The more discomfort you expect during a workout, the stronger the feeling will be, suggests a new study in Nature Human Behavior.
University of Colorado researchers showed participants one of two symbols (one was associated with high temperatures and the other with lower ones) and then applied heat to the their skin. They found that people rated the pain as worse after seeing the high-heat symbol, even if the temp was actually low.
Physically, cycling sprints, endurance runs, and heavy lifts hurt because the strain of the activity activates nerves. That said, pain is more a psychological and emotional experience than it is a physical one, explains Eddie O’Connor, Ph.D., a clinical sports psychologist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who was not affiliated with the study.
Once those pain signals reach the brain, several mental factors help determine how severe that discomfort is, including whether it’s expected, worthwhile (like if you’re sprinting to a finish line), or a sign of injury.
Expecting discomfort will only amplify it. Assuming you're in pain because you're pushing yourself rather than injured, the most effective way to minimize the aches is by giving them purpose, O’Connor says. Tell yourself the discomfort will pay off (by making you stronger, faster, more flexible, and so on), and your brain is less likely to exaggerate it.