Feel or Block the Pain: That is the Question?


Associative and dissociative attentional strategies for influencing performance have been researched for a numbers of years in the context of running. In particular the work ofMasters and Ogles (1998) highlighted that the idea of simply either focusing on or away from the pain was too simplistic. This concept was revisited by Heil and Podiog in a chapter on Pain and Performance in the Oxford Handbook of Sport and Performance Psychology (Murphy, 2012).


The authors claim pain management should be seen be seen as a skill set to be developed in the face of distractions such as pain perceptions and catastrophic worrying thereby engaging in informed decision making regarding the best course of action.


·      Association therefore refers to relevant performance cues such as pace, rate of perceived exertion, fatigue and pain.


·      Dissociation is the intentional use of distraction as a way of coping with the mental and physical demands of the sport including pain


Previous research has suggested that elite distance runners rely more heavily on associative techniques, constantly shifting attention to the demands of their running despite the pain. This has been challenged, suggesting that pain behaviour is subjective, varying by individual and therefore it follows that each person should devise different cognitive strategies to maximize performance.


Heil (1993) had previously identified a four dimensional strategy that addresses pain assessment, decision making, focusing and self-regulation.


1.    Associating to both pain and sport can be beneficial when pain signals proper technique. If, instead, you change movement patterns to avoid pain then possible compensatory injuries can result.


2.    Dissociating from both pain and sport during performance is problematic because focus is scarified for sake of pain management. Alternatively, this plan could be beneficial if applied during natural breaks from running as a way of gaining rest from pain or demands of sport.


3.    Dissociating from pain while associating to sports performance is appropriate when pain is understood as part of your training regime.


4.    Associating to pain and dissociating from sport is of value in the management of overuse and chronic injury. Because sport performance can fully absorb all your attentional resources, you may suppress your physical well being which ultimately will prove detrimental. Useful in breaks between activities to assess pain and to check against muscle guarding.


The above strategies should form part of your training regime dependent on your activities and injury / pain state. Simply blocking or focusing on your pain can be counterproductive therefore adapting a much more flexible approach with a greater understanding of what your body is trying to tell you will enable you to train harder and minimize the risk of injuries.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me  


Paul is currently training for his first 10k as part of the Brighton Marathon