As I approached the end of the first half of the 2012 Philadelphia marathon, I looked longingly at the finish line. It would have been easy to turn right, cross the line and be done for the day. Had I known they actually scored your time for a half despite being registered for the full, I may have done just that. My right ankle and foot throbbed in pain. It had been a long race season and I’d thoroughly beaten up my tired body. As it was, I continued on toward Manayunk. Shortly thereafter, most of my foot went numb from he ankle down. Cool! No more pain.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I learned my lesson that day. There have been other times I chose to continue on despite knowing better. Too many times I’ve “kept my eye on the prize” only to have to prize slip away due to my own stupidity. There is no greater example of this than when I continued an 8 mile run after rolling my ankle hard one mile in. I walked a bit, convinced myself I was fine, and ran on with a gimpy gate. Naturally, I properly took care of myself when I arrived home. And by that I mean I rode a bus to New York City, walked around the theatre district all day, and then rode home. My ankle blew up like a softball. Whatever race I had been training for became another DNS to add to my list.
Continuing to train through injury is inordinately stupid. I get that as runners we put great pressure on ourselves to get in shape to hit our race goals but we need to remember that toeing the start line on race day is the icing on the cake. It means we trained smart, made good decisions, and are healthy and fit enough to tackle that marathon, or 10K, or whatever distance our goal race is. Attempting to train through injury only leads to worse injury, and a longer time away from being out on the roads and trails. As an expert at this point on physical therapy, I can also promise it leads to some rather expensive bills.
In neither case above did I go on to do well or even compete in my goal races. In fact, the only thing I went on to complete in both instances was several weeks of physical therapy and rehab.
Now, there is a big difference between training through injury and learning to train with discomfort. The act of running (or any form of exercise) creates discomfort in the body. At least it does if we are pushing ourselves. Our bodies are amazingly adaptable things and when they realize we really are going to get up and go run six miles every morning, they become very efficient at it. I know many-a-runner who can’t understand why their weight isn’t going down or their fitness isn’t improving after weeks of steady-state running at the same paces and distances. Think of your car out on the highway. When the light turns green and you hit the gas your car works hard to accelerate. The engine revs up and strains as it tries to pull a two ton hunk of steel from a dead stop to in-motion. But once out on the highway, the transmission drops into a high gear and the engine spins effortlessly at a steady RPM keeping the car rolling down the road.
This is your body. When you trade the bag of Combos for a pair of running shoes, your body suddenly doesn’t know what to do. “Hey, where’d the Lazy Boy, coke, and chips go!?” Your heart races, you sweat, and running feels hard. You want to quit but you keep going. Fast forward a few weeks and you’ve been running almost daily. A lot of weight has fallen off, and you are excited to head out the door. Within a block from home, your “motor” has shifted to a higher gear, lowered the RPMs and you are in a steady cadence. Running doesn’t feel hard anymore. You suddenly understand what is meant by “The Runner’s High”.
Inevitably, the new runner gets bitten by the racing bug. They may sign up for a 5k or something longer and as soon as the digital ink is dry on the on-line sign up, they begin to get nervous about embarrassing themselves. Every runner fears finishing last. (So much so that some races actually hire someone to finish last.) Put your mind at ease. Chances are, you aren’t going to finish last. It’s possible you could. Someone has to, but it isn’t overly likely to be you unless the 5K you signed up for is the Olympic trials. That said, being a good runner and wanting to learn to train properly you either hired a coach or found one of the many readily available on-line training plans. That plan may include something like a track workout, or hill repeats or something similarly difficult. The point being, you are going to cause great stress to your body because, even though you’ve been running a steady pace everyday, suddenly you are asking your body for more. You may be pushing the pace on the track or you are putting in some solid uphill efforts. Perhaps it’s a tempo run with a mile at 5K pace. Regardless, it quickly reminds you of that day you put down the Doritos, strapped on the ol’ Chuck Taylor’s and jogged a 1/2 mile around the block. Perhaps when you were done, you smiled congenially at the cute neighbor and gave all appearances of the aged, veteran athlete at least until they disappeared in the house with the day’s mail. And then you collapsed, spread eagle on the front lawn gasping for breath and wondering if you should call 9-1-1? But here you are some weeks later scoffing at that easy loop of the block yet struggling for air as you hold a 7 minute pace for a loop of the track.
As you wrap up the 3rd of 6 hard loops of the track, you get a cramp in your side (aka stitches), or maybe your heart is pounding out of your chest. Or maybe your legs cramp a bit. You start to wonder if you are injured and maybe you should stop? Well, over time you will get to know your body and how it responds to running, but generally when ramping up training to hard levels it is going to be uncomfortable. Most of the time, you don’t need to stop. However, if you are unsure it is best to stop. Remember how you feel. Pay attention to lingering symptoms. If they clear up as you rest, make note that sometimes running is hard and get back out there. Talk to your coach if you have one or more experienced runners if you don’t. You will learn quickly enough what is discomfort and what is danger.
Some years ago when training for the Boston marathon I departed work for a lunch hour interval run on the nearby Chester Valley Trail. It was a cold, blustery day and every fiber of my being said “This is a bad idea!”. But my training plan said 1/2 mile intervals so 1/2 mile intervals it was. Along with the the wind, the air temperature was in the high 30s or low 40s so I dressed like I would for any run in such conditions with shorts, short sleeves, and a pair of gloves. I jogged to the trail for my warmup and immediately set out on the first 1/2 mile interval. I don’t remember the total number of planned intervals, but somewhere partway through I became very conscious of a sharp pain in the left side of my ground. Not a place you especially want pain. I chalked it up to the cool conditions and kept at it. Upon completing the last interval, I jogged a short cool down jog before realizing I was limping terribly and could barely put weight on my left leg. Had I brought a phone with me, I probably would have called Uber for a ride back to work.
I learned a lot of lessons from this one. The biggest was, if it doesn’t feel right don’t do it. My gut said it was not a smart day to try to do speed work. Your gut is always smarter than your training plan, or your coach.
The next lesson was to dress for success. After hobbling home, I began reading everything I could find on hard workouts in the cold. Nearly every coach of elite level athletes has their athletes overdress even in warm weather when doing any sort of high-intensity stuff. Warm muscles are healthy muscles.
Lastly, when it hurts, STOP! At some point there is no excuse but our own pig-headedness.
The upshot of that experience was actually the final exposure of a much bigger problem that ultimately required surgery so, in a way, it is good I forced the issue that day in my particular situation but it still doesn’t make continuing on through pain a good decision.
The last thing I wanted to convey today is that yes, you DO need to go buy real running shoes. (This means you!) I know you don’t think you are a “real” runner and you are “only” doing a few miles a week, but believe me when I say those few miles a week in cheap footwear can cost you dearly. You can get by with cutoff sweatpants and an old t-shirt. (You’ll be much more comfortable in actual running clothes though.) You can get by without a running computer or watch. You can get by with an old trucker’s hat. But you absolutely, positively need to go to a running store and get a good pair of properly fitting running shoes. Even if you decide running isn’t your thing, they will be great for walking. Yes, new running shoes can be a bit pricey but you should see how much orthopedic surgery or even just physical therapy costs. In the grand scheme of things, $150.00 for a pair of running shoes is peanuts. Plus once you drop the coin on them you’re gonna want to go get your money’s worth.