How to train your brain to push through running pain

After having a baby two months' ago, I've recently started running again. The four-month break was hard, but getting back into my favourite sport is harder. Stabbing side stitches remind me that I've lost my running fitness and each step I take feels heavy and uncoordinated.

I'm fully aware that running comes with its fair share of aches and pains, and it can sometimes hurt. Facing a crisis in confidence about whether I'll ever get back to running like I used to, I sought advice from Sports Psychologist Daniel Dymond from The Performance and Sports Psychology Clinic on how runners can train their brain to push through pain and discomfort.

Pick your pain

It's important to differentiate between pain and discomfort. Most of the time, effort and discomfort go together and people tend to recognise this as 'good pain'.

For example, overall body fatigue after a hill sprint session is typically seen as good pain because it reflects positive change in the body, such as strengthening the muscles to cope with the increased physical load. But persistent burning or sharp stabbing or twinging sensations are 'bad pain' and runners shouldn't ignore them as they could result in injury.

Mind over matter

Dymond says our minds' respond differently to different levels of stress.

"Our limbic structure in the brain, which is responsible for the experience and expression of emotion, can take over in times of stress, and responds with comfort seeking or distress avoiding responses," explains Dymond.

"During a tough stretch on a run these may show up in the form of taking it easy, slowing down, stopping or rationalising why things might be hard," he says.  

It's all in your head

Runners often anecdotally say that the toughest part of a marathon is the 32-38 kilometres stretch, but Dymond says there's no evidence to say that those kilometres are the toughest mentally. He adds that the 'mental wall' can occur at any time during a run – long or short.

"Everyone experiences different moments in a race when the going can get tough," says Dymond.


"The only long-term workable solution to overcoming these trying times is by increasing your window of tolerance to discomfort. This can be achieved not by removing discomfort, but by changing your relationship to it."

Dymond says that second-guessing your ability isn't necessarily a barrier to performance but it's a common experience among athletes.

"Building mental toughness and resilience to help you push through discomfort and overcome setbacks can be done.

"One way is to practice mindfulness strategies, including your ability to compassionately notice what your mind brings up on a run, such as thoughts and emotions, and to not engage them. Just observe them and let them go. This is called acceptance and cognitive defusion."

Let it go

The idea behind this approach is that we all tend to over-identify with our thoughts, amplifying them in our minds to become 'the truth'. When we become so attached, or fused, to thoughts in this way, it's easy to see how they can feel so very powerful and literally stop us mid-run.

"That's why mindfulness and acceptance based thinking and responding to psychological experiences can help to build stress tolerance," says Dymond. Other strategies include attention training, visualization and meditation.

The good news is that research suggests that our pain threshold is not set and that that the mind can, to some extent, control it. Next time you experience discomfort on a run try these mental techniques to help dig deep and push on:

  • Run with purpose

Don't focus on how much you hurt. Instead, focus on the reason you're training. Tell yourself, 'I'm working this hard because...' and then fill in your performance goal.

  • Channel positive thoughts

Connect the pain you're feeling with a positive thought, and you'll feel less pain. Do this by creating a positive affirmation you can call upon during tough bouts.

  • Tolerate discomfort

Researchers at the University of Illinois reported that athletes who believed they could tolerate leg-muscle pain performed better in a running test than those who doubted their ability to withstand pain. So, when the aches and pains set in, think of all the other challenging workouts and races you've done to remind yourself of how strong and capable you are of crossing the finish line.

The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.

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