Sometimes you don the running gear and you feel a bit like a Lycra clad super hero, cruising the streets at high speed fighting evil while trying not to knock over a pensioner! Other times you just feel more like the pensioner. Things hurt. The legs are heavy and tired and you’re carrying a niggle that you’re worried could become more serious. Maybe you are actually injured, RW estimates that 66% of runners carry an injury so you wouldn’t be alone in that. How do you decide if you run or rest and whether or not you need to see a medical professional?
- Any signs of serious injury? These include swelling, a joint locking or giving way, severe pain, pins and needles or numbness, pain when feeling along the bone itself or a joint being restricted in movement (not just stiff but unable to move beyond a certain point and being less than the other side). Pain on impact or difficulty weight-bearing are also signs to be aware of. If you have any of these signs I would recommend a medical opinion. I might not dash off to the GP/ physio for a one off bit of swelling or pins and needles but if it’s becoming a more persistent problem it’s better to have it looked at.
- As mentioned above, consistent symptoms are a little warning. Ask yourself was it here last time I ran and the time before? Is it just a one off? I’ve had some really sore one off pains that have never returned and I’ve never worried about them but if something comes back again and again I get it checked out.
- Can I run through it? Many severe injuries (though not all) will be nearly impossible to run with. The pain will get progressively worse in most cases and you’ll have to stop, although sometimes with the adrenaline pumping it can mask the pain. If the pain is getting progressively worse as you run, then stop, if it’s feeling better with each stride and it’s mild pain, you’re usually safe to carry on. Let’s be clear on this though, I’m not suggesting you just grit your teeth and push through it. If unsure, stop running and see if it settles.
- Does it stop hurting after running? If you are totally pain free when you stop this is obviously a good sign. If it persists and affects everyday life then it may be a bit more serious and is worthy of getting checked out.
- Can I change it while running? Does it stop hurting if I reduce my speed or stride length or change my running surface or stop and stretch? If a simple adjustment in your running stops it then again it’s a good sign. Stick with that change for a few minutes then gradually return to your normal running style, often you’ll be able to do that pain free. The theory is that sometimes the repetitive action of running stresses the same areas over and over again, a change reduces this stress and allows pain from it to settle. I’ve had it with ITBS on my long runs, pain kicked in at mile 16, I reduced my stride length and by mile 17 it had gone again and felt fine after.
- What’s the bigger picture? I’ve ran nearly 500miles in less than 4 months, for some that might be normal but for me it represents a big increase in mileage. Would I expect to ache after doing that? Yes, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m injured, just fatigued. If that’s the case the symptoms should settle with a few days rest.
- Risk vs benefit. With just over a week to go until my marathon an injury now would have very little chance to heal. I’ve done 99% of my fitness work so the benefit of running through pain doesn’t nearly match the risk of injury. I’m not injured at the mo but if I was unsure about a run at this stage I’d take a rain check. A week into my training though, when I had months to recover I wouldn’t be so cautious.
- Could I do something that might be more useful? Sometimes a cross training session, specific strength, control or flexibility work might prove more useful in preparation for a race than running with a niggle. I’ll often choose to strengthen the muscles around the problem area then have a good stretch after rather than going for a run.
- Would rest actually be more beneficial than anything else? Bare in mind that a lot of our body’s adaptations and strengthening actually occurs when we rest. Runners seem to dread rest but it is an essential part of what we do. A carefully selected rest day can make all the difference!
- Am I overtraining? According to this RW article there are 130 signs of overtraining! I won’t go into them all here but they include heavy legs, fatigue, muscle aches, loss of desire to run, reduced running performance, low mood or irritability, loss of sleep, loss of labido, susceptibility to illness, brewing a cold and increased heart rate. More on rest from RW here
When it comes to the run or not to run question, you know your body so only you can decide. There are no hard rules. Sometimes heavy legs actually feel a lot better for a run. There are also mental techniques you can use to help you overcome pain when competing. That said a key message here is don’t be afraid to rest or cross train instead. Remember too your training schedule doesn’t need to be concrete. You can change and swap things a little. If you’re exhausted and scheduled to do speed work, could you swap it for the recovery session you had planned for later in the week? Don’t be a schedule slave!
With suspected injuries if there’s any doubt get it checked out. Better to sort something before it becomes an issue than wait until it does. Lots of Physio clinics do free assessments for runners, this might be all you need to point you in the right direction.