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Decoding the Signals

Getting beyond platitudes on when, and when not, to listen to your body.

Running Times Magazine—August 15, 2012

If you look to elite runners to figure out when and if to push yourself — to decide, in other words, whether or not to listen to what your body is telling you rather than your workout plan or running log — you'll find lots of examples of flagrant deafness. The most famous case, perhaps, would be Alberto Salazar's death-defying performance at the 1978 Falmouth Road Race, when his body temperature rose dangerously high during the scorching 7-miler, prompting medics to pack him in ice and a priest to perform last rites. Racing, of course, is a unique circumstance, where we willfully ignore some body communication. Bill Rodgers famously quipped, "If you want to win a race, you have to go a little berserk."

But elites, even in training, seem to push past many signals that body-listeners would seem to notice. Take Paul Gompers, who finished fourth at the 1988 Olympic marathon trials with severe Achilles tendinitis. He reportedly ran 175 miles a week, including regular 37-milers. Rather than listening to their bodies, these runners seem to be giving the orders.

While soreness can be fought through, pain is the body's way of saying you've overdone it. Jennifer Solomon, a physiatrist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York who sees "tons of runners," offers the same advice. Soreness is one thing, she says, but pain must be respected. Even the world's best runners would be better off paying closer attention to their bodies' ebbs and flows, these professionals insist.

Every expert agrees that running through acute pain is a mistake and counterproductive. The trick for the world's best, as well as for more pedestrian runners, is in differentiating ordinary aches, pains and occasional suffering that come with hard running from the signs of exhaustion or injury that can derail training. How do top runners know when to finish the workout? How do I, a masters runner still striving for fitness, know when enough is enough? Here's what sports doctors, coaches, and top athletes — the ones who know better, that is — recommend when trying to listen to our bodies' sometimes confusing signs.

Muscle pain that's not sharp or out of proportion to the training is normal, Solomon says. But if the soreness lasts for two to three days, "better to take it down a notch," she says.

Runners are impatient to get back on the roads and are known to dive back in too soon, bodies be damned, when given the go-ahead to run.Solomon sidesteps the problem by starting them back with the elliptical trainer and stationary bike, as well as some core and stability work. "I will retrain them to get back, so they're mentally OK with exercising, but they're doing something entirely different," Solomon says.

Read the rest of the recommendations at runningtimes.com.


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