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Pushing yourself to the max: 3 reasons why pain can be rewarding

We run or hike for hours even though we know the quest will make us suffer. Can pain be rewarding when it comes to physical activity?
/ Source: TODAY

When it comes to exercise, you know the drill: Heart pumping, muscles aching, mind racing — all you want is for this workout to end.

Yet many of us seek out more: We run for hours in a marathon or hike all day to reach the top of the mountain even though we know the quest will make us suffer.

Can pain be rewarding when it comes to physical activity? Experts say yes and in a number of ways.

There are chemical and psychological reasons why pain can be rewarding during physical activity.Shutterstock

First, it’s important to remember we’re talking about the discomfort of exertion rather than injury pain or chest pain, which you should never ignore.

This is more about pushing yourself to the limits, the way Pippa Middleton did recently when she completed a grueling and cold 47-mile swim/run, which she called “one of the hardest things I've done.” Why go through that torture?

Pippa Middleton celebrates her 32nd birthday by taking part in the Otillio 2015 Swim-Run Championship in Stockholm, Sweden, on September 7.FAMEFLYNET

For many people, the appeal is the challenge, and the pain is a reminder that they’re accomplishing what they set out to do, said Nicole Detling, a sport psychologist who has worked with Olympic and professional athletes.

“Physiologically, yes, we all want to be comfortable, but mentally some people just want to push themselves further and they know that they’re never going to achieve anything great if they stay in that comfort zone,” Detling, an assistant professor at the University of Utah, told TODAY.

“They’re able to accept, recognize and embrace the pain, in a way. They say ‘Hey, this is what it’s going to take to get there, and I want to get there more than I want to avoid the pain.’”

Read more: How to be mentally tough in your life: 4 lessons from sports psychologists

Here are three ways pain can be rewarding when you’re on the move:

1. Your body releases feel-good chemicals

There’s a powerful biological reason why you may feel serenity or bliss after a bout of heavy exercise — a natural high that can be somewhat addictive.

Your brain has reward mechanisms that are activated when you’re faced with an intense physical challenge, said Leah Lagos, a sports psychologist in New York.

A rush of adrenaline triggers the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical that can act as a natural pain killer, she noted.

“It can create an almost euphoric sense of accomplishment and a lot of these people are after this feeling that occurs after the intensity of exercise,” Lagos said.

Once you experience it, you’ll likely chase it again.

“Part of it is that challenge of ‘How far can I push myself?’ And then the other part is, ‘Man, that’s an amazing feeling, I’ve never felt that euphoric in my life and I want to continue to try to strive for that,’” Detling noted.

2. You attach a positive meaning to pain

If you’re taking part in a high-endurance sport, you may view the pain as a reflection of your dedication, self-control and your ferocity to overcome a challenge, Lagos said. It is a chosen or self-inflicted form of pain and, therefore, is perceived as "good pain,” she added.

It’s also a reminder that you’re doing hard work. Detling tells her students that when the Olympics are over, people don’t remember athletes who just won a medal anymore — they have to have done something extraordinary or won multiple medals. With those kinds of standards, competitors have to be able to push themselves above and beyond, she noted.

3. Pain can become a marker of identity

You may enjoy the fact that you become part of an exclusive club if you’re able to push through the discomfort and keep up with others during a physical challenge.

“The pain becomes a sensation that conveys a sense of achievement,” Lagos noted.

“It’s not every person who walks down the street who has the focus, drive and talent to participate in these endurance sports… (it’s) a badge of honor. It’s an earned respect.”

It can also boost your interpersonal connections. When we struggle in life, we often times form the deepest friendships, Lagos said. The same thing can happen in sports when we’re overcoming a challenge with a team mate or a group: You begin to create deeper, more lasting bonds, she added.

Don’t ignore the warning signs

If you choose to push yourself, know when to stop. Ask yourself: Is this an exertion pain or is there something mechanically wrong with my body right now?

Read more: Avoid these painful exercise-related injuries

Don’t ignore an injury or red flag such as chest pain, shortness of breath, an irregular heartbeat, nausea or lightheadedness.

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