Study Indicates Triathletes Feel Less Pain Than Other Athletes
October 7, 2013

How Triathletes Are Able To Go The Distance

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

Triathletes can conquer long distances either on foot, in the water, or on a bike, but what helps these super-athletes endure more than most?

Researchers at Tel Aviv University discovered that triathletes actually feel less pain than the rest of us, helping them to go the distance.

"In our study, triathletes rated pain lower in intensity, tolerated it longer, and inhibited it better than individuals in a control group," Professor Ruth Defrin, who reported the team's findings in the journal Pain, said in a press release. "We think both physiological and psychological factors underlie these differences and help explain how triathletes are able to perform at such a high level."

Triathletes are people who have trained for and competed in at least two triathlons per year. These athletes are able to regularly push their bodies past the limits most people can. For example, in the Ironman Triathlon, triathletes compete in a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon run.

Researchers asked 19 triathletes and 17 non-athletes who did non-competitive exercises to participate in the study. All the participants were put through a battery of psycho-physical pain tests, involving the application of a heating device to one arm and the submersion of the other arm in cold-water bath. The volunteers were also asked to fill out questionnaires about their attitude towards pain.

The triathletes who participated in the study identified pain just as well as non-athletes, but they perceived it as less intense and were able to withstand it for longer. The team says that detecting pain is a relatively straightforward sensory experience, whereas evaluating pain and being willing and able to endure it involves attitude, motivation, and life experience.

Triathletes reported fearing and worrying less about pain, which could help to explain their higher tolerance. They also showed a better ability to inhibit pain than non-athletes.

The researchers say their study suggests that psychology and physiology together helps to enable triathletes to do what they do.

"It is very difficult to separate physiology and psychology," Professor Defrin said in the release. "But in general, experience is the sum of these factors."

Defrin and colleagues plan to do further research to determine whether triathletes participate in their sport because they feel less pain or feel less pain because they participate in their sport. If they find that intense training helps reduce and regulate pain, then it could be used to treat people with chronic pain.