Runners have all kinds of painful marathon tales: limping their way through the last few miles, fighting through unforgiving cramps, chafing disasters. Yet, we return to toe the starting line again and again. The agony of bad running experiences often aren’t enough to keep us off the road.
As it turns out, that could have to do with the way the brain remembers pain associated with endurance events. Take a study of 62 marathon runners published in the journal Memory, for example. It found that marathon runners underestimated their pain one week, one month, three months, and six months post-race.
“Although marathon running was found to be painful, it is an emotionally positive experience, especially for those participants who completed the run,” says Przemysław Bąbel, Ph.D., the study’s author.
It’s worth noting that Bąbel only studied people who completed the marathon—a group that would have likely experienced more positive emotions than those who didn’t cross the finish line.
But runners also tend to understand and experience pain more than the average human. “It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re completing an endurance challenge, you will experience pain and discomfort during training and the event itself,” says Tracey Devonport, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton in England. “This is a function of performing at the highest intensity we perceive ourselves capable of, and undertaking repetition of movement over a prolonged period.”
Because of this, athletes learn not only to associate some kinds of normal pain with their training, but they also grow to distinguish between the pain that reflects working at your max and the pain that could signal injury, she explains. This helps you push through the normal soreness and discomfort of double digit-mile runs and tweak training plans to address more concerning issues like a muscle strain.
But underestimating the pain of a race is also a function of the way memory works. We tend to recall the highlights of events—not every little nitty gritty detail, explains Davenport. You might remember the start, the end, and spotting friends in the crowd at a certain distance marker, for example. “These notable incidents tend to be episodic—so, events, as opposed to sensations,” she explains.
Even more: Pleasant emotion—your sense of accomplishment, self-satisfaction, or pride—can blunt your memory of the tough stuff, she says. It’s evolutionary, Davenport adds. “If a painful activity produces outcomes of value, positive emotions result, and these emotions seem to help ensure that pain does not prevent us from doing it again.”
To help engrain a hard race as a more positive experience in your mind, while running, focus on what you’ve already achieved rather than how much effort you still need to put in, suggests Bąbel. “See your pain as a harbinger of completing a marathon rather than the effect of running.”
Then, post-race, try to hone in on the good parts. Running Boston in high winds, near freezing temps, and pouring rain might have felt like some kind of hell at times, but maybe you maintained a good pacing strategy or practiced your mental strength techniques. Identifying these positives (versus complaining about your aching quads) will go a long way.
A version of this article appeared on runnersworld.com.