Or are you satisfied with training to 90% of your potential but with less chance of injury?
Running is a punishing sport. In training and racing we beat on our bodies, and–let’s be honest–in a masochistic sort of way, competitive runners enjoy the thrill of kicking their own butts to the point of being completely spent when there’s a personal best at stake.
But, our bodies are only human after all and we’re constantly riding the fine line between doing just enough and not doing too much in training. It’s a struggle all runners deal with regardless of ability level–from high school harrier to collegiate standout, and from local weekend warrior to Olympic hero.
Some athletes have been coined as injury prone, and for one reason or another they are more susceptible to getting hurt. Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein is no stranger to injuries, as half of his last year of training and racing was swallowed up by them. When asked if he’s just unlucky and prone to getting injured, his thoughts were rather that when you’re constantly pushing the envelope at the level he trains, it’s just a part of the game.
For Ritzenhein it’s worth taking risks to get a true, one-hundred percent performance out of himself; he could back off more for the sake of being cautious, but that 10% margin of loss wouldn’t grant him a reflection of all he was truly capable of achieving.
By backing off ten percent perhaps one would be injured less–or, you could gamble, go all in and wind up with the race of your life. It’s like walking on the edge of a cliff. Sometimes you fall off and wind up injured, other times you don’t and you wind up with the performance of a lifetime–like Ritzenhein did when he broke the American Record in the 5,000 meters two summers ago.
How lucky do you feel?
Struggling over the decision to back off in training is an issue that, if taken to the extreme, could come up every time you head out for a run. Your quad is a little sore, your nose starts to run, or you definitely heard something pop over that last interval. All of these issues come up at one point or another, but how often should you pull the plug on a run or workout?
“This would depend on the payoff, but I think that most high level athletes…gamble all the time,” observes Al Kupczak, massage therapist to elites out of Boulder, CO, who formerly worked with Ritzenhein and the Nike Oregon Project. “Of course, I hate seeing people get hurt, but I also realize that it’s part of the sport…it’s learning to distinguish good and bad pain; pain that is just a barrier to your immediate experience versus pain that can lead to serious injury. Side stitches and blisters are one thing, but stress fractures and plantar fasciitis are quite another.”
The truth is that running often hurts; we will be sore more often than not, and some of your toughest workouts will hit the point of being excruciating. If you took a rest day every time you were sore you’d be hard pressed to get much consistent running done at all. Under many circumstances a standard dose of “suck it up” will be just what the doctor ordered.
On the flip side, running through bad pain or an obvious injury isn’t going to do you any favors. Finessing that fine line is a tricky battle. It’s about being smart enough to distinguish normal, running pain from the pain of an injury, then, deciding when it’s worth risking it.
“I have converted to the idea that the kids should consistently run but it’s OK to occasionally ride the stationary bike or elliptical. In the grand scheme of things, taking a day off from running will not hurt that athlete but trying to continue to run with an injury could potentially set them back significantly,” states Albert Caruana, coach at Crystal Springs Uplands High School in California. “That means that you may not be pushing the envelope on any given day but you will be able to come back the following day and be able to run and train once again.”
Risks will often arise and they aren’t always in specific make-or-break moments; after all, a race doesn’t depend on a single workout and one run won’t define an entire season. Rather, it’s an accumulative effect; constantly backing off will certainly impact your season but the rare day or two, probably not.
An outside observer such as a coach can be extremely helpful in making the call as to when to push vs. when to back off. “I think as a coach, you have to consistently monitor the runners and really watch them when they are running,” explains Caruana. “Some kids might be hurting and won’t speak up but if you watch closely, you can see that they are compensating for that injury by how they are running. When it gets to that point, it’s time to call it a day for that runner and figure out a plan of action to get past that injury.”
In the end it comes down to the situation, the runner, and how the odds are stacked. Is getting that one-hundred percent out of yourself worth the potential injuries along the way, or are you satisfied with training to ninety percent of your potential but with less chance of injuries? To add more to the table, even that ninety percent doesn’t come with the guarantee you won’t wind up injured the day before your race. Injuries are dark and unpredictable monsters, and sometimes they arise with no rhyme or reason.
In running, injuries do come with the territory; taking every proactive measure to avoid them is wise. But from there, when the risks come up it’s necessary to assess our odds before placing our bets.
About The Author:
Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.