It’s been ingrained in gym culture, sports, and perhaps our common conception of exercise: it’s supposed to hurt. Perhaps this is why so many people hate to exercise or run. While yes, there is definitely discomfort that can come and should come with training, that is very different from injury pain. The lines between the two seem to often blur, and that’s not a good thing. So today let’s clarify what sensations should be associated with exercise and which ones should not – and how to recognize the difference and make good decisions when those pains arise.
When ramping up training, or jumping into something new, it’s important to build the work load carefully and consistently. Not doing so will increase both injury risk and general discomfort. For runners, for example, this is why building base mileage is necessary before tackling intense runs. Or why going from absolutely no exercise to 3-hour gym sessions will practically destroy many of us. And rightly so. You are shocking your body!
Discomfort can come in a few different forms – pain while in the act of training – running hard on a track isn’t comfortable, or pushing out that final rep of chest presses – but that’s not injury pain. That’s the discomfort our body will adapt and grow from. The heavy leg feeling towards the end of a long run can be incredibly uncomfortable, especially when pushing the time on your feet. But again, this is the kind of stress our bodies need to experience to learn to run longer. A day or two after training, it can be normal to feel soreness, tightness, or weakness. While there are things we can do to help alleviate that discomfort (hydration, rest, compression gear, stretching, foam rolling, light exercise, ice baths), that discomfort is simply part of athletic gains. This discomfort isn’t an injury. It’s simply your body going through the process of learning and adapting. The good news is that the more of a habit your training becomes, and the stronger and more adaptable your body and brain, the harder you’ll need to work to feel discomfort. This isn’t to say that you’ll feel amazing and agile at mile 23 of the marathon, but it will mean mile 14 won’t hurt the way it maybe did 4 months ago.
Injury pain is very different from discomfort. While there’s a stigma that badass athletes train, race and compete through injury, that’s a really bad way of handling yourself, your attitude about your body, and your goals. There are always exceptions to the rules. For example, many NHL players are expected to play through broken bones during the playoffs. And I’ve known many a runner opt to still run a marathon with tendonitis. Are those decisions smart? No. Worth it for that person or team in the situation? That’s a personal decision. But we need to be careful and remember than training through an injury doesn’t make us a dedicated, badass warrior. It makes us idiots, with usually big consequences down the road.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between discomfort and injury. Remember that unless you are actually a doctor, looking things up online or talking to your lifting or running buddies is not the smart course of action. See a medical professional. A diagnosis, especially early on, can make a game-changer. Some injuries like runners knee, ITB, shin splints – can be managed and not totally derail training or racing, But a torn rotator cuff, tendonitis, a muscle tear – these are things we should rarely train through. It’s important to know what you’re dealing with so that you can make smart choices. If you can’t see a doctor right away, take a few additional rest days and see if that helps. If it does, carefully ease back into your activity and see how it feels. If it doesn’t help, you definitely need a medical opinion before training again.
An overwhelming number of runners say they battle injuries as part of their sport. I find that sad, and a statistic that doesn’t need to be so high. Smarter training, self awareness, and remembering that each and every runner is different and you need to learn and listen to your body, can help you not be part of such an overwhelming statistic. Look, I get it. I have said yes to races, runs with friends or team mates, and pacing opportunities with my clients when for my own body and training, it wasn’t a smart idea. Sometimes the risks don’t have huge consequences and we get lucky. But other times we pay the price.
Just remember that pain is a signal our bodies give our brain that something is stressed or hurting. Signals should never be ignored. We only have one body. Do your best to keep it healthy and happy.