Pain in life, in sports, as a Christian

This is going to be some practical advice on fitness, competition, and also kind of a metaphor of life the way God made us. The subject matter is pain.

Now I will stipulate out of the box that I have probably had many more opportunities to build a tolerance for pain, in many respects, but in this context physical pain. In 29 years in the Coast Guard I was in many situations where either I was hypothermic or hyperthermic, too cold or too hot respectively. I always prefer too hot. Had bouts with motion sickness. Had many bouts with extreme fatigue. Did endure a lot of challenges of strength and physical punishment.

I also like to participate in sports. I played, a very little football. Not because I didn’t like it, I was a lousy player. I played a little basketball. You may doubt it, but basketball was probably much more physical. I had a guy come down right on the top of my head with his elbow. I’ve been elbowed straight in the face, sprained ankles a few times, and various hits. I’ve come closer to being knocked out on a basketball court, then football. I also like kick- boxing. I have built a high tolerance of pain because I went out and endured a lot of pain. In a lot of instances I had to. In more instances I wanted to be stronger and endure more so that I could serve better in what I do. The more strength and endurance I had, the more I could help those in my crew and the more I could help those who needed assistance.

One other caveat. I am not saying that you should not deal with legitimate pain. There is pain that you will experience as the result of a workout and it really feels good, it’s healthy pain. Whenever I go more than fifty miles on my bike I can feel that pain right in my seat, often for a few days. It’s not doing permanent damage, it’s also a “pleasant” reminder that I pushed a little harder and made myself a little stronger. That is a good thing. You do feel better for it.

I can hear you say “that’s nice, but I don’t like pain”. Ya, you will find it strange, but I have found that the exhilaration of taking a shot that you hadn’t before and realizing you’re still fine and a little stronger for it is a rush. Ya, I have bad eating habits myself, and I could stand to lose at least another 15 pounds. But for those of you who are reaching for your next twinkie and can’t begin to grasp the idea of enduring pain, you need to get a grip. Yes, there is bad pain, and for those of you who spend most of life sitting around playing video games or watching television you need to go to a doctor and make sure you can do more physical activity. But, I know this is really ground-breaking, if you put away the junk food, put away the screen(s), figure out what would be best for you to do, and do it. You will feel better. God made your body in order to feel good when you do the right things, and feel bad when you abuse it. You can say that it makes you feel good to sit in front of a screen and chain swill twinkies. But inevitably I will hear the same person say that they don’t feel well, physically, mentally and socially. We all have issues, but in terms of making them worse, sitting around and abusing your body with inactivity and bad food is going to make you feel worse. Eating well and pushing yourself will leave you feeling better, you will still have issues, but those issues won’t be so all consuming as I’ve seen it with people who just pursue bad habits and life style. I wish that our government would make the same campaigns against diabetes that it does about smoking. Diabetes is far more of a critical issue, I know a lot of people with diabetes, don’t know one with lung cancer. The biggest health issue in this country is by far diabetes, and we are raising our children to be diabetic in their 30’s. This is health crisis that is completely out of control and it’s all due to lousy diet and lack of physical conditioning. Wow talk about controllable elements!

God made our bodies in order to grow stronger, to endure pain and to also through chemical means endure that pain, to make it almost an addiction. There are many who would claim to be “addicted” to exercise. I know that I don’t feel very well if I don’t exercise on a regular, if not daily basis. Part of that “addiction” is a hormone that God has given human beings the ability to create called “endorphins”. Endorphins are an opiate, I’ve seen it described as three times more powerful than morphine. The trick though is that endorphins, along with other “feel good” body chemicals, are released through exercise and proper body maintenance. Sitting around will give you a dose of “dopamine”, but it will act more to cloud your brain and make you feel more lethargic, than to make you feel good!

Having said all this, there are ways to “increase your pain tolerance” and you should, we have a responsibility to ourselves, each other and to God who gave us a strong, healthy body, at least initially, to make ourselves stronger. Otherwise we become a burden and make things tougher for those around us.

In terms of sports, I saw this article in “Triathlete Magazine” (Mackenzie Havey March 2015 p 54). One reason we don’t push a little harder is that we don’t want to feel pain. The article says: “Published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers had a group of cyclists perform sprint interval tests on bikes, giving them either 1.5 grams of acetaminophen (pain reliever, aka generic Tylenol) or a placebo prior to exercise. They then monitored their power output and heart rate during each sprint, finding that when they took acetaminophen, the participants had a significantly greater mean power output.”

“…They concluded that their findings ‘supported the notion that exercise is regulated by pain perception and increased pain tolerance can improve exercise capacity.'”

Yes, I know, horrors, the idea that you actually have to suffer a little. Come on in day-to-day life you have to “suffer” in order to achieve something. Work 8 hours (let’s hope you’re really ‘working’, I’ve seen enough of the “working man” who whines about how he works and I see way too many people chatting and lolly-gagging versus working). “Suffer” 8 hours and get paid so you can live some kind of life. Hopefully you endure the fussing of children in order to try and raise them to be responsible adults. So the idea that you have to push a little to make yourself healthier shouldn’t be a surprise or a daunting chore.

