Any serious athlete who strives for personal advancement often comes across advice from a coach or from a friend that sounds not unlike something you might hear from a Zen master – to get the best out of your body, listen as it speaks to you, they say. As it turns out, finding out which among all the voices that speak to you is your body’s genuine hotline to communicate with you, happens to be a little hard. For instance, any time you need to get out of bed at 5 AM on a cold winter’s day to go out running, you may hear all kinds of discouraging messages from your body – laziness, tiredness, a little leg pain from an overenthusiastic bout of running from yesterday, and dread at the thought of another 7 mile run. Still, the times that we are able to overcome all of this and still make a great day’s run are the times we feel the greatest pride of achievement. The thing is, we need to know when our body is just trying to tell us to stop bothering it because it wants to take it easy, and when it is telling us plainly to just lay off because something is injured.
This is easier said than done however; lots of top-level athletes run themselves to ruin, often mixed up about whether an instance of pain is just the body’s protest against hard wholesome work, or whether it is an injury to take seriously. Olympic level athletes often try so hard that they get stress fractures from it. The thing is, it is always hard to understand when it is that your body is trying to save you. Some kinds of leg pain, you can safely ignore; others need you to get off the track and into bed. Here is a rule of thumb that most athletes get to hear from their coaches – as an athlete, whatever hurts you in the way you naturally run that you’d need to change your gait for more than 15 minutes of running, you can be pretty sure that it’s not just your body trying to get away with laziness. It should be an injury, and an injury should never be trained through. It doesn’t really make any sense to train with an injury – it’ll just give rise to other injuries that come about through an unnatural way of running.
Here’s how it happened to a friend of mine who had run at least a dozen marathons in his life. He entered the New York City Marathon last year, and he was pretty confident of making it in the top 10. With his experience, he knew that there are times when you run out of energy during a 26.2 mile marathon. The trick is to power through, no matter what, until you get your second wind, or your third wind. On the day of the race, he warmed up with a couple of mile-long runs, and he was all limbered up when the shot went off. He had no trouble maintaining a steady pace and doing a mile every seven minutes. It was effortless, he ran well. About three-quarters of the way into the race, he began to feel a distinct leg pain, a discomfort if you will. When he tried to power through as his instincts told him, he felt something snap in his ankle and he fell down. Not one to ever quit a race, he hobbled the few miles remaining to the finish line. Home in bed an hour later, when he painfully raised the leg up to look at it, it was awful. It was frighteningly black all over the back and the side of his lower leg. When he went to a sports surgeon to have it looked at, it turned out he had torn a calf muscle.
When there was something in the middle of the race that hurt so badly that he had to fall down, he should have listened to his body, and pulled out of the race altogether. His pride kept him going, and that was his undoing. An important way to listen to your body, would be to cut the pride out. No one really knows how to do it, and as people often do in conversation, they just hear what they want to hear. Being an athlete is all about pushing your body to its very limits. It’s very hard to listen to a soft inner voice when you’re trying to do that.