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body signals

How to Know Your Limits and Listen to Body Signals


  • The limits of the human body
  • How to test your body’s limits
  • How to listen to body signals
  • The BORG RPE scale
  • When to continue, when to stop
  • The challenge of knowing your body’s limits and listening to body signals

How to Know Your Limits and Listen to Body Signals

Sports training and competitions are rewarding. But most of the time, they’re exhausting and painful. The time and effort you put into all your physical and mental activities always take a toll, which is represented by body pain. And although they’re necessary for you to become a better athlete, these training and competitions need to be moderated and regulated to safeguard your physical and mental health.

Through training, athletes are encouraged to push themselves to the limit, so they can reach their full athletic potential and ensure growth. However, some limits are there for a reason. Your body and physical health, for one, can reach their full capacity when you push too hard—and this can bring various health repercussions. That’s why it’s important to listen to body signals, identify your body limits, and know when to stop.

On this page, we’ll talk about body limits, body signals, and the importance of knowing and respecting your limits.

The Limits of the Human Body

Humanity has proven time and time again that it’s the greatest of all species. Humans have broken world records over the past decades, but how much progress can a human body take? What are the limitations of athletes when it comes to physical activities?

Science has identified the limit of human endurance. A study conducted by researchers from Duke University revealed that the ultimate or at least currently recorded limit of human endurance is 2.5 times the body’s resting metabolic rate. If we convert it to calories burned, we’re looking at 4,000 calories a day for an average person. In conclusion, anything higher than this cannot be sustainable and may lead to health repercussions.

The study featured runners who participated in the Race Across the USA, a 3,080-mile race from California to Washington DC with the duration of 140 days, as subjects for the study. Due to the large subject population and the circumstances, the research is considered groundbreaking.

“Incorporating data from overfeeding studies, we find evidence for an alimentary energy supply limit in humans of ~2.5× BMR; greater expenditure requires drawing down the body’s energy stores. Transcontinental race data suggest that humans can partially reduce TEE during long events to extend endurance,” said the study.

Aside from the overall body limit on endurance, the study also found out that while running a marathon may require a lot from the human body, it is nowhere near the data representing the limit of human endurance. Here are some examples and activities stated by the study in reference to the given limit and based on the event covered:

  • Marathon – runners burn 15.6 times their resting metabolic rate (based on a regular marathon)
  • Cycling – cyclists use 4.9 times their resting metabolic rate (based on the 23-day Tour de France)
  • Trekking – trekkers use 3.5 times the resting metabolic rate (based on a 95-day Antarctic trek)

How To Test Your Body’s Limits

Whether you’re an athlete who just started getting serious about sports or a professional one training regularly, you can test the limits of your body through the main physical activities you usually do. Knowing your limits will help you adjust your training as needed and enhance your ability to detect body signals, such as the reasons for body pain.

Here are various ways to test your strength, speed, power, and endurance:

Aerobic Capacity Through Running

Running is the best and most accessible way to test your aerobic capacity, the measurable amount of energy you can produce by your body’s phosphagen and glycolytic energy systems, which uses carbohydrates as an energy source, for about 30 seconds to 1 minute and 30 seconds.

To test your aerobic capacity through running, start your exercise or training in running lanes that are 25 years apart. See if you can do 12 trips. For amateur or regular male and female athletes, the ideal time is 70 to 80 seconds.

Muscular Endurance Through Strength Training

Strength and bodyweight conditioning are excellent methods to test your muscular endurance, depending on the type of sports you participate in. Muscular endurance represents the ability of certain muscles or muscle groups to perform contractions against resistance, like weight, over a period of time. In short, muscular endurance tells you how long your muscles can withstand stress when training or competing.

You can easily test your muscular endurance through simple upper body or core exercises categorized under resistance training, such as push-ups (ideal – 20 reps), pull-ups (ideal – 4 to 10 reps), and sit-ups (ideal – 20 to 40 for beginners, 50 to 80 for advanced). Record the maximum reps you can do in two minutes without stopping.

Muscular Power Through Bodyweight Power Exercises

Simple bodyweight power exercises like long jumps, squat jumps, and power clean can help you measure your muscular power. Squat jumps can gauge your hip and thigh power, long jumps can measure a combination of fitness tangibles—speed, muscular endurance, and muscular strength, while power clean can measure your combined whole-body strength and power.

How to Listen to Body Signals

If you already know your body limits, you can more effectively listen to your body signals sending messages of body pain, fatigue, and other health tangibles. However, you also need various methods to accurately identify these signals, so you can know when to continue and when to stop with your training.

Here are scientifically proven methods to detect and decode body signals:

Use A Pain Rating Scale

According to scientists, athletes have a higher tolerance for pain than the average person, so most of them ignore body signals sending moderate amounts of pain. “Our analysis reveals that pain perception differs in athletes compared to normally active controls…Studies in athletes offer the opportunity for an evaluation of the physical and psychological effects of regular activity on pain perception, which might foster the development of effective types of exercise for relief in pain patients,” says lead investigator Jonas Tesarz, MD, in a study about athlete’s pain perception published in PAIN, the leading journal devoted to pain medicine and research.

