Pain vs. Discomfort: What’s the Difference?

With a background in running, I have felt my fair share of workout-related “pain.”

Pain, however, comes in oh-so-many forms.
According to, the definition of pain is quite simple: (noun) physical suffering or distress, as due to injury, illness, etc.
With that definition in mind, every workout is painful in one way or another.  But, you always hear that you should stop when you’re in pain, right?  So, how are you supposed to know when the pain is worth stopping for?
In my opinion, it is a simple shift in words: are you in pain, or are you uncomfortable?  But what’s the difference?
Pain is red; discomfort is brown.
This articlein Elephant Journal gave an interesting description, “Pain is red, burning, searing and sharp. Discomfort is brown, dull, pressure.”  I’m not sure how I feel about the whole “brown” idea…but, if you’re a color person at all, this really works.  Pain is sharp and mean, and you can’t really look away from it.  Discomfort, though, is more neutral; you can get by if you find yourself something prettier to look at (figuratively, or literally).
(I think I just had a lightbulb moment on that brown comparison…sometimes it takes me a minute, people.)
Pain will hang out for awhile; discomfort doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.
I’m not talking just the next day, here.  Many people experience next-day (or day after that) soreness (technically called DOMS: delayed-onset muscle soreness), and that’s OK.  When you exercise effectively, you are causing damage to your muscles.  This damage comes in the form of small tears that need to be repaired in order for the muscle to get stronger, hence the soreness.
However, this soreness is not a 24-7 feeling with no end in sight.  A day or two later, or if you take it easy or stretch, that discomfort is going to head for the hills.
Pain, on the other hand, is in it for the long haul.  A lot of times, you can intuitively tell this when exercising.  Pain comes suddenly, with that take-your-breath-away feeling.  It might also pop up quickly every time you move in a certain way.  No matter what modifications you try to make, that pain keeps coming back.
Pain isn’t worth the money; discomfort, well, is.
One of my favorite descriptions of long distance runners is that they learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Think of it this way: There is $50 bill at the end of your workout.  Is the sensation you’re feeling worth continuing and getting that 50 bucks, or is it going to cost you more in an inevitable doctor visit if you continue?
The same applies to your emotions if you’ve been working toward a big goal.  True pain could sideline you from that goal for a long time.  Matt Frazier from No Meat Athlete explains it well in this article when he says, “the reason you don’t stop is because doing so would be more painful than the discomfort you feel by continuing.”
If you are working toward something that is truly valuable to you, this discomfort is worth it.  True pain isn’t.
Let’s look at an example:
When I started marathon training, my excitement and “eye on the prize” made every run, even the tough ones, totally worth it.  Sure, I didn’t feel like getting up at 4 am to squeeze in a 4-miler before work.  Sure, it was a chore to complete that last mile after work instead of going home one mile early.  But I wanted that goal, so I did it.
As time wore on, and my intensity increased too quickly (which I know now, but denied then), a sensation in my shin started to pop up every time I ran.  Then, I would feel it after I was done running too.  Then, I would feel it when I was doing things that had nothing to do with running (like laying in bed).
That, my friends, was pain.  Sure enough, I took some time off and still felt it.  Even now, a full year and a half after the injury, it still rears its ugly head on occasion.  I definitely should have stopped.
Compression Sleeves were my friend.
Compression Sleeves were my friend.
So, what can you do?
Make a commitment to yourself to always listen to your body as honestly and objectively as possible.
Sure, push ups suck.  But do they hurt or are they uncomfortable?
Don’t let anyone (nope, not even a personal trainer) tell you that what you’re feeling is one or the other.  Listen to yourself as you would listen to a friend.  If you would tell a friend to stop, you should too.  If you would tell a friend to suck it up, you should too.  You know your body better than anyone else, and you have to be your own hero.
What is your biggest discomfort vs. pain dilemma?  Share it in the comments!  Any other suggestions on how to better listen to your body?  Share those too!

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