Pain Cave Guide

The pain cave is a metaphorical place in a workout or competition where you simply don’t feel like you can’t push through. Only experienced trainees can push hard enough to reach this state.

It’s much more than a burn in your muscles and lungs. It’s overreaching and going further than you thought was possible, allowing maximal fitness gains.

What Is The Pain Cave?

The pain cave isn’t a technical term. It came about from long-distance runners and was adopted by CrossFit athletes. Now it applies to all intense exercises regardless of the modality.

For example, when running long distance, you may hit a wall where your legs feel like gelatin and your lungs are burning beyond normal recovery. Nausea and vomited are also known to happen in the pain cave.

Personally, one of my role models David Goggins is a master of the Pain Cave, I highly recommend the video below!

Instead of stopping like a normal person pushing through this agony is when you enter the pain cave. While the term isn’t scientific, it seems to link up with overreaching quite well.

Overreaching is a technical term where intensity, volume, and/or frequency raise so high that your body can no longer recover as usual.

It takes longer than usual to recover from periods of overreaching. There is also a fine line between overreaching and overtraining. So, why would you want to enter the pain cave?

What Are The Benefits?

Training in the pain cave using a periodized training plan can be useful. This process is also known as functional overreaching.

Functional overreaching causes an initial decline in performance, workout recovery, and your immune system. But, once you deload properly, your body does something awesome called super-compensation.

Running Hard

This creates a huge gain in fitness levels in a short period in response to significant training stress that you encountered in the pain cave. This is seen in a study done this year.

The trainee has to be sure to do it the right way to avoid nonfunctional overreaching, which is simply known as overtraining. This can cause long term health issues or injuries and isn’t worth the effort you put into this style of dead-end training.

Used sparingly, the pain cave is the place where you will maximize your fitness gains.

How To Get, And Stay, In The Pain Cave

On a workout basis, reaching the pain cave can be relatively easy for advanced training. Instead of stopping when your body and mind are telling you to, you keep going. Beginners trainees probably can’t reach the pain cave, which is a good thing.

Remember, it’s strategic and sparing use is what makes it beneficial for trainees and athletes. It’s not something you should be doing every single week!

When using the pain cave and functional overreaching as part of a periodization training program, you need to enter it almost every training session for 1-4 weeks.

Your performance will decline during this phase. You are going to be extremely tired and sore. You may get sick since your immune system won’t be functioning optimally. Your hormone levels will even fall out of whack with Cortisol shooting up and Testosterone and Growth Hormone dropping.

Finishing Marathon

But, you follow this period with a deloading taper where your exercise is very low in volume and intensity.

For a week or two, your fitness levels skyrocket. Your recovery improves. Your hormones flip flop with Cortisol dropping and Testosterone and Growth Hormone boosting much higher than normal.

Following this taper period is typically a competition or a race. That time spent in the pain cave will be rewarded with better physical fitness that will reveal itself in a competition!

Mindset Tips

First of all, you have to make sure you can handle entering the pain cave to reap the benefits. Your mind will want to give up before your body needs to for most trainees that are inexperienced in this.

Pain Cave Running Mindset 1

Setting specific goals that are achievable leads to better fitness performance, as shown in this study. You won’t reach the pain cave and push through unless your goal is to do so!

Some other good tactics are:

  • Listen to music that pumps you up. It shouldn’t be your same playlist as fresher music works better typically which also boots your workout motivation.
  • Create a scenario in your head that if you don’t push through, something bad will happen. (losing your job, have your possessions stole, etc., imagine something drastic).
  • Use supplements that are proven to work for performance.
  • Train or run with a partner that has similar goals.

Making The Pain Cave Safe

Overtraining is a serious condition that can have lasting detrimental effects on your health and fitness levels. That’s why the pain cave and overreaching, in general, have received a bad wrap from some experts.

Making overreaching safe is the number one priority. Working with an experienced trainer in your sport of choice is a good idea. It is usually the quickest path to a functional overreaching program that will produce results.

Exhausted Runner

In the absence of that, you can experiment on yourself. Aim to find out the right volume and duration of overreaching that makes your fitness levels skyrocket.

Like I mentioned before, overreaching shouldn’t be done often. So,  this process may take a year before you can find how much training in the pain cave is optimal for you.

Experimenting With The Pain Cave

Test your fitness levels at the desired race or competition length. For example, if you want to run a faster 25k, you need your base time recorded.

To start with, use a small period of overreaching that ramps up throughout. 2-3 weeks is typically good. A sign that you are reaching the right amount of work is that your performance will steadily decline and your recovery gets less efficient as well.

Follow that period with a 2-week taper with low volume and intensity training a couple of days per week. It should feel too easy by the end.

Test your fitness levels again with the same test as before you started overreaching.

If your performance has drastically improved, you’ve done a great job. If it got worse, you may have overtrained. You’ll know by your general wellbeing as well. Overtrained individuals are tired, sore, sick, and feeling terrible. If your performance stayed the same or barely improved, you didn’t overreach well enough.

Girl Running In The Distance

Once you have done a cycle of those it’s important to give yourself ample time before doing it again. 2-3 months is usually the minimum between overreaching periods, while elite athletes may only do it once or twice a year.

Next time you do it, you have the data to know whether you should increase the volume and intensity or lower it for better performance gains in the end.

Over time, you will have a program dialed in to become elite at your sport!

Enter The Pain Cave!

Used correctly, the pain cave will improve fitness levels over time. I cannot stress the “used correctly” part enough, however. For optimal training results, it should only be used 2-3 times a year. Any more and you risk overtraining, which brings nothing but lost fitness and impaired health.

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