Triathletes are truly exceptional people. What they can endure is way beyond the capacities of regular people and even many other athletes. A possible explanation for their amazing abilities is that triathletes have a much higher pain threshold than casual exercisers. It is yet to be determined whether triathletes do their sport because they do not feel pain as intensely or the other way round, but the answer to that question would be very helpful for the treatment of chronic pain sufferers.
The finding that triathletes feel less pain was made by researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU). Led by Professor Ruth Defrin, they conducted a study involving 19 triathletes and 17 casual exercisers. The triathletes were individuals who took part in at least two competitions every year, some of them even participating in the excruciatingly difficult Ironman Triathlon. The non-athlete group comprised individuals who did non-competitive exercises such as jogging, swimming or aerobics. The researchers subjected all study participants to a series of psycho-physical pain tests and also had them complete questionnaires about their attitudes to pain.
Summarising the findings of the study, Defrin said that triathletes rated pain as less intense than subjects in the control group, were able to tolerate it longer and had a greater ability to inhibit it. According to the TAU team, this is due to both physiological and psychological factors, which work together to make triathletes the exceptional performers they are.
It is still unclear whether their higher pain threshold makes triathletes do this sport or whether the sport itself and rigorous training lead to less pain. The TAU researchers plan to conduct further studies to determine if such intense training helps reduce pain and regulate it. Should that prove to be the case, it could advance efforts to treat chronic pain.