even over short distances if you’ve never run before) but the longer the distance, the more likely it is that pain will be your main companion.

I do not use the term “companion” at random, and you will see why in a moment. For now think about the fact that “companion” indicates down a particular relationship: with those who accompany you on a run you must seek a relationship, a dialogue. In other words: it is better to make friends.

The great Scott Jurek says that “Pain only hurts.” You might think, “Well, that’s obvious,” but if you think about it, it’s not that obvious, and it’s not the interpretation we normally give to pain, which is commonly read as a signal the body sends to the brain inviting it to stop doing something. What Jurek means, however, is more subtle: what pain does is cause harm but that is where its power stops. Pain, in other words, has no ability to do anything but hurt. So, in other words, it cannot stop you.

Coach Matt Fitzgerald on Outside explains well how to manage and overcome it.

Acceptance and detachment

The two main roads leading to pain management are acceptance and detachment .

Acceptance is the realization of the inevitability of pain. If you run for a long time and face exhausting trials, you have to put into account that you will experience pain. In some ways you have to anticipate it so that you are not unprepared when it manifests itself (and it certainly will).

Instead, detachment has to do with the proper distance you must maintain from the pain you will experience. You know it will come, you know it will cause breathlessness and discouragement but you can learn to handle it as something that happens to someone other than you. It is not easy to rationalize such a thought and requires the ability to think about oneself with a certain, precisely, detachment. In other words, it means being able to separate the mind from the body, leaving the former with the ability to observe the latter’s suffering without being conditioned by it. In other words? Think of how many times you have stopped running because your body told you it was trudging along, while your mind could have kept going.

How to put it into practice

This was the theoretical part. I understand, however, that at this point you are wondering how it is possible to overcome certain difficult times. We know that body and mind are one and the same and that the mind controls the body, etc., but how to do when the mind cannot find arguments to convince the body to go on?

There are the more intuitive remedies, like slowing the pace and relaxing thinking that it is just a phase. Or there is a different approach that is based on dividing the effort you expect into smaller bites. The African saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” In short, it is a matter of changing your perspective and no longer thinking of how much you have left to run as a whole: you need to break it down into shorter and, therefore, more manageable distances. Instead of thinking, “I still have 10 miles to go,” put every single mile one after another. One kilometer is less scary than 15 put all together, isn’t it?

The advanced method

Finally, there is a way of dealing with pain that requires more mental effort. It requires you to have great inhibitory power. In the specific case what is inhibited is the temptation to quit. Why does it require more effort? Simple: those who put it into practice have the mental strength to place satisfaction at the end of training and competition. In other words, you don’t run because of how you feel during the run but because of how you feel afterwards. Does it sound familiar? How many times did you not feel like doing it but the idea of how you would feel afterwards motivated you?

The case is similar, only it is applied during physical exertion: in short, the moment of distress can be overcome by thinking about future gratification instead of the temptation to make the pain stop now.

As you may have guessed, such a method requires a lot of willpower and also a fair amount of ability to think on a time scale. When you are sick you have only one thought, that it will end soon, that the pain will go away. When you have a broader temporal view, you know that pain is momentary and related to the present and that gratification will come, even if later.

As the great writer and marathon runner Murakami Haruki said, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” What does it mean? That you happen to be in pain but, as always, it matters how you deal with it: you can decide to give up and stop, or you can decide to reframe the pain, enduring it. As always, it doesn’t matter what happens to you but how you deal with it.

(Main image credits: Ridofranz on


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