One study that Hutchinson cites, highlighting how differently people can process the same painful stimulus, was published by Wolfgang Freund in 2013. Participants were asked to hold their hands in ice water for three minutes and rate the pain they felt as the trial concluded. A group of ultrarunners completed the protocol and their average pain rating was six out of ten. Contrast this with the non-athlete control group who averaged 96 seconds before removing their hands as their pain maxed out at 10. Only three of the control group lasted the full three minutes. It must be noted that the ultrarunners tested were running the gruelling TransEurope Footrace which covers 2,789 miles in 64 days: athletes with an especially insatiable appetite for suffering.

Similar findings came up in a study by Karel Gijsbers, looking at Scottish swimmers and their tolerance of pain. The test protocol involved inflating a blood pressure cuff around the subject’s arm to cease circulation to the limb, followed by repeated clenching of the fist once per second, for as long as the subject could bear. Thirty elite (national level) swimmers were compared with thirty club swimmers and a non-athlete control group. The implications of Gijsbers’ findings are enormous.

The results show that the pain threshold was very similar for the three groups, with most participants beginning to report painful sensations at around 50 contractions. Athletes are not insensitive and feel pain like everyone else. What sets them apart lies elsewhere: there were stark differences in the pain tolerance exhibited by the three groups. The control group averaged 70 contractions before throwing in the towel (only ~20 beyond when they started to feel pain), club-level swimmers averaged 89, and the elite averaged 132, almost double the control group!

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