To train or not to train… that is the question?

For many runners, once they are bitten by the running bug, there are suddenly a whole host of complex reasons why they run, in some cases twice a day and in many cases every day of the week. The forces that drive people to miss out on social engagements, pretend that they really like salad and wholemeal pasta dishes, go for orange juice and soda water in the pub, are powerful indeed. And sometimes the drive to improve and to succeed can become too powerful. Sometimes we are driven to train when it is certainly not the best thing to be doing.

sick-runnerSo the question is, how do you know when you should most definitely not be training and when you can safely push on through?

Actually I don’t know that there are any hard and fast rules. For me, as with so many things in running, it comes down to experience and intuition.

Listen to your body?

Runners often advise each other (and probably themselves) to ‘listen to the body’ but I think that this is too simplistic. Sometimes the body is sending messages that should be heeded, whilst at other times it should be completely – and I would suggest – aggressively ignored.

But how do you know which is which?

There are times when all runners, indeed all athletes, feel pretty low. Fatigue, over-training, a slight cold, a niggle here or there. But in many cases, the problem is not significant enough to warrant stopping training altogether. But other times a cold can become a chest infection or a pain in the knee can develop into serious tendonitis that takes months to heal.

My experience is that the longer I have been a runner, the tougher I have got. Whereas when I first started running I would heed every cough and sniffle or twinge, now I tend to get myself out to do something, even if that is not the session that I had planned. So far, touch wood, I have not had a twinge turn into anything more serious and colds have abated without morphing into pneumonia.

What advice can I offer?

I know that intuition and experience is not very useful, so here are my top tips for working out if you should HTFU and get out there, or take a rest day or two and get better first:

Illnesses
  • If you check your heart rate and it is hammering, then your body is fighting some bad-dude germs and you should give it a chance to win. My resting heart rate (that is measured as I wake up before getting out of bed) is around 42-44 BPM. I measure it once every couple of weeks. If I wake up feeling rough and my heart rate is in the 50s I give it a break.
  • If your illness is affecting your respiratory system, i.e. you’re really coughing or your lungs are sore, don’t go for a run. Breathing hard in those circumstances is a bad idea.
  • If you have diarrhea or vomiting, especially if you are dehydrated as a result, take some rest and drink electrolytes to replenish the fluids and minerals lost.
  • If you have a tickly throat or a bunged-up nose, wrap up warm and get out there, even if you only go for 20 minutes easy, you’ll often find that the run clears the symptoms of the cold.
  • Hungover? No sympathy. Get out for a run and stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Injuries – this can be a more difficult area and these are only my rules of thumb. I’m no medical expert!
  • If you have a sore spot that eases up once you’re running, it is probably tightness rather than an injury, so get your run done and remember to stretch well when you finish
  • In my opinion if you have an injury that persists or even gets worst when you’re running, stop running. If you can’t at least be pain free after 10-15 minutes running then your injury is chronic and needs to be dealt with
  • Upper limbs don’t count. I ran races – including the New York marathon – two weeks after an operation to pin a broken bone in my wrist. Provided you’re not off your head on pain-killers you will be fine. Just don’t fall over.
  • If you don’t know what your injury is, figure it out. There are some things that cannot and shouldn’t be run-through. Check out the Running Injury Oracle or a physio for diagnosis
  • Accupuncture works… fast! Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Ibuprofen work… but they don’t fix the problem so don’t abuse that route
  • Change your shoes if you have knee/ankle problems and see how you get on before you confine yourself to your bed for a week

Timing

There is something to be said about timing – if you are two or three weeks out from a key race and you pick up an injury or an illness, the most important thing of all is getting well as fast as possible. I promise you that any fitness you loose by not training in the last 14-21 days before a key race will pale into total insignificance in comparision to how you will feel and perform if you try to train through and allow whatever it is to get it’s teeth into you. Stop training, rest and rehabilitate in the most appropriate way so that you have a chance of getting to the start line in decent shape.

If you get ill or injured with a month or more to go, the trick is to assess whether you do need to rest and rehabilitate or whether you can afford to take your foot off the pedal and simply train through whatever ails you, whilst keeping some training going. This is not, however, the time to give yourself a week off because you’re tired or have a little cold. If you are in the 16 weeks-to-go zone, you really need to be training as much as possible.

Final advice

The main thing to focus on is getting well again. Remember that for most of us (and I’ll assume everyone reading this) running is a fun activity. Sure, it is wrapped up in self-worth and how we define ourselves. But you’re not a contestant in The Running Man. So be smart – if you’re just feeling a bit tired, ill and daunted by the prospect of training, do something else, but DO get out and do something.

If you are unlucky enough to end up with a proper illness or injury, deal with that first and then get back to training. You won’t loose anywhere near the amount of fitness you fear you might and if you’re clever, you’ll be back and ready to regain your former fitness and more in no time at all.

 

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About simon

I run marathons. Everything else is a result of that.

3 Responses to “To train or not to train… that is the question?”

  1. Simon Tanner February 20, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Some great advice, running bug can overtake the other bugs too easily. This is my take on a similar experience in early Jan that interrupted my training for London. I stopped and hav come back stronger than before.

    http://simontannerrunning.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/cant-run-but-i-can-write/

  2. Dominic February 20, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    All sounds fair to me. Except from the bit about NSAIDs. Not a good idea to mix these with endurance training unless you want to risk hyponatremia and / or kidney damage…

    Probably better off with paracetamol if you need to mask a pain to carry on!

  3. Matthew February 21, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    I had the early symptoms of a cold yesterday, but took your advice and went for a six mile tempo run. I felt wonderful afterwards. Had I stayed at home I would have drank some grog and went to bed with no improvement.

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