Triathletes tend to follow strict plans and schedules for training, racing and eating. I know that if I have a long run on a given day I will do whatever it takes to go the entire distance at the highest effort I can manage. I would hear people suggest that listening to your body is more important than living strictly by a training schedule. I didn’t quite understand. If I listened to my body there is no way I would crawl out of bed at 5am. Wasn’t I supposed to toughen up and “just do it.”
The more experience I get training and racing, I have started to understand the concept of listening to my body. And when I don’t listen, it lets me know. I think that I can now distinguish (sometimes anyway) between “don’t feel like it” and “probably shouldn’t.” I can also hear my body when it whispers and not wait until it has to shout at me to get my attention. There isn’t a 5am wake up day that I actually feel like getting up. However, once in a while, when I have either had a bit of a cold, a string of late nights or I have been pushing myself in many workouts in a row, at 5am I can now feel that sometimes more sleep is far more important than working out. It is a distinct feeling that is different from the groggy feeling in my head and the call of my warm bed. It is a tired to the core feeling that indicates that sleep is more important, and I’ll have to live with the fact that I might only be able to get a short workout in later that day. Remember that sleep is much more important to overall heath than we tend to think. Here is a page on the importance of sleep - http://www.health.harvard.edu The key is to not feel guilty if you don’t get up to do your planned workout but also to know the difference between needing sleep and not wanting to get up.
I tend to think that if I am working out then I should just go as hard as possible. Might as well, right? Wrong. I have had to start thinking of it this way – if I push hard intensity every day my body will never recover well enough to get to full intensity for key workouts. It will just be able to go at a medium intensity because it is still trying to recover from the day before. Progress in fitness comes from key workouts where a new higher than normal intensity is achieved and the body is allowed to recover fully from it. If I just go as hard as possible all the time I will just wear out and never progress. Easy, low intensity workouts allow us to be able to have breakthrough workouts later. It is still hard for me to plod along at an easy pace thinking I am reaping a benefit from it. When I finally started to tune into how I felt during my higher intensity workouts I noted a difference. If it was my 4th in a row, I realized my body felt heavy and slow and I wasn’t going faster at all – it just felt harder. If I eased up for a few days, my high intensity day felt sharp and focused and I saw progress in my pace. Don’t over ride you body’s messages that it needs to slow down. This is still sometimes hard for me to do, especially while running.
Addendum to the above
With that said, I do know that years ago I used to just go at a comfortably hard pace that was just enough to feel like I moved but I never saw progress in any kind of real fitness, weight loss. First off I got bored and secondly, I got frustrated I didn’t get anywhere in my ability to go faster. If you fit in this category think about upping your intensity with interval training. Do this with great care, however. You need to push yourself just enough but if you aren’t ready for it you can do more harm than good. Here is a good site that talks a bit about how to do intervals –intervaltraining.net Joe Friel also explains it brilliantly in his blog post here.
Being sick or starting to feel sick is the hardest time for me to listen to my body. There are lots of opinions out there about when it is OK to workout when you don’t feel 100%. The two most common I have heard are – if your symptoms are from the neck up you are OK to workout or if you don’t have a fever, go ahead. Until my most recent bout with sickness, I was with the school of thought that as long as I didn’t have a fever I was good to go. I would ignore the runny nose, sore throat and cough. I often would feel better, too, after my run or bike (swimming while congested never feels good after.) Late in May, I ignored a cough. I didn’t feel sick at all, I just had a nasty cough that was a bit annoying. I was coughing up gunk but I ignored it. In June, I still had the cough but started to feel more like I had a cold with it – more congestion and a slight sore throat in the morning. The deepness of the cough was worse, too. I did visit a doctor who said it was a virus and not much I could do about it. July rolled around and I still had the cough and the feeling of being sick would ebb and flow but never felt awful. In all this time, I never stopped my training regimen or stopped racing (I scheduled a race a month through the summer.) After my race in Utah mid-July, I continued training and even upped my milage since I was in Jackson Hole and wanted to take advantage of my new surroundings. I had ignored my body for about two months now and it bit me in the butt. The mild congestion became an inner ear infection that sent sharp pain down my ear canal and a headache I couldn’t get rid of. I have been off any training for 7 days now and am supposed to race tomorrow. I sit here wondering if a few days off 3 weeks ago with more rest and easy days would have allowed me to heal. I’m sure of it.
I am much better at listening to my body when it comes to the nagging sensation of something that feels like it may become an injury. I am scared to death of having something pop or tear and keep me out of the game for six months or so. Running seems to cause the highest rate of injury for people but all 3 sports can cause parts of our bodies to fall apart. Listen to the slighest tightness, twinge or discomfort immediately. Don’t push yourself through a sensation that causes discomfort especially if you haven’t felt it before. I never had any knee issues before in my life and they were becoming sore on my run. I walked the rest of the run and tried again the next day. It was worse. With some advice from another runner, I stretched my calves more and rolled out on a foam roller and took some days off of running. This helped and my knees were back to new. Not sure if it was IT band syndrome or runners knee but I didn’t let it get worse. The slight nagging sensations we feel are the body’s way of telling us something is not working right. Whether over use, improper mechanics, or poor technique is to blame, figure it out before you are in physical therapy rehabbing a more serious injury.
I guess the take away is this:
At first your body whispers. If we don’t listen it shouts. By then it is often too late and we’re sidelined.