Learning when to ignore the pain, and when to listen to it

Training is a balloon bouncing on the end of your fingertip.

Fail to tap it often or hard enough and it falls to the ground. Hit it too hard and it goes flying away like a leaf in the breeze. The trick is to constantly bump it up juuuust right to keep it suspended and under control.

Keeping this in mind, there are two widely accepted but conflicting principles of training:

1. You must stress the body beyond what it's accustomed to stimulate improvement.

2. You must rest the body for that improvement to actually occur and to prevent injury.

In other words you must do more, but then know when to stop.

These two concepts are simple enough to understand, but putting them into practice can be difficult.

I'm a self-coached athlete. I rely on my own observations, instincts, and knowledge to make training decisions, which means I am both observing and participating in the training process. For example, when on a planned 15-mile run I may decide to extend it to 16-miles. But who exactly is making that decision?

Is it the coach in me? The one watching from the sidelines who knows what I should be doing?

Or is it the athlete in me? The one who's executing the work. The one whose ego is on the line and wants to prove the coach right?

It can be hard to figure out who to listen to. One might tell me to slow down, that I'm running at a good pace for the purpose of the workout. But then I think if I'm doing so well, I should speed up and attempt to stretch the limits a little more. I'm aware of the decision I have to make and know there are times when both options might be correct. And in doing so I create a third player in the discussion, the mediator. This schizophrenic nature of coaching one's self makes an already challenging task even more difficult to manage.

Making these decisions would be much easier if not for the nature of ultra endurance sports. Learning to manage pain, fatigue, and discomfort, and in spite of it all, finding a way to keep moving forward is at the heart of what running 50-miles is all about. It's why I want to do this. To experience pain then deal with it. And so learning to manage suffering is a skill I have to practice by exposing myself to it, and then stay locked on to the task of moving forward to complete the workout.

And so when I encounter suffering, I know it's a vital moment that I have to learn to deal with. I have to silence the athlete in me telling to stop, and listen to the objective voice of the coach telling me "This is what you came here to do. Now keep going."

The overall plan for getting faster and enduring more pain is simple: do more.

Longer runs.
More weekly miles.
More quality speed work.

This ever-increasing volume means that I have to push my body beyond what it's currently capable of. I have to stress it. I have to ask things of it that it doesn't want to do. It will ask me to stop, to slow down, to call it a day. It will play tricks on my mind, telling me things like "You're doing so great out here, you've put in enough today. Why don't you just end it here? After all, we don't want to overtrain now do we?"

The bastard.

But like a parenting a child, have to be wiser than my body, since I'm the one that knows what will be asked of it on September 10th.

Stress it consistently, and my body will respond by adapting to handle the demands. 4-hour long runs will feel easier. My speed will increase. My tendons and ligaments will strengthen. My heart will get better at moving oxygen to my muscles.

But unfortunately, it's not as simple as the more I put in, the more I get out. There's an unspoken agreement between me and my body. The deal is, I get to push and mold it into something new, but ultimately I have to accept that it will change at its own rate. I can't force it. I have to let the fitness happen. I have to be both master and slave, whipping it into submission but then surrendering to its will.

Whip and beat it too often or too hard, and it will push back. Injury will creep in. Motivation will wane. My mood will darken. Adaptation will stop.

And so you can see the difficult position I'm put in. I have to learn which voices to ignore and push past, and which to take a knee and listen to. What kind of pain is appropriate to tolerate and train through, and what kind of pain is a sign to pump the brakes. It's not always easy and I don't always get it right, especially when my pride and desire to improve is on the line.

This morning I faced an unusually difficult decision.

I was 20 minutes into a planned 18-kilometer run and I still couldn't find my rhythm. Some knee soreness I had
recently been dealing with flared up. Although my heart rate was very low and the pace was easy, the effort it took to keep it there was off the charts. Yesterday's workout was a 10 out of 10 in terms of difficulty and I knew I wasn't recovered. I slept horribly the night before and felt exhausted. I was not having fun.

I am very comfortable with the feeling of not wanting to train. Over the past few months I've gotten used to lacing up my shoes and putting in the work on days where all I want to do is curl up on the couch. But this was different.

It's hard to explain just how today was so unusual. The best I can do is say that I felt this overwhelming sense that I just shouldn't be out there, that no productive work was being done. It was louder and more serious than the typical irritation I feel when setting out for a run on tired legs. So many times, I've felt stiff and fatigued at the beginning of a run only to shake it off and settle into a groove, finding a way to make it a high quality session. But again, this was different. The pain in my knee was worsening, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why running that slow felt so damn hard. The voice was louder, darker, and more serious. "This is not good, you shouldn't be doing this." So 20 minutes in, I turned around.

It felt like defeat. Like I let the pain get to me. For a moment I wondered if I had just talked myself into accepting that it was a good thing to quit, or if it had actually been the right call. I wasn't sure. But I trusted that there was a reason that the voice I heard today was different. Deep down, I felt like I would end up paying an even bigger price had I continued on and ignored my body's plea to stop.

I knew this was coming on the tail end of a big week of volume and that a rest day wouldn't exactly be inappropriate given the work I'd put in. So I chose to pack it in, and live to train another day.

So what do I take from today?

Even though it only ended up being 45-minutes of jogging and walking, I think I can put today to rest knowing two things:

1) I didn't get worse or hurt myself.

2) I sharpened my sense for listening to my body.

Not the outcome I wanted, but not the end of the world either. I have to remind myself to play the long game. Stay healthy. Keep the joy. Embrace the struggle and the moments of pain, but be aware that there is such a thing as too much.

Running is hard. That's why I like it. But at the end of the day it should support and enhance my life, not be a burden on it. Is flirting with injury and burnout really worth getting another five miles in? I don't think so.

As Crash Davis famously said, "This game's fun, Ok? Fun goddamnit."

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