The 5 Stages of “Aging Athlete” Pain


There is A TON of research surround pain science and the psychology of pain. Finally, research is catching up with what most of us have known for a long time: pain affects the mind, will and emotions. It infiltrates every area of life and even rewires our brain. I don’t pretend to be an expert on pain, neurology or psychology. What I am qualified to discuss is the anecdotal evidence collected during my years of personal training, corrective exercise coaching and massage therapy.

Pain affects different people in different ways. In this post, we’ll focus on the way pain affects the active active, otherwise healthy, 40-60 year old. This person was a high school or college athlete who evolved into a middle-aged weekend warrior. They’re reasonably fit and exceptionally driven. We’ll call this person Aging Athlete.

Aging Athlete can distinguish between “good hurt” and injury. They know how to push themselves past the comfort zone. They trust their body to work and recover because it always has.

...until injury, or overuse results in the kind of pain you can’t push through; the kind that limits range of motion. The kind of pain that takes time to heal.

In my experience, Aging Athlete struggles the most with reduced range of motion and the inability to move well. It’s not the pain that bothers them; it’s the waiting. Aging Athlete has never had to wait for their body to respond. They are used to willing their body to work. Over and over, I’ve witnessed Aging Athlete struggle with the emotional battle of waiting. I literally watch them go through the five stages of grief.

It goes a lot like this:

Stage 1 - Denial “I’m fine. I just need some ice; maybe a day off.”

Stage 2 - Anger “What the heck? I’ve iced, rested, stretched, foam-rolled, saw the chiropractor, got a massage, sat in the sauna, ate a bunch of turmeric, anointed myself with essential oils and even took that one muscle relaxer I saved from my ankle sprain six years ago. WHY DO I STILL HURT?” (By the way, I don’t advocate taking random prescription drugs for undiagnosed conditions.)

Stage 3 - Bargaining“Ok PT/chiropractor/massage therapist/personal trainer….I’ll go to yoga….but only if you promise it will help.”

Stage 4 - Depression “That’s it. I’m done. I suppose I was on borrowed time. I mean, come on, I’m 48. How long did I really think I’d be able to keep this up. My best is behind me. All I have now are memories. I might as well eat a bunch of crap and binge-watch Netflix." Take my advice Active Client: Stage 4 is inevitable. How long you stay there depends your willingness to dig deep one more time. Stage 4 is when you’re running on empty and your body is saying “no more.” It's also the time to remember who you are. It’s five-seconds on the clock. It’s one more lap. It’s one more rep. Stage 4 is when you dig down, find that switch and flip it one more time.

You know the switch. It’s the one that lets everything fade into the background until it’s just you, your body and the task at hand.

Welcome to Stage 5 - Acceptance You’ve let go of the past and what you used to be able to do. You’re willing to let your body recover and revisit the basics of movement, strength and mobility.

Maybe you’ll return to all your previous activity, maybe you won’t. When you approach your life from Stage 5, it won’t matter because the ability to will yourself into action is immune to circumstance, injury or age. And THAT is a prize worth fighting for.

Is there a switch YOU need to flip?

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