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The Art of Pacing Yourself & Why It's Essential for Lessening Your Pain

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

I was once a runner. Short distances, middle distances, and long distances. The road and the trail were my jam. I began my runs at a fast pace. But that wouldn't last long and I would "hit the wall," slowing to a turtle's pace. Slowing down was inevitably accompanied lots of negative self-talk.


I depleted myself physically, mentally, and emotionally.


There was only one run in which I used the power of pacing myself (more on that below), and it proved to be successful. In this article, I'd like to introduce pacing as it relates to pain care and some ideas that maybe you can bring into your daily care plan.


But what does pacing yourself have to do with your experience of chronic or persistent pain?


According to a study on the concept, pacing can be a way of improving function in your daily life, adding manageable activities to improve movement, resiliency, and agency. The research looked at a multitude of previous studies on what pacing is and concluded that pacing can be defined as “an active self-management strategy whereby individuals learn to balance time spent on activity and rest for the purpose of achieving increased function and participation in meaningful activities".(1)


Pacing can be as simple as planning for your day to include times of relaxation, respite and challenge. The key is that you feel safe as you do these activities. Setting up for success can include activities that have value for you and doing them in bite-sized pieces.


Remember my running career and the ways that I spent all of my energy at the get go? It was in my final run that I truly learned how pacing can set oneself up for success "in the long run" (pun intended). I trained for the LA Marathon over many months. I planned each day and week. I started at my baseline and gradually added more miles, building up my ability to run longer at a consistent pace. I also included times for rest to allow my body to recover. By not trying to do too much too soon, I was creating neural feedback, both to my body and my mind, that I was safe to run longer distances.


How can you start practicing pacing yourself right now? Try changing your breath.


Slow-paced breathing is a technique that uses controlled inhalation and exhalation times (“paced”), slowing the cycles of breath per minute (cpm) from the typical 12-20 of spontaneous breathing down to about 6. Studies show that slow-paced breathing leads to a calmer relaxed state, improve cognition, and helps with sleep and performance.


Just as it took months of training to be able to run a marathon, breathing in this way isn't usually possible right away.


Begin by reducing your number of breath cycles per minute by one.


Set a timer and count your current number of cycles of breath per minute. You can jot these down in a notepad. Get comfortable with any support for your spine and body, then try reducing your count by one cycle. Make note of how it went in your notepad, including any reflections. Practice this daily and decrease by one cycle of breath as it feels right to do so.


Pro tips for gradually lengthening your breath:

  1. Try breathing in for a count of 4 and breathe out for a count of 4, an even and equal breath

  2. As you breathe, repeat the mantra "Longer, Smoother, Softer" in your mind


Finally, it's important not to overlook the importance of self compassion as you embark on a pacing practice. Eventually you will be able to do more and find more joy in what you do. But to do that you must retrain your brain and your body, and this takes time and patience. Make this your very own marathon training program!


Resources and References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3812193/

  2. Yoga and Science in Pain Care, Edited by Pearson, N. Sullivan, M., Prosko, S., pg. 146.

  3. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15374416.2022.2084743?journalCode=hcap20




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