As a middle-aged former athlete, I live in the frustrating limbo of still being technically able to perform the sports and activities I want while also being stymied by pain. Things hurt. Every day. Good weeks, it’s the same pain each day; most weeks, it’s something new and multiple things each time I exercise. I’m trying very hard to recall my lessons from swimming to help me get through this.
While coaching teenagers, I spent a lot of time talking about the difference between pain and discomfort. Pain is severe, and means injury, and injury prohibits going forward until healing takes place. Discomfort, on the other hand, is a byproduct of hard work, and moving through discomfort is a mental discipline as much as a physical one. The ability to bear discomfort and move through it means one will ultimately be stronger. In athletics, discomfort is a step in the process of growth and improvement, while injury is a show stopper.
Learning to sort pain from discomfort is a skill, and when one is young and strong, most of what is felt is discomfort. It is the tiredness, fatigue, and achiness of pushing your body to its limits, over and over again, in the hopes of getting stronger. When one is young, the body responds easily to this push, and gets stronger quickly, repairing itself rapidly, ready to face another practice, and another challenge.
There is a different combination of pain and discomfort when one is older. There is still the achiness and fatigue, which takes longer to subside and longer to recover from. There is the pain of aging joints and muscles, twinging and zinging as we move, disrupting our workout flow. There is also the discomfort of the self-doubt which creeps in with every tight muscle, every sore knee, every white hot nerve. Things that never used to be a problem zing and hurt with every streamline, every push, every kick…and suddenly the battle I’m fighting isn’t physical anymore. My “demon” isn’t the 5000 yard workout my coach just set in front of me….it is the fear and insecurity that has crept in with each workout I’ve missed due to pain. It is the unsettling realization that my body is different, that I don’t know it and can’t count on it the way I used to. It is the trust I’ve lost and the panic I’ve gained over muscles and joints that no longer respond the way I want them to, the way they did for so many years.
If I were my own coach, standing outside myself, what advice would I give?
I would say this: What you’re feeling is a normal and natural part of where you are in life right now, and the first part of defeating the mental discomfort is to accept that the fear and insecurity and frustration are a normal step in the process. Before you can move forward, you have to realistically accept where you are starting from. This “new normal” is now just normal…it is what it is, for now. Then you have to set goals: where do you want to be in a year? What are the milestones along the way, at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months? What do you need to do each week to make each milestone? And what are the self-care techniques, both physical and mental, that will help you stay on course each week?
It sounds so simple when I say it as though I’m talking to someone else. Although I’ve been talking primarily about the pain and discomfort that accompany physical challenges, I think this applies across the board. Accept where you are. Think about where you want to be. Set goals, and stair steps to getting there. Take care of yourself along the way.
Swimming really DOES have all my answers.