Marathon Runners May Actually Forget How Much Pain They're In, Says Study, Depending On How Much They Enjoy The Race

If you've ever run a long distance like a marathon, you know how much pain it can leave you in afterwards. If you're wondering why marathon runners continue to run despite the pain, a new study from Poland may point to the answer, as marathon runners may develop selective amnesia, literally forgetting the pain they were in. But, just how much you forget the pain may depend on how much you enjoyed the race.

This study is really looking at how our emotions change our perceptions of our physical pain. There's a wealth of research that has found that how we feel as we are in pain has a huge influence on our view of how... well, painful that pain is. It also has an impact on how we remember that pain. So, if you broke your leg while you were skydiving but had a blast doing it, you'll probably remember the pain as less severe than if you fell off the ledge of a building and were scared out of your mind.

Here's a little more context: The New York Times references a study conducted early in the year that looked at how women who had undergone gynecological surgery or given birth recalled the extent of their pain. What they found was the women who had surgery when asked months later how bad the pain they experienced was overestimated the effects, while those who had given birth underestimated them. Thus, the researchers concluded that how we remember pain is linked to our emotional experience of it.

This Polish study looked specifically at exercise pain, which hasn't been researched with emotional context. The study featured 62 marathon runners, and was conducted in two phases. First, immediately after each runner had finished a race, they were asked to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain they were currently feeling, as well as what emotions they were currently feeling. For phase two, the researchers followed up with the runners either three or six months after the race and asked them to rate the same pain factors based on their memory.

What they found was that the runners underestimated the intensity and unpleasantness of their pain, regardless of if they were followed up with three or six months later. Numerically, the average runner had rated their pain as a 5.5 on a one to 10 scale and in their recall had rated it as a three. Also, those who reported feeling less happy after completing the race generally remembered their pain more accurately than those who reported being in a positive emotional state. "It is concluded that pain induced by physical exercise is not remembered accurately and the pain and negative affect experienced influence recall," the study authors wrote in their report.

The study was small, though, and didn't control for factors like age and running experience, which would be necessary in order to further understand the emotional and physical pain connection. Przemyslaw Babel, professor of psychology at the University of Krakow and one of the studies authors, said that this does provide an explanation as to why people continue to run in marathons when they cause them a lot of pain. If you want to use this study to your own advantage in exercise, try working out when you're in a good mood or by doing activities that you really enjoy.

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