The Four Pain Rules to Guide Athletes’ Training

Activity and training is all about the right dose to optimize performance while preserving health. These four questions or "pain rules" will help you find that balance.

The emphasis on training, performance, and fitness is at an all-time high, with millions looking to capitalize on training fads and going to social media for new workouts. However, have you ever found yourself in one of the following scenarios?

“How is my body still sore and achy? It’s been two days since my last session. Should I just push through?”


“Man my <insert body part here> hurts after that exercise. Should I stop, keep the same dosage, or keep progressing?”

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As an athlete, coach, trainer, or weekend warrior, the answer to these questions will ultimately decide your, your clients’, or your team’s short-, medium-, and long-term health and performance.

The reality is pain and discomfort after activity is inherent and natural. Yes, pain is a warning sign of danger from our brain to our body, but that depends on the extent, duration, and type of pain. In other words, it exists on a spectrum.

pain rules

This type of grey area can be scary but that’s what I’m here to clear up for you. Here are the three parameters or guidelines to help you decide whether you’re doing too much or if it’s fine to proceed.

1) Is the pain/discomfort level lower than a 4-10?

As the you saw in the image above, the pain scale is a subjective measure with 1 meaning no pain and 10 meaning completely debilitating, cannot function, curled-up-in-the-fetal-position pain.

When it comes to training, it’s okay to have some pain and discomfort afterwards. It’s expected because a good training regimen is progressively overloading your body, which results in some discomfort. That’s the only way to make your body stronger. No pain, no gain.

What’s critical to note is the severity of that pain or discomfort. If it’s lower than moderate (4 out of 10), your training and activity level is appropriate.

2) What type of pain/discomfort is it?

In addition to the severity, the type of pain/discomfort is just as important. If you’re feeling a dull or minor ache, that’s okay. If that pain is ever sharp, electrical, or radiating, STOP. Those three types of pain can indicate a more serious issue than natural training aches.

3) Does the pain last less than 36 hours after your training session?

The third criteria is the duration of pain or discomfort. The body naturally needs time to recover from training, especially if you’re increasing intensity and/or repetitions. But there are limits to how long that process and the accompanying discomfort should last.

That limit for mild-to-moderate discomfort is roughly 36 hours—not days on end. If you’re still feeling your last training session for more than 36 hours, you likely overdid it and your current plan is an inappropriate intensity and/or quantity for your current level. If you continue down that path, you’re setting yourself up for overtraining and significantly higher risk for injury.

4) What’s the overall trendline?

If the discomfort level is gradually increasing, or the duration of the discomfort is gradually increasing, that’s something with which to concern yourself. These are potential signs that you’re moving toward a tipping point for injury risk and overloading your body beyond its current capacity.

pain rules

However, if that discomfort level and duration is holding steady or decreasing then you’re headed in the right direction. Discomfort commonly decreases as you acclimate to the rigors of new training and then gradually increase intensity. If discomfort does persist, go back to rule one. Is it still 4-10 or lower? Yes? Then proceed.


If the answer to these four questions is:

“Yes, my pain/discomfort level is four or less.”

“Yes, my pain/discomfort is only characterized as dull and/or achy.”

“Yes, my pain/discomfort lasts less than 36 hours.”

“Yes, the pain/discomfort trend is holding steady or decreasing.”

Then your training intensity and quantity is appropriate and should continue on your current training plan, reassessing after each session.

If your answer to any of those four questions is a “no,” then you’re likely overdoing it and headed down the path of “too much, too soon,” which is one of the most common causes of injuries, lost time, lost health, and lost performance.

Inappropriate training type, quantity, intensity, and progressions keep a lot of medical providers in business, so focus on (or work with someone) creating a plan that builds a solid foundation for movement and strength first, and then progressively increases in quantity and intensity.

We all want to jump headfirst into fitness, but many just end up jumping back out because they get injured due to poor planning and not understanding what their mind and body can and can’t take in its current state.

I ask these questions to each and every client to assess where they stand on their current training plan. These four questions serve as four anchor points to assess and gauge you, your clients’, or your team’s response to activity and gauge whether you should maintain what you’re doing, increase, or back off. That simple triage will unlock health while optimizing performance.

Dr. Rajpal Brar
Dr. Rajpal Brar
Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a writer for Grandstand Central with a background in coaching, business, and strategy. He’s the founder of his own sports blog/resource TheInjuryInsight and also writes for SilverScreenandRoll, ThisIsAnfield, and TheDoctorWeighsIn. He’s the owner of 3CB Performance, a wellness and athletic development/performance clinic in West Los Angeles & Valencia, CA.


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