I read a great article that I just loved today. It was entitled “Pay attention to pain and the messages it’s sending.” I see too many runners that push themselves too much and fail to listen to their body signals. I was fortunately enough to run under some great coaches that taught me that rest days are as important as hard workouts. Because I have listened to this advice, I have suffered very few injuries over the 24 years I have run. “Your latest run is only as good as your next rest.” Love it!
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Pay attention to pain and the messages it’s sending
I have a low pain threshold.
In fact, if this is physiologically possible, I may not have a tolerance for any pain, at all.
I remember having to have some blood drawn when I was a junior in high school, and I was so afraid of the needle, I wailed like a little baby long before there was any poking of my veins. Then when the nurse appeared, she and my mother had to chase me around the room, force me into a chair, tie my arm down and sit on me to get the few vials of blood needed to run some medical tests.
All the while, I hollered and screamed so much my mother swore she’d never accompany me to the doctor’s office — ever. And, true to her word, she never has.
I will say I am not quite that bad any more. Pride has kept me from acting quite that badly, but I do avoid anything that might hurt — even a little.
Which makes working out with any purpose at all quite interesting. When I first started to play organized sports, at about age 9, I thought each ache or pain was the end of the world. My mother was constantly searching for salves or bandages that might end my suffering — or at least my complaining.
As I continued to play sports, I learned a valuable lesson about pain. It is, to a certain degree, what makes you stronger. Push yourself just far enough, and the soreness you feel is really your muscles strengthening, your body developing more stamina.
Then there is the kind of pain that we all want to avoid. It’s real pain, and it usually means no more playing, running or jumping for a while. If you’re hurt badly enough, it could be a long while. That bad pain is what you try to avoid as you train and work your way into new goals, new experiences and better fitness.
Since I have been running more regularly and longer distances, however, finding that boundary between good pain and bad pain is a little hazy sometimes. That’s because if you run long distances, it hurts. Something aches, something feels tired (sometimes everything feels tired), but part of the joy is embracing that pain and running through it.
If, however, the pain is a real injury, running through the pain can be a huge mistake. I have friends and family members who kept running, despite painful warnings, and they ended up with far more serious injuries. In one case, it meant nearly a year of no running.
So being intolerant of pain is sometimes a good thing. When I hurt, I take a break. If it feels like something persistent and more than sore muscles or a little ache, I head to the doctor’s office. (Hopefully, no needles are necessary.) Being a wimp actually makes me wise when it comes to injuries.
My sister recently had some serious knee pain. She continued to run, and it got worse, until eventually it was terribly sore all of the time. She ignored my admonishments to take a break. Instead, she hopped on a bike or an elliptical.
Eventually, during the Ragnar Relay’s Wasatch Back, her knee was so sore and swollen, she could barely finish the last leg of her race.
After a visit to the University of Utah’s Orthopedic Center, she learned it was just irritated. Too much running on crummy shoes, and she has a harsh running style that she might need to change. She’s going to have to do a couple of sessions of physical therapy, but all in all, it turned out better than I thought it would.
My sister and I talked about why she couldn’t bring herself to take a break. The thing about exercise is that it becomes a tool in helping us deal with stress, disappointment and even trauma. It becomes a way to unwind, relax and let go of junk that serves no purpose other than to weigh us down.
I have actually gone out for a run in a near homicidal rage and returned feeling like I could extend forgiveness to just about anyone. Big, all-consuming problems seem to shrink in proportion to the miles I run. It is the same for my sister, maybe more so. She realized she was jeopardizing her ability to run long-term, but she just couldn’t manage more than a day or two without the release that came with running. I told her that’s why I took up yoga, swimming and even cycling. I read an article a few years ago that I feel is very true for me. It said that your latest run is only as good as your next rest. When I go out and run 10 or 12 miles, I have no trouble resting. I have no trouble finding another way to unwind. I journal, read a book, ride my horse or, my personal favorite, take a nap.
Being dependent on one particular type of exercise for mental health is, in some ways, almost as dangerous as not having an outlet. Our bodies are amazing, but they are not machines.
Pain can be a signal that workouts are making us stronger, but it can also be a warning that we need to slow down, maybe sit out a day. The hardest part is deciphering those signals. Unfortunately, our desires and competitive spirits make those signals even more difficult to read.
Next time you feel confused about the pain you feel, consider what’s at stake. If you’re reluctant to take a few days off, think about how you’ll feel if your persistence leads to serious injury or permanent damage. Then instead of a few days or weeks off, you’re looking at life-altering consequences.
And if that doesn’t persuade you, consider that it could be a great time to try something new.