Everybody hurts, sometimes – but do we all hurt equally and why does a runner, after vowing never, ever, again to toe the line of a race, sign up to another one within a matter of days?

Are we all masochists who just love to suffer? Thanks to new research by a team headed by Przemysław Babel at the Jagiellonian University’s Pain Research Group we now have some answers. The team looked into whether marathon runners could recall the levels of pain they endured during a race at a later date.

Titled “Pain begets pain. When marathon runners are not in pain anymore, they underestimate their memory of marathon pain”, the study asked 127 marathon runners from the 2016 Cracovia Marathon in Krakow to rate the intensity of the pain from their race upon completion and then again – either a week or a month later.

From their results, Babel and his team point out that “suffering in a situation that is perceived as positive and desirable may be remembered differently than the pain associated with traumatic and poorly controllable events such as illness, injury or surgery.”

One would then expect that the pain of a marathon to be underestimated, such as you might with a tattoo or any other painful experience that elicits a positive outcome. So what happens if you have a bad race, does this pain get overestimated?

None of the runners in the study suffered an injury in the marathon as it was the act of running a marathon alone that the researchers wanted to investigate. The study also was 85% male, reflective of the 83% of runners at the marathon being male, but it would be interesting to see if future research could look at a separate study of males or females.

The main conclusion of the study was that time was a determinant in how much pain recall a runner had, with runners differing in their pain recall if asked after one week or one month later. What was clear was the level of pain reflected was still relevant to how much they endured during the race, but lowered over time.

So why does the happen? What could be factors that influence the results and how can this be of use to runners?

Firstly, as Babel mentioned, it would be worthwhile to look at levels of experience, marathons run, weekly mileage, gender and how well the marathon went, for example, if a 2:20 marathoner ran a 2:30 marathon, but set off at 2:15 pace for the first half.

How far from each runner’s PB could affect the amount of pain felt, but also whether or not they related that pain to a positive or negative experience, as mentioned in the study as a major factor in pain recall. If you post a huge PB do you forget the pain even more than a bad race?

Also given that all the subjects of the study were Polish runners, one does wonder if socio-cultural factors might come into play too. Would there be different results for Japanese runners who pride themselves on enduring great pain or Kenyan runners who culturally avoid showing discomfort?

Would there be a difference between areas of the British Isles? Would a South East Londoner like myself score differently to somebody born and raised in the Highlands of Scotland? 

Short and long-term memory

It has been mentioned to the author before that painful experiences can be stored in short and long-term memory, with the likelihood of a painful experience going into short-term memory and the positive experience, say that of crossing the finish line, goes into long-term memory.

This could be a coping mechanism for the mind with painful experiences so that we forget the pain and only remember the good times.

It’s also likely this is what keeps the marathon and ultra marathon industries growing as they are. As an experienced ultra runner, the ratio of good to bad experiences is not what keeps me going back for more, but the pain and suffering pales in comparison to the good times, that’s for sure.

Remember the words of the great big cheater that is Lance Armstrong: “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”

What Lance forgot to add is that if you cheat and you mask the pain with heavy-duty painkillers and then get found out – that also lasts forever. Lance may or may not have been talking about the subsidence of pain after an event and how we can use this to work through pain within our events or our training.

Pain is part of the game

Pain is a part of running if we want to get the best out of ourselves. You don’t need to hurt yourself, but sometimes you need to be uncomfortable, but we can train ourselves and our minds to deal better with pain. It’s a skill that you can work on in training and races.

Even the rest period in an interval session, for example, 5 x 1 mile with 90-second rests, is enough to start forgetting. The last 30 seconds of the 3rd mile may feel like hell on earth, but just before you start the next interval it never feels that bad. You can’t even remember the pain properly from two minutes ago, especially if you don’t want to.

Now think back to your first race, your first marathon, your first ultra and what can you remember? Is it the pain? The suffering? Or the elation of finishing and doing something others didn’t think possible, achieving your best or starting on a journey that would last for years.

Interestingly the only thing I can remember about my first marathon is feeling brilliant and not to eat Kendal Mint Cake when dehydrated, but the first ultra, a slightly more painful experience, has a long-lasting memory of a tiny stone, that became embedded in the heel.

Both were brilliant experiences, but only the tiny pain remains in memory. Everything else feels great, with a little time. Now, which race can I sign up to next?