How to Treat Pain Without Painkillers
Learning to push through discomfort, and maybe even a little pain, is practically nonnegotiable for anyone who signs up for a race or commits to a tough training plan. Most athletes pop over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers before or during a race or game to help blunt tenderness, stiffness, and fatigue. “I’d say about 75 percent of endurance athletes across all sports take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) before and during competition,” says Jason Barker, founder and clinical consultant of the online Natural Athlete Clinic.
But rather than turn to things like aspirin and ibuprofen—which up your risk of acute kidney damage, oxidative stress, or hyponatremia while competing—try one of these all-natural ways to soothe soreness in the days leading up to your goal race or when that pain starts to creep in halfway through.
Derived from turmeric root, this powder targets a number of inflammatory molecules and enzymes, all of which can contribute to pain, Barker says. The powder’s ability to hit all these pathways at once is what makes it so effective. Studies have found that the herb helps minimize muscle breakdown, reduces stress and soreness in endurance cyclists, and alleviates pain and inflammation in those who suffer from arthritis.
Adding the spice to your meals won’t be strong enough, and curcumin alone is poorly absorbed, so look for a supplement with black pepper in the formula. Take 500 milligrams before and after exercise, kicking that up to 1,000 milligrams around race day or long training days.
Omega-3 fatty acids slow down the army of inflammation-causing chemicals in your body, which reduces discomfort and lessens swelling. Many studies report that omega-3s have comparable effects to NSAIDs, Barker says.
Skip the fish oil supplements. They typically contain omega-6 and omega-9 acids, which in surplus can create inflammation. Look for a pure omega-3 supplement in your pharmacy or natural foods store. Barker recommends 2,000 to 3,000 milligrams daily to limit pain and inflammation.
The science on how marijuana affects healthy, active adults is still in its infancy. But Jordan Tishler, a Harvard-trained holistic care doc and expert in medical applications of cannabis, says that “certainly it could be used to reduce, if not totally eliminate, the implementation of NSAIDs in training.” Legal cannabis may be useful after competition for the treatment of pain, because of its powerful anti-inflammatory effect, or during training (like ultramarathoner Jenn Shelton and triathlete Clifford Drusinsky do) to help you push a little further without focusing on the discomfort brought on by your workout, Tishler says.
Possible benefits aside, limit its use to the days around race day rather than during the race itself. While cannabis has been shown to let people train longer and harder, a new study review found that, for some athletes, THC could diminish strength and speed immediately after consumption.
How well do mental strategies work on pain? Research is unclear—some experts believe you may be able to marginally influence pain tolerance, while others have seen these strategies positively affect athletes in competitive races. What’s clear is that there’s certainly no harm in trying these techniques. “I believe that mental tools are powerful enough to help athletes deal with pain,” says Brooke Thompson, a sports psychologist at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina.
The experience of pain is largely a psychological one, she says. While there’s a level of inherent physiological discomfort that comes with any type of hard effort, every person’s mind deals with that pain uniquely. You can theoretically train your brain to relate to pain differently so that it weakens the physical sensation.
Suffer More So You Can Build Tolerance
Being caught off-guard by discomfort is public enemy number one. Not only does it cause alarm, but it may also elevate your pain experience by throwing your nervous system into overdrive and triggering rapid breathing and increased heart rate, Thompson says. To avoid that, prepare your body for what to expect. “Athletes can expose themselves to increasingly stronger pain stimuli to build up a tolerance,” she says. Train on terrain, at elevation, and in conditions that match or even exceed race day as much as possible to acclimate your brain to suffering. As you do that, your body will begin to build a greater pain threshold and anticipate when standard discomfort might roll around—like in your quads at mile 12 or in your bad knee after a few hills.
Stay Mindful, Then Positive
Don’t ignore what your body tells you in the middle of a tough effort. Acknowledge the feelings—good or bad—but stay objective about what they really mean. There’s pain—a warning sign that injury is on the horizon—and there’s discomfort—normal, expected, and controllable whenever you ask your body to push its own limits. “Most successful athletes don’t hold on to their thoughts; they realize the mind is irrational, and they know they’ll feel better soon and that they’ve pushed through this before in their training,” Thompson says.
Once we do acknowledge the pain, how we describe it can have tremendous consequence on our performance. “Our thoughts directly influence our bodily functions,” Thompson says. “Research shows positive thoughts help reduce pain and increase pain tolerance, while negative thoughts can lead to pain catastrophizing—that’s thinking the pain will never go away—which is related to increased pain experiences.”
“Deep breathing can help alleviate pain sensations, because it helps relax the body and increases blood flow and oxygen to your muscles,” Thompson says. Try an equal ratio of inhalation and exhalation of slow, diaphragmatic breaths.