"In our study, triathletes rated pain lower in intensity, tolerated it longer, and inhibited it better than individuals in a control group," study researcher Ruth Defrin, a professor at the university, said in a statement. "We think both physiological and psychological factors underlie these differences and help explain how triathletes are able to perform at such a high level."
From Today.com, “It’s a very masochistic sport,” said Jenna Parker, who was the top female finisher in the New York City Triathlon in July. She was joking, but only kind of. “I guess to some extent, I always wondered what it is that makes people able to compete at a high level in athletics. Obviously there’s something that’s different that makes us able to push our physical boundaries in a way that other people can’t.”
However, more research is needed to determine if triathletes start out with higher pain tolerances so they are able to endure triathlons, or if being in top physical shape from triathlons helps to increase pain tolerance.
The study, which is published in the journal PAIN, included 17 non-athletes (defined as people who participated in exercise, such as jogging or swimming, but on a non-competitive level, seven men and 10 women) and 19 triathletes (defined as people who trained and competed in at least two triathlons a year, including the Ironman triathlon, 10 men and nine women). The triathletes each compete in at least two national competitions a year – either Olympic distance or Ironman; the non-triathletes were active, but more casual exercisers – runners, swimmers, Zumba-ers.
In one experiment, the researchers asked teach volunteers to put a hand in cold water, about 53 degrees; they were told to remove it if or when they experienced unbearable pain. In another experiment, they experienced gradually increasing heat applied to a forearm with a computerized gadget, starting from about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. They were asked to press a switch when they first felt pain, and then press a switch when they could no longer tolerate the pain.
The triathletes and non-athletes registered pain at about the same temperatures. But the triathletes were able to withstand the pain for longer. “Triathletes appear to exhibit greater ability and/or motivation to endure pain in the experimental setup, and possibly, also in everyday life,” Dr. Ruth Defrin at Tel Aviv University in Israel and colleagues wrote in their report, published in the journal Pain.
"The results suggest that triathletes exhibit greater pain tolerance and more efficient pain modulation than controls”. But why? Do tougher people tend to become triathletes? Or does becoming a triathlete make you tougher? Defrin has a few theories. “Since triathletes experience repetitive pain during training and competitions, perhaps the pain inputs that reach the brain constantly trigger the brain stem structures responsible for pain inhibition, which, in turn, produce a more powerful pain modulation and tolerance, but this is yet to be tested,” Defrin said via email. So their brain-and-body chemistry grows accustomed to the pain, which makes it more bearable over time.
Another thought, which this study did test, was the triathletes’ psychological attitudes to pain. In a survey meant to gauge how afraid the volunteers were of pain, the triathletes self-reported less fear. And other studies support that psychological link: Being afraid of the pain before dental surgery, for example, can make it hurt worse.
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