“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
We get it: When it comes to working out, pushing ourselves is a tried and true way to make progress toward fitness goals. Acute high-intensity endurance exercise is more effective than moderate-intensity exercise for attenuation of postprandial triglyceride elevation. Trombold JR, Christmas KM, Machin DR, et al. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2013 Mar 15;114(6):792-800. Effect of exercise training intensity on abdominal visceral fat and body composition.Irving BA, Davis CK, Brock DW, et al. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2008 Nov;40(11):1863-72. But what about when we push too hard in the face of pain, putting ourselves in danger of injury? Hello, rehab! It’s about this time when the physical therapist asks us things like, "Did you feel this coming on?" "When did the problem start?" Their parting advice is often, you guessed it: “Next time, listen to your body.”
It's all just a jumble of mixed messages. First, do we ignore the pain or push past it? And second, what the heck does “listen to your body” mean anyway? If we actually listened to our bodies, would we ever willingly participate in activities that make us tired, sweaty, and sore in the first place? OK let’s not get carried away.
One thing we know for sure: Exercise is good. Well, the right amount of exercise at the right intensity is good. The challenge is figuring out when enough is enough and when it’s just too much. The good news is that our bodies already know the answer. We just need to train our brains to recognize the signs for when to put the pedal to the metal and when to pump the brakes—and actually do it.
I Saw the Sign (But Did It Open Up My Eyes?)
It might come as a surprise, but our bodies are incredibly smart. If we take the time to listen to them,"some very serious injuries or conditions could often be avoided," says Dr. Doug Andrews, PT, director of sports medicine for Optim Healthcare. “When we experience pain, our body is definitely telling us that something is not right. It is up to each person to figure out what the signal means," Dr. Andrews says.
Think of pain like the "check engine" light in a car. Turning a blind eye to this blinking light will inevitably result in a breakdown, granted the body's warning signs can be more subtle than a car's. (If only our knees came with a "Check ACL" light.) But when it comes to preventing small problems from turning into lasting injuries, there are symptoms and signals that act as the first line of defense . Sure, soreness and fatigue accompany many exercise routines, but being able to identify more serious aches and pains is more important than many endorphin-seeking, active folks might think.
Tune In to Common Warning Signs
It’s easier to hear the alarms our bodies are sounding when we know what to listen for. Get familiar with the warning signs of three common conditions that could be compromising performance in the gym or in everyday life.
Caused by too many intense workouts and not enough time recovering from them, overtraining feels, well, terrible. If you've ever experienced some combo of prolonged periods of fatigue, soreness that won't go away, insomnia, a cold you can't seem to kick, and heart rate fluctuations, chances are you've been overtrained.
What to listen for: While there's not a single diagnostic test that determines overtraining, it does make its presence known pretty clearly Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine. Meeusen R, Duclos M, Foster C,, et al. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2013 Jan;45(1):186-205.. Be on the lookout for symptoms described above and consider using a heart rate monitor to establish your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate. An elevated resting heart rate and/or an inability to raise your heart rate during vigorous exercise can both be signs of overtraining. If you suspect you're overtrained, it's time to take a break from your workouts to focus on recovery. Take some rest days ASAP and focus on getting quality sleep and eating nutritious whole foods.
Just because some of our favorite pro sports moments involve an elite athlete heroically pushing through the pain of a brutal injury doesn’t mean we should follow suit. In fact, even minor sports-related injuries generally require intervention. So how do we know when to take a knee?
What to listen for: Dr. Andrews warns of chronic and persistent pain, saying that managing it to allow for continued participation in sports or training is a bad idea. (In other words, don't pop ibuprofen and wrap your knee in a brace just so you can make it through a run.) That not-so-bad-but-constantly-nagging ache in your calf or bothersome knot in your shoulder? It’s trying to tell you something. Avoid injuries altogether by recognizing the warning flares, no matter how faint they might be. First, acknowledge that you’re dealing with some ongoing pain, no matter how minor you think it is. Then back off from your exercise routine for long enough that you can care for the achy part of your body with targeted mobility work.
According to Dr. Andrews, most instances of soreness are caused by restriction of the fascia, or the connective tissue that interconnects our mucles and joints, which leads to aches, pains, and limited range of motion. His solution: Use a foam roller to break up the fascia then follow up with stretching.
After resting and stretching the ailing body part, it’s time to do some strengthening. But this time it’s not about PR-ing a lift. Dr. Andrews recommends focusing on strengthening "the muscles that are weak... not the ones that are already strong.” He also points out that this might be a good time to seek out a physical therapist, or someone trained in movement science, to assist in the recovery process.
3. Disordered Sleep
While some of us wear our late-night-early-morning routines like badges of honor, lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can wreak havoc on the body, productivity, fitness routines, and overall sense of well-being Seven to eight hours of sleep a night is associated with a lower prevalence of the metabolic syndrome and reduced overall cardiometabolic risk in adults. Chaput JP, McNeil J, Després JP, et al. PLoS One. 2013 Sep 5;8(9):e72832.. And poor sleep isn’t an isolated event. Sleepiness compounds to create energy crashes during the day, increases stress hormones, and promotes poor eating habits. As the energy roller coaster dips, we often turn to caffeine, sugar, and energy drinks to combat fatigue. These quick fixes further complicate the energy crisis. It’s only a matter of time until illness, depression, or chronic fatigue set in, but it’s not until the daily energy crash turns into an all out well-being train wreck that we begin to take notice.
What to listen for: Everyone has a bum night of sleep every now and again, but paying attention to how frequently you suffer insomnia or fitful, interrupted sleep is important. If you notice unusual hunger, increasingly frequent bad moods, problems concentrating, trouble staying awake and alert despite pounding caffeine and energy drinks, and even poor motor function, you might be suffering from a sleep problem that requires intervention Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Durmer JS, Dinges DF. Seminars in Neurology. 2005 Mar;25(1):117-29.. Instead of trying to self-medicate with sugar and caffeine, try setting a grown-up bedtime routine. Sleep debt must be repaid on the road to restoring energy levels. Adding an hour or two a night over the course of a month will help restore natural sleep patterns.
Once you feel a bit more well-rested, turn your attention to fuel that provides lasting energy: Nutritious foods (protein instead of sugar, for example), plenty of water, and snacks when you need them Water, hydration, and health. Popkin BM, D'Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Nutrition Reviews. 2010 Aug;68(8):439-58.. Put some limits around your coffee consumption, like having it only early in the day and perhaps in limited amounts.
Considering how busy most of us are with school, work, relationships, family, working out, and the countless tiny things we make time for each day, it's not surprising that we sometimes lose perspective on how we're physically getting through it all. Sometimes the opportunity to rest, eat healthfully, or ditch the energy drink in favor of going to sleep a little earlier slips right past us. But resolving to pay extra close attention to our bodies' "check engine" lights could be the difference between taking a few days off to tend to an ache or a cold and losing weeks or months to an injury or sickness you just can't kick.
Originally posted August 2014. Updated September 2015.