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New Runner: No Pain, No Gain?

Learning to listen to your body can save you a lot of time and frustration.

This story is part of an ongoing series aimed at new runners.

You have probably heard the phrase “no pain, no gain.” You may even have some seasoned runner friends who have told you that training—by definition—comes with aches and pains. If you are doing everything right, they insist, training is going to hurt.

Is that true?

Partly. Going longer and/or faster than you ever have before involves getting out of your comfort zone to reach a previously unattained level of performance. Learning to deal with discomfort in training and racing is a necessary ingredient for improvement in running. This is the welcome “hurt” of pushing yourself to a new personal best on race day, hanging on for one more interval during a challenging workout or honing the art of endurance by asking your exhausted muscles to run a mile longer than they’ve ever run before.

If you are experiencing mild to moderate muscle soreness that lingers for 12-48 hours after a tough workout or race, not to worry. This is normal! As you increase your running volume and experiment with different training intensities, your body will need to adapt to the new stresses that are being placed upon it. Soreness is your body’s way of telling you that it’s repairing and rebuilding itself to come back stronger over the coming days, weeks and months. Be careful not to do too much too soon and take your rest and recovery days seriously so that you’re able to absorb all the hard work that you are putting in. Running easy on a set of sore muscles is fine, but save the long runs and faster workouts for when the soreness has subsided. If you’re unsure whether you should run or not, aerobic cross-training in the form of swimming, spinning or water running can be a great way to flush out metabolic waste without the impact on your legs.

RELATED: Should I Wait And See Or Go Visit A PT?

Pain, however, is an entirely different type of discomfort. This is an unwelcome “hurt” that will prevent improvement rather than promote it. Pain is usually discomfort that comes on quickly, lasts for a prolonged period of time and ranges from tolerable to severe on any given day. Unlike the normal discomfort of training and racing, pain is something to be taken seriously and addressed quickly.

Sharp, sudden pain that seemingly comes on out of nowhere in the middle of a workout or race, unwelcome “pops” that force you to alter your stride or deep soreness that lingers for more than 48 hours are symptoms that should not be ignored. Don’t try to run through it. Stop running immediately, evaluate the situation and seek the expertise of a physical therapist or sport medicine doctor (if necessary) to understand the root of the problem and how to correct it. Be especially careful with joints and tendon pain, and unusual swelling or bruising—these are signs that something isn’t right and needs to be addressed right away. Start by taking a few days off from running, cross-train to maintain fitness while your body heals (as long as it doesn’t aggravate the injury site), perform corrective exercises to strengthen your weak spots (you should be doing this anyway!) and only attempt to run again once you’re able to go about your daily activities without pain.

RELATED: Returning To Running After An Injury

One of the most important skills you develop as a runner is learning to discern discomfort from pain. While learning to deal with temporary discomfort is necessary for taking your running to the next level, letting a dull, persistent pain linger for a long time can lead to injury.

Addressing it quickly, however, can get you on the road to recovery right away. Learning to listen to your body, and addressing the issue when a sharp pain arises or a dull ache lingers can save you a lot of time and frustration.

This article was adapted from The Official Rock ‘n’ Roll Guide To Marathon & Half Marathon Training [VeloPress, 2013]