I'm sure there's some kind of statistic that says the likelihood of injury among those who participate in regular physical activity is relatively high and actually it's probably not too far off from the statistic of those who are injured performing everyday activities. Our bodies are not invincible despite their ability to endure repeated punishment in various forms. Perhaps the best part about our bodies is their adaptability followed closely by its ability to repair itself. Everyday, cells are dropping dead and even the healthiest of people are experiencing some kind of harm to their bodies whether it's just breathing in toxins or aging yet we still manage incredible feats every single day. There's no way to completely shield yourself from harm but what's more important is to not further the damage or let your ego be its cause.
No athlete likes to rest. It's true. The majority of the social communities I find myself a part of consist of people who are regularly physically active and it seems that almost daily there's a post in a Facebook group or a paragraph of a blog post that asks about injuries.
How do I know when to push through an injury?
Should I take an extra rest day or just do a quick 3 miles?
Am I injured or just tired/lazy/slow?
Before any big race I see pictures of taped and wrapped shins, ankles, feet and hips. I read questions about whether or not to take medicine before or during the event to "push through the pain". These are all valid questions and I know everyone who responds to them genuinely believes in their advice and doesn't mean any harm. Unfortunately, none of us want to give the advice we should be giving. Nobody wants to say rest, ice or the dreaded words see a doctor or take more time off. Athletes don't rest until they're done! No pain, no gain right?
Last year I wrote this post about excuses and it still rings true today. There is a point where exercise can flat out hurt. There are those times when your face is tense and every part of your body is screaming at you to just sit down and eat a doughnut. Those are the times when "listen to your body" doesn't apply. Our bodies are designed for survival and that means expending the fewest amount of calories possible to perform any given task. Parts of us have yet to evolve from fight or flight into this isn't life or death, it's just voluntary exercise.
So what's my point? It is crucial to recognize the difference between fatigue "pain" and true injury. No one can tell you the difference so it's your duty to learn it for yourself. Ever since that broken leg marathon incident I've been studying injury prevention obsessively and although I'm not a certified trainer (yet) or medical professional I think I have a few words of wisdom to help others avoid some of my past mistakes.
- ALL sudden pain should be taken seriously. If you are running/walking/swimming/biking/stretching or really doing anything at all and feel a very sudden pain, STOP DOING THAT. You have likely just injured yourself. Now the severity of said injury can vary greatly, but at that moment your body has done something it probably shouldn't have. If you're out for a run, ease up, walk it out a little and see if it helps. If it doesn't, STOP RUNNING.
- If a pain makes you verbally curse or cry out, it should be taken seriously. Before my first triathlon I had my first ever shoulder injury. But the problem probably wouldn't have become a matter of taking time completely off from exercise if I'd just not been a stubborn idiot. I repeatedly reached for things which would make me squeak or suck in my breath because it hurt so much. I carried things and worst of all "just kept swimming" because my precious ego didn't want to admit defeat. It wasn't anything serious and only required a week or so off but had I recognized the pain that first time I cursed picking up printer paper I would have taken a day or two off and probably been in a better position.
- New pain should be taken seriously. There are some things you learn when you begin a regular exercise program and one of them is that with increased intensity you'll increase your chances of something hurting. My biggest excuse when I ignored my broken leg for so long was that since I was training for a marathon something was always hurting. And that's true to some degree but pretty constant fatigue or muscle soreness is very different from a new pain. Especially since I'd done a marathon before, I should have recognized that my new leg pain wasn't normal. Having sore glutes after running hill sprints or tired quads after increasing your distance is one thing. Having a hip that won't flex without considerable effort and discomfort out of nowhere isn't normal.
- Chronic pain should be taken seriously. Some of the most common chronic issues like low back or knee pain pretty much become a way of life for those who suffer from them which can cause them to be easily ignored. Particularly if you are starting a new exercise program, it is very likely you will aggravate these nagging issues and potentially make them much worse by stressing them in different ways if you fail to address the real issue.
In the end, I can't tell you whether or not to push through the pain. But I can tell you from experience that pushing through is usually not the best idea. Also, professionals are not the bad guys. Doctors, PTs and other medical professionals want to help you. They want you to get back out there, but they're paid to say the things we won't say to ourselves. I understand a week before a race taping up a sore ankle and pushing through, I mean, I attempted to tape up a stress fracture. BUT after that race there's no more excuses, get it checked out.
And remember sometimes taking time off can be fun!
You know that feeling right after the race before you hit the sad post race blues state where you come home from work and sit down instead of lacing up the shoes for a run? Yeah, you can have that feeling. And you know what they say about those who can't do. If you can't race, cheer! Or volunteer! Pay it forward because there will always be another race.
*Disclaimer: I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR ANY KIND OF MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL. All of these thoughts are just opinions gained from my personal experiences with injuries and consults with chiropractors, physiologists, physical therapists and my own readings and studies. This should all be used as advice on when to seek medical attention.