When RT Editor Gordon Bakoulis and I discussed “listening to your body” as the topic for this month’s column, I hesitated because it sounded a bit soft for my tastes. After further thought, I agreed and, as usual, searched the scientific literature for supporting information. Not surprisingly, there was no data on the benefits of listening to your body for athletes because those benefits are impossible to measure. Thus, the insight that follows relies on over 30 years of running experience. As a two-time Olympian, you might think I had training figured out right from the start. Au contraire. The mistakes have been plentiful, and, alas, some lessons have had to be learned over and over again.
The greatest mistakes occurred when I forced my body to do more than it could handle. In retrospect, the signals have always been there, usually in the form of pain or fatigue. The results of ignoring those signals have invariably been more time off from running than if had I paid attention and backed off training sooner. For example, in 1985 there were ample warning sign of overtraining. Waking up in the middle of the night with a heart rate of 80 beats per minute, constant fatigue, and poor times in speedwork were pretty obvious symptoms. At first, my response was to train harder with the rationale that I must not have been in very good shape. After 4 months of figuratively hitting my head against the wall, I took 5 weeks easy and came back strong. Enough said.
Finding your true limits
Listening to your body does not imply a lack of toughness, but a willingness to find your true physical limits. Kenyan runners have a well-deserved reputation for listening to their bodies, but certainly do not take it easy on themselves. Rather, if a Kenyan runner feels good, she may extend a two hour run into a two and a half hour run. Conversely, if her body is struggling on a given day, a planned two hour run would be cut back. Similarly, when Bill Rodgers gets sick, he doesn’t soldier on with a 20 mile run. Instead, he goes home, rests up and gets well.
The key is having the confidence in yourself to know that you will back off only when necessary. If you are afraid that if you cut back your training once or twice that it will become a habit then you will mindlessly push through your training no matter what. This response (or lack thereof) leads to small problems becoming major injuries or illnesses. By ignoring a small injury, 80% of the time you will develop a more serious injury. When my right plantar fascia became sore, I ignored it. After continued training and a couple of marathons, it eventually needed surgery. The downtime from the injury, surgery, and rehabilitation was over 9 months. When my left plantar fascia became sore a year later, stretching, modified shoes and two weeks without speedwork resolved the problem. Even a slow learner eventually catches on!
When not to streak
If you never get a minor injury, then chances are that you are not pushing the limits of your running performance. That does not mean that injuries are a badge of honor, but rather that the occasional minor injury is inevitable if you are training hard as a runner. As we have seen, however, if you really want to maximize your performance then “training through” the pain of an injury is counterproductive because it will almost invariably lead to longer down-time as your now more serious injury recovers. Running streaks are an indication of obsession rather than intelligent training.
You can help the process of learning to respond to your body’s feedback by recording detailed information in your training log. Write down the specifics of how you feel, such as “right calf sore today, slightly worse than yesterday, particularly running uphill.” When you severely strain the calf a few days later, you will see in black and white that your body had been warning you to give the calf a rest. After a few of these episodes, you will eventually see the wisdom in heeding your body’s signals.
Listening to your body can also help you modify your training so that a minor injury heals without a complete break from running. By gauging your body’s responses to running on soft surfaces, changing shoes, or avoiding downhills, you may find that your training can continue while an injury gets better. But don’t fool yourself. If running is painful and that pain doe not go away in the first 3 minutes, then stop running and cross-train until you can run without pain.
Your body provides you with constant feedback that can help improve your running performance. Learn to differentiate between the discomfort of hard effort and the pain of an injury. Learn to persevere with the former and react intelligently to the latter. After over 30 years of running I am still learning.
This article is a contribution from Peter Dickson Pfitzinger, an American former distance runner, who later became an author and exercise physiologist. He is best known for his accomplishments in the marathon, an event in which he represented the United States in two Summer Olympic Games: the Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics.