What It Really Means When Athletes Enter A 'Pain Cave'

If you've ever done a hard high-intensity workout and hit your mental and physical limit partway through, you know what it feels like to be in the pain cave. Your muscles are on fire and aching, your lungs feel like they might burst, and your vision might even start to blur. As Breaking Muscle explains it, you enter the pain cave the moment when you question whether or not you'll be able to finish a workout. 

Pushing through pain cave moments is how an athlete makes big mental and physical strides in their training, so while it might seem like a negative, entering this state of mind is actually not a bad thing in most cases. There isn't a specific heart rate or weight that you have to lift to be in the pain cave: The threshold is different for everyone, but the feeling is universal. "Every part of your body is screaming at you to cease the exercise and your brain isn't far behind," Justin Fauci, NASM-certified personal trainer, told Healthline. "At this point, you can listen and give in or you choose to endure your time in the pain cave." 

You may struggle to get to this point if you're new to working out. "It takes a certain level of mental fortitude to get to this point," personal trainer Danny Omokha told Well + Good. "For most beginner lifters or athletes, they might not be able to work at a high enough intensity to get to the pain cave. The more experienced you are, the easier it will get to attain this level of intensity."

Can the pain cave be a bad thing?

Like most things when it comes to exercise, you can easily overdo it, and too much time spent in the pain cave is a bad thing. You don't want to push so hard that you need several days to recover between workouts, and the feeling of being in the pain cave shouldn't be about pushing yourself harder in order to ignore other emotional problems in your life. If you're getting over a breakup, for example, it may be tempting to hit the CrossFit gym twice a day to lose yourself in the pain cave sensation, but doing that may be your way of not dealing with your feelings of grief. If you find yourself purposely pushing to the point of pain in every workout, it's time to back off and add some low-intensity or rest days into your routine

One final note: For some endurance athletes, like cyclists and runners, you may hear them refer to "my pain cave." They aren't talking about their legs during a workout, they're likely referring to their basement or garage setup where they keep their stationary bike or treadmill (via Training Peaks).