“Hey Laura, you were an Olympian. Can you tell me whether I should be worried about my *insert body part* hurting?” 

Recently, I’ve had a slew of friends tell me they’ve pulled their hamstring, sprained their ankle, woken up with a weird back pain or tripped over their toe. I’m no certified doctor, and I don’t want to be held liable for telling someone, “It’s not that serious. Just suck it up.” But it does seem like I’ve accumulated some expertise in learning how to listen to one’s body. 

I usually ask my friends to first describe their pain: does it actually hurt, or is it just sore? Does it tingle, or does it ache? What movements cause the pain? When did the pain start, and how long has it been going on? These questions aren’t unique by any means, but they do initiate a standard procedure of self-reflection most athletes have become trained to perform every day, without knowing it.

It’s hard to describe something that feels so instinctual to me now. Years of ballet have taught me that lactic acid is a necessary evil, and movements that feel terribly awkward can become unnaturally natural. Years of gymnastics have taught me that ugly things I can see with my eyes, like a giant sweltering bruise or a nasty callus, are harmless. They hurt, but are non-threatening. The feelings of pain they elicit will pass, and over time my skin will grow back, my muscles will become stronger and my body will adapt. 

Things that are invisible to the naked eye, on the other hand, like a fracture in the second metatarsal of my right foot or a lingering tension in the psoas muscle of my left hip, cannot be dismissed. These pains are inconspicuously intense, and their sharpness persists. Unlike a bruise, I can’t wear a knee pad and get on with it. Unlike a sore muscle, I can’t warm it up slowly and wait for the fatigue to subside. Pain of this caliber is pain that doesn’t get worse before it gets better — it just gets worse. 

But as I ask my friends if their muscles feel twisted or just tight, pulled or just swollen, overused or just fatigued — I remember that this ability to differentiate between good pain and bad is one I learned slowly over time. 

When people ask me what the secret to flexibility is, my first answer is well-rehearsed: stretch a little every day, and gradually you’ll find that your body can withstand more and more pressure. The truth is, however, that when I was seven years old, my coach would sit on my splits until I cried. And I continued to cry every day, until one day I didn’t.  

When I was young, I was pushed and pulled like a piece of taffy because I was still growing. Pain was the cost of discovery: my limits were unknown, and stretching was a means of exploration. 

But when I turned 16, I realized that I had become the most flexible I would ever be. I had reached the peak of my plasticity, and stretching thereafter became about maintenance. Pain tolerance was no longer something I needed to prove, but a spectrum I needed to define. Pain proved not to be my antagonist, but my protector. 

Growing up as an athlete is about learning to live with pain, in all its complexity. It’s about learning to recognize and differentiate the things your body tells you so that you can work and grow through the good kind, and address and protect yourself from the bad. 

Pain that sears and scars and burns and tingles is a warning sign; pain that cramps and throbs and aches and fades is often reassuring. If my calves are sore because I ran a few extra routines, that is pain I can explain. It has purpose, intention and value. But if my ankle feels twisted because it rolled over a weird way when I was a little too tired, that is pain I cannot ignore.

From as far as I can tell, pain that is bad will also distract you: it compounds over time, or else creeps up on you suddenly without your consent. It’s the type of pain that’s impossible to avoid entirely, but is possible to minimize. And to sometimes prevent completely, with enough practice. Pain that is good, in contrast, propels you forward. It’s the kind you gradually learn to accept, expect and then even welcome into your life, knowing it will lead you to the places you want to go. Good pain is the pain you learn to trust.

In any case, I always recommend icing the affected area. Whether it’s soreness or injury, icing a body part will almost never do you wrong. My advice to friends then generally tends to fall under one of three categories: you’ll be fine, you should get that checked out or wait and see. Most people fall under the last category: because maybe their pain is the good kind and maybe it’s the bad, but often it turns out to be the kind that comes for a day and leaves the very next. Sometimes all one can do is wait and see. 

LAURA ZENG ’25 writes the bi-monthly column, “Ask an Olympian,” on her opinions and life experiences. Contact her at laura.zeng@yale.edu

Laura Zeng is a staff reporter covering arts and culture. Her column, “Ask an Olympian,” runs bi-monthly. Hailing from the suburbs of Chicago, she is interested in Architecture and the Humanities.