How to Train Your Body to Feel Less Pain When Working Out
Your body produces special chemicals that fight pain, research shows—all you have to do is turn them on. Here's how.
As an active woman, you're no stranger to postworkout aches and pains. And yes, there are great tools for recovery to rely on, like foam rollers (or these fancy new recovery tools) and a hot bath. But imagine if you could train your body to dull pain on its own and initiate (and fast-track) the healing process.
According to the latest studies, you can. Whenever you're injured–muscle soreness included–your system releases natural opioid peptides, says Bradley Taylor, Ph. D., a chronic pain researcher and a professor of physiology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. These substances, which include feel-good endorphins, latch onto opioid receptors in the brain, blunting your pain and making you feel focused and calm.
If you've ever fallen during a run and been surprised that you felt little discomfort for the next couple of miles, for instance, that was an example of your natural healing powers at work; pain-protective chemicals flood your brain and your spinal cord, then buffer your body from the ache and hyperfocus your mind.
Experts are discovering that we have more control over this reaction than we thought, meaning there are ways to tap into these natural painkillers and intensify their powers whenever you need them. Here's what we know now.
1. Drink coffee preworkout.
Caffeine reduces muscle pain, allowing you to push yourself harder at the gym, new research shows. People who consumed the amount in two to three cups of coffee before cycling hard for 30 minutes reported feeling less pain in their quad muscles than those who didn't have caffeine, according to a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors, which are located in the areas of the brain that control pain," says Robert Motl, Ph.D., the lead researcher. He suggests drinking a cup or two an hour before exercise to take advantage.
2. Exercise in the light of day.
UV rays increase your body's production of neurotransmitters, some of which can help dull discomfort. Back pain was reduced after just three 30-minute sessions of bright light therapy, a study in the journal Pain Medicine found, and the authors say you could get the same effect from natural outdoor light too. Other research shows that people who recuperated from surgery in sunny rooms took 21 percent fewer pain meds per hour than people in darker rooms. Sunlight may bump up your body's production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has been shown to block the pain pathways in the brain.
3. Sweat with friends.
Bringing a buddy to Spin class can blunt aches enough to make your workout more effective. (Add that to the list of reasons why having a fitness buddy is the best thing ever.) In one study conducted by Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, people who rowed with six teammates for 45 minutes were able to endure pain much longer than they could when rowing alone. We release more endorphins when we do synchronized activities, Dunbar says. Although scientists aren't sure why, it means you can work out longer and harder. "Even just talking to pals triggers the release of endorphins," Dunbar says. "The resulting opiate effect increases your pain threshold overall, so you won't be as sensitive to injuries, and makes you more resistant to illnesses too."
4. Increase intensity.
Exercise releases endorphins to relieve pain and boost mood-we know that. But the type of workout matters. (See: Why isn't weight lifting giving me the post-workout endorphin rush I crave?) "The best exercise for endorphin release is intense and/or prolonged activity," says Michele Olson, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of sport science at Huntingdon College in Alabama. "Do short, very intense bouts-sprints, plyos, running a one-mile PR-or fast cardio for longer than usual."
The exception: If you have achy legs or glutes, intense running or plyos make them hurt more. In that case, Olson recommends supermild exercise that targets the sore muscles. "Take a brisk walk or do light Spinning," she says. "You'll experience pain relief from the increased circulation, which brings oxygen and white blood cells to the areas to soothe them faster."
5. Drink a glass of wine.
If you like vino, we've got good news. Sip on some and you'll start pumping out endorphins and other natural opioid peptides, research from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute finds. Keep it moderate-about one or two drinks a day-to get the benefit, experts say. (Don't forget about the rest of these health benefits of wine.)
6. Sleep like a baby.
Not getting enough sleep can make a tough workout seem torturous. That's the verdict from researchers who asked people to submerge their hands in cold water for 106 seconds. Forty-two percent of those who identified themselves as problem sleepers took their hands out early, compared with 31 percent of the others. (Here are the best (and worst) sleeping positions for your health.) Scientists don't know why lack of z's increases pain sensitivity, but Taylor says it may have something to do with the fact that stress, anxiety, and depression rise when we're sleep deprived, and all those things can interfere with the opioid system.