Don’t let the whimpers of discomfort culminate in a big bang of full-blown injury.
It was T.S. Eliot who famously wrote “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” Even though he didn’t have running in mind when he set pen to paper, he might as well have.
When something goes bang in your leg in the middle of a run, it’s likely that rest and possibly some treatment is needed for the injury to heal. More often than not, your racing season or training cycle will go out on a whimper and only with the benefit of hindsight will you be able to see where it might’ve been saved.
Running is hard on the body and feelings of discomfort are inevitable if you train and race year round. The key to dealing with discomfort when it arises is knowing when to run through it and when to back off. That little tight spot in your knee that loosens up after a mile gradually gets tighter and takes longer to loosen up — until it never really loosens up and you’re forced to stop running. The little whimpers you ignored for so long finally culminated in a big bang.
It can be very hard to ease up and give your body some much-needed rest when you get into a really good training groove. Finding the proper balance between intensity and rest is very tricky for any runner, regardless of ability level. Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward finding a solution, which can often be found in the form of rest and cross-training.
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“There needs to be at least one super low intensity day with little to no impact or full rest,” said Angelo Gala, a certified personal trainer and yoga instructor who competes in marathons and triathlons. “A long swim is great because it keeps the heart rate down and provides excellent zero impact stretching and strengthening.”
Cross-training doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of traditional endurance exercise such as swimming or cycling. Hockey (yes, on ice, with skates) can be a great way to get in a workout while escaping the grind of running. Justin Deeg is a 2:28 marathoner and soon-to-be physical therapist who has been playing hockey for 20 years
“I do my best to get my scheduled runs in, but sometimes I just have to tell myself that I will get my workout in at hockey that night,” Deeg said. “Does that count as a rest day because it’s not running? Not in my book. That counts as cross-training with a very healthy dose of speedwork.”
While preferred modes of cross-training can vary depending on the athlete, coach or trainer you’re talking to, you don’t need a professional background or experience to know when to back off, take complete rest and seek professional assistance if necessary. “Sharp pain has always been a big red flag to get help ASAP, along with any discomfort when sleeping,” Angelo said. “But pain is part of endurance so I always look for visual aids and sounds. Any time I see something funny with my form I head over to the physical therapist.”
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The physical therapist is usually the last person any athlete wants to spend time with because it usually means something went wrong, but it can help when that physical therapist is a runner who understands the demands of training and racing.
Deeg’s approach with patients is to “give them the tools to help themselves and I tend to do it from a runner’s perspective with a healthy dose of physical therapy behind it because I know myself and if another runner is anything like me, they need to hear it from a running perspective.”
Even an expanded knowledge base can still make it difficult to put the brakes on at times, however.
“There is an inner masochistic demon in every runner that tells us to overtrain,” said Eric Greenspan, a competitive runner and chiropractor-in-training. “The smart, experienced runner knows how to humble himself and respect the warning signs of injury and burnout.”
That’s where the real battle lies: hearing the whimpers early enough to keep them from turning into an ugly bang. Win this battle and you’ll spend more time pounding the pavement and less time seeking professional help.
About The Author:
Eric Narcisi is a freelance writer and runner based in Boston, Massachusetts.