You’re in the middle of a run. You notice a pain that’s been there for the past mile or so. And, come to think of it, you felt it on your last run. Uh-oh, a little bit during your warm up, too. You wonder “could this be the start of an injury?,” “should I keep running?” Discerning between running pain and running related discomfort can be very tricky for runners.
Many runners have type A personalities, intent on following their plan to a “T,” to achieve their goals. Being driven, and consistent is certainly a quality that helps runners achieve those goals. But, the flip side is that we runners sometimes continue to run despite pain, or a potential running injury. That’s partly due to that “committed” personality and drive, but also because it can be difficult to know the difference between running pain (potential injury) or discomfort.
Mind games that runners play with pain:
- We flat out IGNORE the pain.
- We HOPE the pain goes away.
- We are slow to ACCEPT there may be a problem.
- We RATIONALIZE that we have a big race coming up, so training trumps pain.
- We think some Advil will do the trick.
- We rationalize extra stretching post run will be enough to address it. (Stretching a muscle strain can actually make it worse!)
- We set a plan to foam roll like crazy to fix the issue.
True confessions – I’ve been there, I’ve done that. Did it work for me? Nope.
While I work in Physical Therapy, and coach runners as well, I, too, have fallen into some of these traps myself! I now acknowledge and take action sooner, but still tend to delay a bit longer than I should.
Granted, the whole process can be frustrating, right? You’re foam rolling, strength training, taking recovery days, stretching post run, changing out your shoes, increasing mileage gradually, and a host of other things to keep yourself free from injury. Unfortunately, given the repetitive, high-impact nature of running, it’s better to aim to be less injury prone. It’s almost impossible to be injury proof.
Related Topic: How to Cope with a Running Injury – 10 Proven Ways
Which is it: Pain or Discomfort?
The question we often ask ourselves: Is this twinge just a fleeting, normal part of running, or a sign of possible injury?
Whether you’ve been running for years, or just a few weeks, you know that running means discomfort. It’s not typically easy, you feel tired, out of breath, your lungs are “on fire,” you’re sore, etc. These are all aspects we are familiar with, the trick is to know the difference between running pain or discomfort.
Studies have shown, however, that new runners are even more susceptible to injury with higher incidence rates. And, these running-related injuries are the #1 reason why recreational/new runners quit.
Related Topic: How to Start Running Again, 8 Expert Tips
Below are six potential signs to watch out for to discern if it’s plain ol’ running discomfort or pain because of a potential running injury.
Signs of a Potential Running Injury
You feel localized pain versus generalized discomfort.
Whether it’s in your hip, thigh, or anywhere else, a dull, more general discomfort/ache is less of a concern than a sharp, localized pain. By localized pain, it means you can point to a very specific area.
If you get distracted with conversation and your thoughts, and then notice the sensation goes away, that’s a good sign. Similarly, if the discomfort sort of “bounces” to different body parts, and then subsides, it’s likely okay to continue.
Your pain doesn’t stop once done running.
You’re done with your run, but the pain starts, or marches on. As a matter of fact, it may feel a bit worse. That’s not a good sign.
If you notice that you are limping, favoring the opposite leg later that day, that is something you should pay attention to. Similarly, if it persists for several days, whether at rest, or with your runs, that’s a sign to pause.
Granted, I recall hobbling after tough workouts, a race, or a marathon. But, that was discomfort over a more generalized area, and affected both legs similarly. It also felt better with each passing day.
Your gait changes to compensate for your pain.
ANY time you have to change your stride/gait to compensate for pain is a major warning sign. If you have to run differently to avoid pain, or you’re limping, stop running.
Interestingly enough, altering our gait pattern can lead to an injury elsewhere as we over stress other body parts to compensate for the pain we are feeling.
Your pain continues/intensifies with more time running.
One key sign that your running pain is more than a general discomfort is it dissipates with time or distance is better than pain that intensifies as the distance climbs.
Similarly, while at rest, soreness/achiness from a tough workout normally doesn’t persist – it gets better over time (think DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness).
Joint pain (i.e. hip, knee) is not something to dismiss.
Especially if that pain persists, or comes back repeatedly. If your knee acts up one day, and then you don’t feel that again, not a concern. But if it continues to show up, and seems to be getting worse: pay heed.
When we have an injury, our body initiates an inflammatory response to begin recovery. With this response, you can experience swelling, less range of motion, pain to the touch, heat, or redness. Consider these indicators to be a STOP sign; this is running pain, likely an injury, and definitely not just discomfort!
Pressing on will only delay your recovery, and quite likely make the injury worse.
Related Topic: How to Cope with a Running Injury – 10 Proven Ways
Running Related Pain – Nip it in the Bud!
I’ve written a separate post on mistakes to avoid when rehabbing an injury. While that’s important so you can get back to your running schedule hopefully sooner and more safely, it’s best to minimize the impact of an injury when, or before it starts.
Therefore, heed these tips to minimize how long you’re affected by an injury (or potential one):
- Better to end a workout early, or skip it completely versus blindly follow a plan. Those early signs are your body’s way of telling you to rest, pause, and address the issue.
Does it matter if you finish the last interval, the last mile, the second half of the workout if it means you might miss the next several runs as a result?
- If you notice an issue comes back repeatedly, get the help of a professional: a physical therapist, sports medicine physician, or a running coach.
- Don’t wait too long for a professional opinion. Yes, it can be inconvenient, cost $$, and we may not want to hear what they have to say. But it often is the most direct and quickest route to recovery!
Better Yet, Include PREHAB in Your Routine.
Prehab is a personalized exercise program that provides runner-specific, focused exercises and activities to meet your needs. Ultimately, its goal is to PREVENT injuries.
Yep, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Your best bet is to include prehab within your ongoing running routine. It’s possible that you’re already doing some prehab if you warm up dynamically before running, foam roll, work on core and hip strength. All these components (and more!) fall into prehab.
However, if you notice you keep having the same issue, or that it creeps up once you hit a certain mileage load, then an assessment with a PT (or sports trainer) is a great option. Physical Therapists, sports trainers can hone in on your potential issues, whether they be range of motion, weaknesses, tight muscle groups, imbalances between different muscle groups, balance issues, stabilization, etc.
Here’s some ways to include prehab into your routine!
Core Strength – a 10 minute routine
How to Cope with a Running Injury – 10 Proven Ways
Glute Strength – the powerhouse muscles that are often overlooked
Dynamic Warm-Up– best five minutes you can spend
Foam Rolling – how, when and why!