Let me explain to you how the body works. The muscles in your body and incidentally that includes your heart and what you need to make your lungs function, need to grow. If you don’t do what’s necessary to make them grow, they become weaker. Hence cardio/pulmonary problems arise when you don’t strengthen them. In general, exercise breaks apart your muscle. Sounds scary, but unless you tear the muscle up a little, it can’t repair itself into something stronger. Forcing your heart to work at a higher rate (the average person has a heart rate of about 75 beats per minute. I have workouts that get my heart rate up to 175 beats per minute). If you are not conditioned for it, do not try to raise your heart beat that high. But even getting it into the 110s, makes your heart work harder and strengthens it. To do that you have to endure pain, but done right, it’s good pain. “…higher pain tolerance and increased performance go hand in hand. Luckily, with a bit of hard work, you can naturally boost that tolerance – and thereby performance – without running to the medicine cabinet.” Goes on to say that consistent training enables you to achieve a higher pain tolerance.

You do need recovery, if you keep breaking the muscles down, they won’t have a chance to repair and build more: “If you are focused on suffering all the time, you get tired and have no reserve, which lowers pain threshold.” And I’m here to tell you the time after that workout feels oh so nice. If you’ve been cold (I just finished doing a 13 mile bike ride in 40 degree weather), you feel nice and toasty and you have a very calm mindset. This is because your body was designed by God to kick in hormones to help you with pain. As I referred to one hormone that kicks in is called “dopamine” It tends to calm your body after significant exercise. During exercise your body kicks in “endorphins”. Endorphins gives your body a narcotic effect, they are an opiate. But an opiate that is designed by God to naturally relieve pain and to give you more strength during stress along with adrenaline to give you more energy and to withstand more stress. By the way, for you vegetarians, these are all the result of amino acids, which comes from protein. The most effective protein humans can eat are fish, chicken, eggs, beef. So this goofy idea that just eating vegetables is good for you? Overall? No, not really. But again it’s an issue of conditioning. If you’re conditioning your heart to be stronger it can deal with a little cholesterol. And a lot of these phoney cholesterol studies never really took into account some people’s natural tendency to have higher cholesterol.

Finally these all help to increase the flow of Serotonin, aided by our favorite turkey dinner chemical tryptophan, which both calm and help you to sleep, but both of these are also the body’s reaction to the chemicals that are released in order to strengthen and increase reaction. God made us to be incredibly resilient and to also help us to grow and be stronger. “But I’m too old”, yea? No! Our bodies can benefit from exercise well into old age. Heck I’ve heard enough stories of guys who realized in their mid-50s they couldn’t keep doing what they were doing and started to work out and they’re now doing Ironman Triathlons. So it can be done and is being done on a regular basis by regular Joe’s and Jane’s.

Again do not start a workout routine until you’ve been checked by a physician. There are conditions that physical activity will worsen. I would strongly suggest you pay a trainer too. I’ve been doing aerobic and strength workouts on a regular basis since I was in my teens, 40 years. But for someone starting even in their twenties, you can only go so far so fast, your body needs to build up to a certain level. Having said that the longer you wait, the longer it will take you to get to a healthy level.

We can far exceed what we think we can tolerate. Our mind usually has a much lower sense of what we can tolerate and your mental state will cause you to take your foot off the pedal when you really do have more in the tank. “…known as the Central Governor theory, says that it’s not our bodies but our brains that shut us down in an effort to either avoid harm or simply an aversion to pain…”(“Ask Bicycling” Bicycling Magazine June 2015 p 34) “…The power of suggestion is strong regardless of the message. In a 2007 study subjects experienced a 15 percent increase in pain tolerance with just the suggestion that they received morphine (they really got saline). The same concept supports the idea that we can fool ourselves into going faster. A 2012 study found that when cyclists raced a 4km time trial against a virtual competitor (that in fact was riding 1.7 percent quicker than their previous best all-out effort)m they still “won the race”. This means if you can overcome your mental reservations, ignore your brain, quit talking yourself out of things, that you can go stronger and longer than you think you can. Heck if I could improve performances 1.7 percent every time I worked out I’d be thrilled to death. A professional athlete who could do that would spiral into a whole other level of accomplishment.

In today’s world we talk ourselves into the idea that we should be happy and pain free, that is just not realistic and is actually unhealthy in so many ways: mentally, physically, aging, spiritually. God did not make us to be mediocre and settle for less. Granted we can’t all be Lance Armstrong or Michael Jordan etc, but we can and should be a heckuva lot better than we are. God made us to be that way by giving us such an amazing complex and strong body. Let’s quit this idea that we should be sitting around eating whatever we want and do a little more in our life. You will be better for it, your family will be, your neighborhood, your city, your church, heck can you imagine a whole society of people who have worked to their level of physical health? Our so-called “health care crisis” would evaporate instantly, our world would be so much happier and God made us to be that way. But, as usual, we give God a patronizing wave, ignore His will and take the easy way out.

 

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