The “pain cave” is an expression that’s used by athletes. It refers to the point in a workout or competition where the activity seems impossibly difficult. It’s mainly used to describe a physical and mental state, rather than an actual physical location.
“The pain cave is when you hit a metaphorical wall during intensive exercise,” explains Justin Fauci, NASM-certified personal trainer, and co-founder of Caliber Fitness. “Every part of your body is screaming at you to cease the exercise and your brain isn’t far behind. At this point, you can listen and give in or you choose to endure your time in the pain cave.”
In the athlete community, working through the pain cave is seen as a test of mental resilience. The idea is that pushing through physical discomfort is a mental skill. Additionally, once you beat the pain cave, it gets easier again.
But the “pain cave” isn’t a scientific term or phenomenon. There isn’t a definition that states when you’ve officially entered the pain cave. The pain cave also feels different for each person, so it’s best to listen to your body if you want to seek out the pain cave.
Some athletes purposely try to enter the pain cave. There are many possible reasons, including:
Mental and physical strength
A common motive is achieving a new level of mental and physical strength.
This looks different for different sports. For example, “when lifting weights [and] the set already has you close to failure, you may have to take yourself to a dark and scary territory to gain an extra rep on your squat,” Fauci says.
That “dark territory”—the pain cave—is when the squat feels physically impossible. But if you can power through, you will hit a new personal best.
Sense of reward
For some athletes, beating the pain cave is a rewarding experience.
“The people who are most apt at beating the cave tend to be those who genuinely find enjoyment in it,” Fauci says. “When you find a form of exercise that you love, whether it be CrossFit or hill sprints, you will find yourself going above and beyond to do well at it.”
Break up repetition
Some athletes might chase the pain cave to mix up their usual routine.
Because the pain cave feels so difficult, pushing through can feel like an exciting challenge. This could offer an escape from a training regimen that feels monotonous or repetitive.
If you’d like to beat your pain cave, consider these physical and mental tips:
Set a goal
Before starting your workout, get clear on your objectives. It’s also a good idea to understand what your “normal” looks like, so you have something in which to compare your pain cave.
“Set goals that are challenging but not unrealistic for the workout,” Fauci says. This will help you know what you are trying to achieve.
Take one step at a time
As you get closer to the pain cave, try not to think about the potential outcome. Concentrate on completing the next step or move instead. This will make the pain cave more manageable.
Focus on your environment
When you’re in the pain cave, avoid overthinking about your physical symptoms. According to Fauci, this could magnify the pain and exaggerate your discomfort.
Instead, try “focusing on [your] surroundings, such as the scenery or a running partner,” Fauci suggests. This can help you mentally detach from the pain and push past it.
Listen to music
Similarly, you can listen to music that fuels your motivation. For some athletes, this method helps them get in the zone and work through physical discomfort.
During a tough workout, it’s common to hold your breath without realizing it. But this can make it difficult for your body to power through.
That’s why it’s essential to breathe properly during exercise. It delivers oxygen to your muscles and helps your body stay in control. It also maximizes the efficiency of your workout.
You can get hurt if you push yourself too far. To avoid overexertion and injuries, keep the following precautions in mind:
Listen to your body
It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when you physically challenge yourself. However, there’s a difference between discomfort and serious physical pain.
If you’re not sure, ask yourself if what you’re feeling is uncomfortable or dangerous. Stop if you have:
- chest pain
- joint pain
- extreme fatigue
- sharp pain
This is your body trying to tell you that something is wrong.
“While mental toughness is a great attribute, don’t allow yourself to become stubborn and ignore warning signs,” Fauci says. It will help you avoid injury, regardless of your sport or fitness level.
Allow recovery time
When you overexert yourself, you increase the risk of injury. This can significantly hinder your progress.
To minimize the risk, “make sure you have adequate recovery time between sessions, plus extra if you are especially sore,” Fauci says. You can do this by incorporating exercise rest days into your routine.
Generally, taking a rest day every 3 to 5 days is appropriate. Your rest day can consist of light activity, like yoga or walking, or complete rest.
“Some people like to implement a deload week every 2 or 3 weeks,” adds Fauci. Typically, this is done when you’ve been pushing yourself so hard that performance decreases, suggesting that you’re close to overexertion. A deload week may include reduced exercise volume or taking off several days.
Practice correct technique
Proper technique is key for preventing injury. Therefore, it’s crucial to avoid sacrificing technique just to push yourself.
Make sure you know the correct form before seeking out the pain cave. A physical trainer or coach can provide guidance.
Follow a healthy lifestyle
Positive lifestyle habits are an essential component of any exercise routine. This includes:
- staying hydrated
- eating a healthy diet
- choosing the right pre-workout and post-workout meals
- getting enough sleep
These habits will support a safe and healthy training regimen.
During an intense workout, the “pain cave” is the point of physical and mental fatigue. It’s when the exercise feels impossible to finish. Some athletes purposely seek it out to reach a new personal best or feel a sense of reward.
In general, beating the pain cave is associated with mental resilience. But overexerting yourself can lead to injury, so it’s important to stay safe. Allow time for recovery and stop if you feel serious physical pain.