No Pain, No Gain

This has been yelled at us by motivational and keynote speakers, thrown at us by personal trainers, explained to us by life coaches and wellness practitioners, sold to us by investment bankers and probably chanted by tomorrow’s future champions.

Supposedly the term was made popular by Benjamin Franklin in his ‘Way to Wealth’ publication and business adapted it to mean investing time, effort or finances into something now for rewards later. At work following the ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra might mean working harder (though not necessarily smarter). The pain is you’ll have longer hours, no weekends and plenty of stress and the gain is good results, earning your bonus and making that promotion. Who knows though, maybe with a little bit of wisdom, better planning and some business training you could do the same thing and take less toll on your stress levels and physical health.

Health and Wellness

I like the 'no pain, no gain' motivational quote for its more common reference to health and wellness because I am an ultra-runner. In training it means pushing yourself to the limits or the boundaries. That is what is needed to get fitter, stronger, better. It does hurt to extend ourselves. To get fit requires improving your current self. It doesn't happen by remaining idle, it doesn't necessarily happen through too much pain either and this is where the controversy of the ‘no pain, no gain’ attitude starts. We need to find a balance and this takes time and experience.

No Pain, No Gain: the Positives and the Negatives

Unfortunately thinking you have to be in pain during or after a workout is a common misconception and barrier preventing a lot of people from starting out.  “Even for a professional athlete,” said Carl Lewis in his diary ‘One More Victory Lap’, “I don’t buy into the theory of push, push, push, push until you drop. You need to be smarter than that or else you are not going to be around very long. …working out should be something to enjoy, not something that hurts.” Lewis has a point, but with catch cries like ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘feel the burn’ the fitness industry, coaches, and athletes are at times guilty of over emphasising the necessity of pain. If you are a beginner and didn't know any better you would think exercise was a form a torture, not something that makes you feel better about yourself.

There is no denying it though, my chosen sport of ultra-running can be painful, big time.  Same goes for the shorter stuff. I went to the local running club last night and the coach gave us ten by 400 metre sprints. It was uncomfortable, my lungs were burning and my legs were hurting, but I know it was adding to my fitness and strengthening my body, not hindering it. Being uncomfortable or experiencing a certain type of pain often comes from the body’s lethargy or the minds unwillingness, then it is worth the effort to keep pushing and enjoy the health benefits. It’s probably the type of pain Muhammed Ali famously talked about. “I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting,” he said. “When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, because that’s when it really counts.”

It is when you teeter on or tip over the no pain, no gain edge that the problems start and the gains finish. The pain turns into a more permanent hurt. Ailments, injury or damage follow and that’s the end of becoming fitter, stronger and better. In ultra-running pain can be a warning sign of an injury, then you have to sensibly back off and change your gait, shoes, speed or training methods. You find a solution and do whatever it takes to keep moving without causing further problems. We have to listen to our bodies and learn what needs to be noticed and what needs to be ignored.  All this comes with experience. If you are starting out in any fitness endeavor begin gradually, train lightly and take it easy. You’re much more likely to come back for more.

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Grahak Cunningham is a Business Motivational Speaker  and four time finisher of the world’s longest race, the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. He has times ranging from 50 days to 43 days. He is also author of ‘Running Beyond the Marathon: insights into the longest footrace in the world which is available from


© 2012 Grahak Cunningham all rights reserved