The fact that athletes have a higher pain tolerance than the average person can be a double-edged sword. It’s beneficial for improving performances, training, and competitions, but it can also worsen the health repercussions of ignoring one’s body limits. To avoid the latter, you must learn to rate your pain’s intensity. Learn and explore your personal ranking scale to monitor your body pain during training and competitions.

Every time you participate in rigorous physical activity, like strength training or marathons, be prepared to rank your pain and the intensity of your physical activity from zero to 10 or with the recommended 6 to 20 rating scale from the Perceived Exertion (Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale), a proven tool that measures an individual’s exertion, breathlessness, and fatigue. The unusual scaling of 6 to 20 is related to the connection between the scale and heart rate since the Borg RPE scale of 6 corresponds to a heart rate of 60 beats per minute in a healthy adult.

According to the scale, ratings between 12 to 14 suggest that the physical activity being performed is moderate. 19, meanwhile, is already extreme.

The Borg RPE Scale


Level of Exertion

6 No exertion at all
7.5 Extremely light
9 Very light
11 Light
13 Somewhat hard
15 Hard (heavy)
17 Very hard
19 Extremely hard
20 Maximal exertion

Copyright: Gunnar Borg

By using a rating scale representing how your body feels, it will be easier to know when to adjust the intensity of your exercises or training and when to stop altogether to prevent the entry of negative health repercussions.

Determine the Type of Pain

In addition to pain intensity, also decode the type of pain your body signals send you–the body pain reasons that are hidden or obvious. Again, pain varies from one person to another and athletes have a higher pain tolerance than the average person. One athlete might have a broken bone with little to moderate pain, while another athlete may feel extreme pain from the same situation. Pain is a signal sent by nerve fibers in the body through the brain.

When you experience pain during training, exercise, and competitions, try to identify the type of pain you’re in to know if it’s normal or not, whether or not you need urgent medical attention, and how to prevent and recover from them.

Here are the five common types of pain:

  1. Acute Pain – a temporary pain that can last from minutes to months. It could be from a temporary illness, a soft-tissue injury, or infection.
  2. Chronic Pain – a constant or irregular pain that can last for months or years. It could be due to a serious health condition or severe injury.
  3. Neuropathic Pain – a pain caused by damage to the nerves or other parts of the nervous system. It’s a pain that sends body signals and sensations similar to burning or needle stabbing, so it can cause mobility issues.
  4. Radicular Pain – a pain in the area where a spinal nerve gets compressed or inflamed. It covers areas from the back and can reach the hip into the legs because of the position of the spine and spinal nerve root.
  5. Nociceptive Pain – a pain caused by damage to body tissues, mostly from an external injury. It can affect the muscles, skin, tendons, skin, and bones, so it can be categorized as acute or chronic.

When to Continue, When to Stop

Working seriously on your fitness or training for competitions is necessary, but remember that there’s always a limit to everything. That’s why understanding your limits is critical to safeguard your health and allow proper body recovery and muscle building.

As a general rule and to avoid overtraining, you should let your whole body rest for at least 24 hours between training or exercise sessions and competitions. Depending on the intensity of physical activity, you may be required to rest and recover for weeks.

“You can do really intense stuff for a couple of days, but if you want to last longer then you have to dial it back,” said Dr. Herman Pontzer of Duke University, one of the researchers from the aforementioned study about the limit of human endurance.

In terms of physical body pain, one must learn to classify and observe to know when to stop and continue. Know if the pain is dull or sharp—unbearable pain should be non-negotiable. Pain that goes away or becomes bearable during training is usually a positive sign. But if the pain becomes severe as the training or competition progresses, you need to stop. If swelling is present, take a break or completely halt your activity.

The Challenge of Knowing Your Body’s Limits and Listening to Body Signals

Listening to body signals may be difficult for some because of their physical, mental, and emotional capacity. People sometimes don’t know how their bodies will react to a certain situation—sometimes the body can, and sometimes it cannot.

Although there is data provided by scientists proving the limit of human endurance, it’s still difficult for one person to identify his or her limit due to the changes happening in the body when we improve ourselves through workouts, training, and competitions. A person’s body adjusts and changes based on internal and external factors, so it can improve or deteriorate, depending on the situation.

“Man is not a pulse rate, a rectal temperature, but a complex array of many phenomena…. Into performance enters the baffling yet extremely important factor of motivation, the will-to-do. This cannot be measured and remains uncontrollable, quickly fluctuating, a disturbing variable which may at any time completely alter the performance regardless of physical or physiologic state,” said a study tackling the relationship between performance and environmental temperature published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

So, if you’re finding it difficult to identify your body limits and listen to your body signals, don’t panic. It’s actually normal. It takes time and practice. The best way is to test your body’s capabilities and limitations in various environments and apply the aforementioned methods on how to decode and detect body signals, particularly body pain.

Final Words

Listening to body signals is as important as achieving your fitness goals and winning competitions. The process can help you avoid serious health repercussions and further improve your fitness tangibles, like endurance, power, strength, and speed. Taking a step back won’t affect your game, but it will protect your health.

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