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Marathoners know how their body feels after running 26.2 miles. So what gets them to sign up for yet ANOTHER punishing race? Turns out, a new study found that marathon runners significantly underestimate their postrace pain when asked about it a few months later.

Julie Mazziotta
April 20, 2015

After more than 30,000 runners pounded the (windy and rainy) streets of Massachusetts in today's Boston Marathon, it’s easy to wonder what drives people to put themselves through that kind of pain again and again. You have to qualify with a speedy previous marathon time (or commit to raising a serious chunk of change for charity) to even toe the line in Boston, so most of these people already know how their body feels after running 26.2 miles.

So what gets them to hand over their credit card info and sign up for yet ANOTHER punishing race? Turns out, a new study published in the journal Memory found that marathon runners significantly underestimate their postrace pain when asked about it a few months later.

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For the study, Przemyslaw Bąbel, PhD, a professor of psychology at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, quizzed 62 men and women at the finish of the 2012 Cracovia Marathon about their pain. He asked them to rate “the intensity of the pain they were in, its unpleasantness, and the positive and negative emotions they were feeling,” according to Christian Jarrett, PhD, who wrote about the study on the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog.

Immediately after the race, runners reported an average pain intensity of 5.5 on a 7-point scale. Bąbel checked in with the marathoners either three or six months later and asked them to recall that level of hurt. Regardless of how much time had passed, they rated their postrace pain as an average of 3.2 on that same scale.

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While all of the runners underestimated their soreness, their overall emotional state at the finish seemed to affect how well they remembered things. Runners who really struggled (that is, they suffered more and had more negative emotions like distress) tended to recall their pain levels more accurately. Ouch.

So while the intense pain many marathoners feel (including the elite ones!) can be rough, it seems like time heals all (mental) wounds—maybe just at different rates.

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