The fall marathon season is now closed, many a runner is nursing their aches, illness and fatigue and “now is the winter of our discontent.” The streets and trails are mottled with breathy hisses and moans of discomfort, but the subtext is wrought with hope and aspirations for the spring season. Sick? Perhaps. Psychotic? More than likely. Music to my ears? Most definitely. But what about those painful sounds that still linger in the arctic breezes that we are all blessed with these days. What about the pain and discomfort? When is it more than just an ache? What is the dividing line between soreness, pain and injury? When is it time to stop? This is THE most difficult question to ask a runner … well, that and why we do this in the first place, but that is beside the point … at what point do we need to just stop?
You may ask why this is such a difficult question to answer, and it is quite simply because there is no clearly defined answer. No set of rules or indicators that can give you a finite answer that either explains what is going on, how far we can push, how much we can take, at what point does this pain become something more than serious? These are all questions that the little voice whispering to us as we turn our feet over and we start to hyper focus on every twinge from toe to IT band. So what can we do? How do you know what to do when those whispers are no longer whispers anymore?
Rule #1: If your gait changes at any point STOP.
One of the great deceivers in the running World is the compensation injury. You trip or step on something that puts you out of alignment. It hurts, but not enough to make you stop, but your stride is a little off, not a lot, but still noticeable and you keep going. Next day you wake up, lace’m up and hit the road only to notice that you are really sore not where you had your little digger, but someplace completely different. That is the EVIL of the compensation injury. You alter yourself just enough to make it through your race or run and then are a mess the next day, because other body parts had to pick up the slack so you didn’t work that spot you originally hurt.
Is there a time and a place to fight through something like that? Sure, but you, as a runner, need to understand the consequences of pushing through it. I know that 90% of the people reading this would fight through something like the aforementioned incident for a Boston Qualifying time. Hell, I’ve even done it! But, when it was over I wasn’t even able to run Boston that year, because I couldn’t shake the compensation injury and had to defer. When you get to these moments, and you will, understand the cost and consequences before you take on that next mile.
Rule #2: Never, and I mean NEVER, mess with the major joints: knees and ankles.
At RAGNAR New York I stepped on a bad piece of pavement during my overnight 13-mile leg of the relay and rolled my ankle really badly. I fought off the roll with only a few miles to go and finished the leg, but that didn’t come without a price, as I was unable to complete the race like I wanted to. At RAGNAR New England I illustrated what my father would call “the flat learning curve,” as I once again rolled that same ankle and tried to fight through it only to have the pain trace up into my right knee and hamstring, which has, more or less, sidelined me up until the last month or so. During that time I have simply let it rest and recuperate while working on strengthening the problem areas. It sucks and I hate it, but I know that if I want to be back and running like I was at my peak I can’t mess with this plan at all. Not even for one run, because that is all it takes to regress back into that mess.
Rule #3: Know your limits.
This rule is a little hazier than the other two, but it is no less valuable. We all have limits and barriers that we can test and stretch and to see our true potential we need to know what they feel like. That is the beauty of lunges, squats, speed intervals, hills, mile repeats, gauntlet track workouts, and all of those other training runs that we have come to love and adore, like that Grandmother that smells like moth balls and kisses you leaving a nasty lipstick mark, but always gives the great Christmas and birthday presents … can’t help but love them! The process may suck but the prize at the end kicks serious butt.
Training exercises and runs, like the ones I described above, are notorious for aches, pains, fried lungs, vomiting, exhaustion, and grievous muscle fatigue, but this is NOT the same as the pains of Rule #1 & #2. These are growing pains, your body simply reminding you that you haven’t reached your full potential yet and that there is more work to be done. Do we see incidents of Rule #1 & #2 in training? Absolutely. Sh*t happens. If either of those situations were to arise during a training run, you bail right away. No training run is worth being sidelined for any stretch of time, and as my coach always told me, “missing one run isn’t going to make or break your training season.”
When it comes to a runner’s body, the corporeal is always playing second fiddle to the mind. As I’ve said before, and I am sure I will say it again, running is 70% in your head and 30% in your body. When you are out there you have to listen to your body, hear what it is telling you and know what it means. I haven’t been the best listener over the last 2 years and I have suffered for it, but no more. If you have questions reach out to the running community, ask me if you like (just leave a comment), but we are all here together and are all pulling for one another to succeed.