Pain Inhibition

Pain inhibition is a very important concept in physical training, but also in living life in general. Another important concept is that pain and fear can often mimic one another. And it can be difficult to discern between the two.

This is me wiping out on a Farmer’s Walk at my first Highlander. Couldn’t breathe for a few minutes. Got a nice bruise on my sternum.

So, a few examples for clarification:

  1. When I first learned to squat, I got up to a little above bodyweight on the bar and I started to get a lot of anxiety. And that anxiety changed my form to something that was more protective and less effective overall and my squat stalled for a long time. A friend told me to put on some knee sleeves because what I was likely experiencing was pain that felt like fear. Sure enough, knee sleeves added 25 lbs of confidence and real weight to the bar in single training session. Once I was able to squat without being in a protective stance, I got a lot stronger a lot faster.
  2. When I was training for my second long distance run in my life ever, a half marathon, I developed plantar fasciitis. It continued to get worse until I finally got a cortisone shot in my heel. I suddenly realized (too late) that in order to avoid the pain, I had been externally rotating my right foot. And that lead to a nasty case of bursitis that took months to heal.

So, basically, pain or fear can make you move in ways that are not ideal and actually lead to or exacerbate an existing injury.

Now that I am closer to 50 than 40, a lot of things have begun hurt that never hurt before and I am finding deficiencies in movements that I never experienced before. For example, in Highland Games this year, some of my throws are better than they’ve ever been. Others have just gone straight down the toilet. I’ve been trying to figure this out over the past year but just haven’t quite been able to see what is going on. What I do see (and so have some of my fellow competitors) is that I am not using my whole body, especially my legs, in extension.

When throwing, you need to use your entire body. The entire posterior chain contracts explosively with the help of the quads, abs, chest, legs, and arms. I’ve been dealing with knee pain for the past couple of years and today, it finally became obvious what I’ve been missing. My quads.

So, in training for this upcoming games, I’ve been fooling around with some power movements to see what has changed because honestly, they all feel different. Cleans, jumps, squats with chains, snatches, and even kettlebell swings feel more tentative than powerful. And tentative is not explosive.

Today, doing some box jumps, I realized that I am only using my posterior chain in an effort to protect my knees. No quads engaged whatsoever. When I finally realized this and made the effort to execute a full legged jump, guess what? It didn’t hurt like I was afraid it would. Both fear and pain had changed my basic movement patterns. And when I let it go, amazingly, I moved better. I was more powerful. And I hope I can translate this back onto the field.

*Special thanks to Erica Hay for helping me see this at Worlds this year. I finally figured out what was wrong. 🙂

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