Well, they’re not “tougher” than you, per se. But according to a new study published in the journal Pain, triathletes experience less pain than casual exercisers, causing them to seemingly have superhuman endurance.
“Triathletes rated pain lower in intensity, tolerated it longer, and inhibited it better than individuals in a control group,” says professor Ruth Defrin of the Department of Physical Therapy at Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine. “We think both physiological and psychological factors underlie these differences and help explain how triathletes are able to perform at such a high level.”
The study included 19 triathletes—classified as individuals who participated in at least two triathlons per year—and 17 nonathletes. Study participants went through a series of pain tests, including the application of a heating device to one arm and submerging the other arm in a cold-water bath, and recorded their attitudes toward pain. The triathletes identified pain just as well as non-athletes (they’re not zombies), but they perceived it as less intense and were able to withstand it longer. In the attitude questionnaires, the triathletes reported fearing and worrying less about pain, which may help explain their higher tolerances.
So, this begs a questions: What can you do to get this tough? Simple answer: Get in the game and start training for a triathlon. While the research at hand can’t say whether triathletes participate in the sport because they feel less pain, or whether putting their bodies through the events makes them tolerate pain better, a triathlon is sure to toughen you up a notch or two.