I’ve spoken many times in these articles about how important it is that you listen to your body, and become mindful, connected, in tune with the signals your body is sending you. If you hear them, and interpret them, then make good decisions based on what you’re understanding, then you become a much more powerful runner. It’s like having the GPS in your car functioning well – you’ll never get lost, and you’ll always take the shortest route to your chosen destination.
On the other hand, if you are blind or deaf to those signals, then you’ve basically thrown the GPS unit out, and you’re hoping to find the destination through trial and error, or luck. Chances are you will take a lot of wrong turns and end up lost.
Nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to how we interpret pain.
So pain, then, is teaching and protection. If we listen and learn, we become better aain is a signal that ensures our survival. Were it not for pain, we would often proceed happily into behaviours that are harmful, dangerous and lethal. Your earliest exposure of pain might have been when you touched a hot stove, maybe you picked up a bee, perhaps you walked across a thorny patch of ground and suddenly you felt screaming nerve endings forcing you to retreat to safety before the damage became too great. As a result of this, you learned to avoid pain in the future. We also react to it at the moment it is there, and it protects us by limiting our exposure to the thing that is causing it.
Those are the two principles we must apply to our running. Yes, pain is part of running. But we have to differentiate between the types of pain we’ll experience.
Good pain – the signal that you’re breaking a barrier
Sometimes, we feel what I’d call “good pain”. You know that feeling when you’re chasing a new 5km or 10km PB? You’re pushing yourself through the glass ceiling, you’re taking your body and your physiology to places it has not been before. That is going to hurt. It is painful. But this is a pain we accept, and which we must overcome if we are going to improve.
The best attitude you can have to this kind of pain is that it’s a sign of progress. It happens because your body is resisting the challenge you’re throwing down. It’s a challenge because it is unfamiliar. You’re in unchartered territory, but that’s exactly where you want to be if your goal is improvement. So you embrace this pain, knowing that it’s temporary, and acceptable. Celebrate it, face it down, and when you hit those PBs, then you congratulate yourself for “overcoming pain”.
Bad pain – the signal that we’ve exceeded our limit
Then we have “bad pain”. The fundamental differences between good and bad pain are these:
- Bad pain is unexpected. You shouldn’t feel it, it sneaks up on you, and if you’re an experienced runner, you know that it’s not ‘normal’. It happens when it shouldn’t, and doesn’t go away when it should. This is a pain signal you must pay attention to. Compare and contrast this to the ‘good pain’ I described above – the pain you accept, and even invite, because you know you’re doing a hard interval session or going for a new PB. The latter is part of the package, the former is an unwanted and unexpected problem. It’s the kind of thing that can happen suddenly (“Ouch, my calf”) or gradually (“My calf aches, I wonder why?”), and it usually has a distinct location “(The outside of my knee hurts”).
- Bad pain lasts. Good pain goes away. In fact, good pain not only goes away, but if you’ve achieved the goal and successfully finished the session, it becomes the thing you actually celebrate. Bad pain, on the other hand, doesn’t go away. It’s there as you walk to the car, it may be there as you shower, go to bed. It sticks around when you wake up, and reminds you of its presence when you climb the stairs. It nags at you, like an annoying boss, and even when it’s low level, like a 2 or 3 out of 10, you know it’s there. You have no control over it, and it won’t go away. This is the pain of an injury, and it’s the one you really need to pay attention to.
Spot the difference – telling the pains apart
If you’re running, without any issues, and suddenly you feel either a sharp sensation in a very specific spot, or a more ‘diffused’ ache, then your senses should really perk up. At this point, you need to ask yourself “Did I expect this?”. If not, then it’s a pain signal you shouldn’t embrace, but should avoid. Slow down, perhaps stop, and assess it. Call it a day, because any further effort on your part is likely to turn a small pain signal into a serious one.
Sometimes, you’ll find that you have a bit of pain at the start of your run. The first minute, you might feel stiff, creaky, and with a bit of pain in a joint. Maybe the front of your knee is sore. But as you warm up, the pain goes away, and by the fifth or sixth minute, you’re running normally. This situation is OK, provided you understand that if you’re not careful, it could develop into something more serious. The pain signal there is like a “reminder” that you may need to pay attention to strength and flexibility, but it’s not necessarily an “instruction” to stop. If you feel this, take a week to reduce your speed by 10%, and your volume by 15%, and do some strength work to help that joint.
On the other hand, if pain appears DURING your run, or if you have slight pain, like a 2 or 3 out of 10 at the start, and it gets worse (a 5 or 6) by the end of the run, then you’re receiving an instruction from your body. Your body is saying “There’s something wrong, pull back”, and that’s a pain signal you should really heed. I have known runners, and I’ve been one myself, to ignore these pain signals, the ones that exist all the time and gradually get worse, until one day, they develop full blown stress fractures and are then out for months!
So be wise, and listen! If pain hits a 6 out of 10, or if pain gets worse as you run, or if pain persists long after the run is finished, that’s the signal you really want to understand. Take three or four days off, give the body a chance to heal, and then resume for a week applying the same principle I mentioned above, where you cut the intensity by 10% and the volume by 15% for a week, and see how it goes. If it still persists, then consider seeing a doctor or a physio for assessment and advice.
Ultimately, pain is your ally. Even when it’s bad, it’s helping you, because it is your body’s communication method, and it’s telling you that you’re beyond its capacity to cope. Good pain or bad, they’re signals, and if you listen, interpret and respond correctly, your running trajectory goes up! Ignore them, and you’ll be heading the wrong way!