mixed group in running race
Health and wellbeing, Memory, Sport and Exercise

Marathon runners forget how painful it was

It turns out most marathon runners forget just how painful it was the last time.

16 April 2015

By Christian Jarrett

The sense of accomplishment from running a marathon is hugely uplifting. But let’s not romanticise it, there’s also a lot of pain involved. Despite this, many people pull on their running shoes time and again. A new study helps make sense of their behaviour – it turns out most marathon runners forget just how painful it was the last time.

Przemyslaw Bąbel recruited 62 runners (39 men) who took part in the 11th Cracovia Marathon in Cracow, Poland in 2012. Moments after they crossed the finishing line, he asked them to complete a series of questionnaires about the intensity of the pain they were in, its unpleasantness, and the positive and negative emotions they were feeling. The key finding is that when he contacted them again, three or six months later, and asked them to recall how much pain they’d been in at the end of the marathon, most of them underestimated the pain they’d experienced, both in terms of its intensity and unpleasantness. For example, of those contacted six months later, they remembered the pain intensity as being around 3.2 on a 7-point scale, on average, whereas their actual average pain intensity rating after the marathon was 5.5.

Although the runners tended to underestimate their marathon pain, there was still a link between pain experienced and pain remembered – those who’d suffered more tended to remember the run as being more painful. Another key factor was negative emotion: those who reported feeling more emotions like distress and fear at the end of the marathon, tended to remember higher levels of pain and greater pain unpleasantness. This is consistent with what we know about pain experience having a powerful psychological component, influenced in part by context and a person’s emotions. Other recent research has shown that, looking back, women tend to overestimate the pain they experienced after gynaecological surgery far more than after giving birth by caesarian section, presumably because the birth by caesarian, like completing a marathon, is an emotionally positive experience, whereas the gynaecological surgery is not.

How we remember pain is a relatively understudied area, yet it has important real-life applications, such as people’s ability to report the effectiveness of pain relief treatments, which of course depends on recalling accurately their past pain. Bąbel said this is the first time anyone has studied the memory of pain in the context of exercise. Much remains to be investigated, such as the influence on pain memory of people’s goals, expectations and emotions prior to painful exercise.

Further reading

Bąbel, P. (2015). Memory of pain induced by physical exercise Memory, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1023809