A new study published in the journal PAIN finds that triathletes feel less pain than casual exercisers.
Triathletes train and compete in a gruelling mix of three endurance sports and push themselves beyond what most of us can endure.
However, little is known about what gives them these abilities but a possible explanation has been put forward by two physical therapy researchers at Tel Aviv University who recruited 19 triathletes and 17 non-athletes for their study.
The triathletes were at a level where they trained for two or more triathlons per year, including the Ironman triathlon, a notoriously tough challenge where contestants swim for 2.4 miles, then cycle 112 miles and then run a 26.2 mile marathon, without a break.
The non-athletes did non-competitive exercises at a lower level, such as swimming, jogging and aerobics.
Both groups underwent psychophysical pain tests that measured, among other things, pain threshold, pain tolerance and pain intensity.
The results showed that the triathletes and non-athletes identified pain to the same extent, but the athletes perceived it as less intense and could withstand it for longer.
Moreover, as well as showing higher pain tolerance, the triathletes also rated pain as less painful and had lower fear of pain values.
Additionally, triathletes had much higher CPM and the higher this was, the lower their fear of pain and perceived mental stress during training.
The results suggest that triathletes exhibit greater pain tolerance and more efficient pain modulation than controls, which may underlie their perseverance in extreme physical efforts and pain during training/competitions.
This capability may be enhanced or mediated by psychological factors, enabling better coping with fear of pain and mental stress.
They explain that detecting pain is just a straightforward sensory process, but then a number of factors are involved in evaluating the pain. These include an attitude to pain, motivation and life experience.
They found that compared with the non-athletes, the triathletes reported worrying about and fearing pain to a much lesser extent, and this could explain their higher tolerance.