Why You'll Race Again, Even Though It Hurts

Pain fades, but glory is forever. Or at least until your next competition.

Many an endurance athlete has vowed to quit at one finish line only to return to another, sometimes more difficult, competition soon after. A new study helps explain why. (vernonwiley/iStock)
Photo: vernonwiley/iStock runner

“I’m never doing this again!” That’s the single most common lie endurance athletes tell, often at finish lines all over the world.  Yet somehow, without fail, we find ourselves signing up for similar, if not more challenging, races just a few months later. Are we gluttons for pain, or do we just forget it pretty quickly? Turns out endurance athletes have what amounts to a serious case of amnesia.

In a new study published in the journal Memory, “Memory of Pain Induced by Physical Exercise,” researchers asked 62 runners who participated in Poland’s Cracovia Marathon to rate their pain immediately after the race, and then rate the intensity of and unpleasantness of that race either three or six months later. After the race, runners rated their pain, on average, at 5.5 on a seven-point scale.  But when the same runners were asked to rate their pain again just a few months later, ratings plummeted by 42 percent, to an average of 3.2.

“The end, which in-part dominates an already distorted pain assessment, likely loses some of its effect after delay,” says University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Gal Zauberman, who studies memory and choice. In other words, in the case of the marathon, our perception of pain becomes even more underrated over time. 

The disconnect between how truly painful it was, and how we remember it likely lies in what Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman describes as the difference between our “experiencing self” and “remembering self.” In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes that the experiencing self answers the question, “Does it hurt now?” whereas the remembering self answers the question, “How was it, on the whole?”

So at the finish line of a marathon, our experiencing self is thinking: Holy crap, that was just 26.2 miles of grinding pain, no way I do this again. However, as time passes, our remembering self recalls something quite different: It was a pretty steady effort, the pain was never that bad at any single point, and boy did it feel great coming across the finish line and celebrating after.

According to Kahneman, while the experiencing self is quite accurate when it comes to gauging pain in the present, the remembering self significantly distorts reality.  In particular, Kahneman writes that the “memory of pain has nothing to do with the total pain actually experienced.” Instead, it’s determined by the average level of pain at two points of the pain-inducing event: the worst moment, and the end. Kahneman calls this warped outlook we get looking back the “peak-end rule.”

That distorted sense of pain differs depending on the race distance; the marathon’s popularity actually has more to do with the peak-end rule than that of, say, the mile. Racing a single mile hurts like hell the entire time and is especially painful as runners kick down the finishing stretch. Racing 26.2 miles, on the other hand, is a continual grind where pain is never excessively high.

But either way, we race on. In the words of Zauberman, when it comes to these sorts of endeavors, “The accomplishment and sense of meaning simply overwhelm the negative memory of the pain.” 

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