January 4, 2012

Pain and Limits

As a doctor, one of the things I thought about when I picked up running was what it might do to my body.

Mostly,when it comes to exercise, we think about the upsides for physical health: improved muscle tone, better body composition, increased strength and endurance, long-term benefits for cardiovascular health, and even improved brain health and mental/emotional well-being. Since I work in the field of obesity, exercise is also commonly discussed as one of the pillars of losing or maintaining weight – and perhaps I’ll really address that here one day.

As great as exercise is, we always have to balance the positive gains with the possibility that we might get hurt. When I have talked to runners about running injuries, they acknowledge it as par for the course. Usually, they will recount for you some list of strains, tears, and other injuries that have hampered their ability to run over the years. In six short months, I have already had a few interesting aches and pains – foot pain was the most profound. This week, in my surprising new-found interest in running hills (I know…), I seem to have strained my left psoas muscle.

I rested it and babied it all day yesterday, and it still hurts.

This morning, I find myself having an interesting internal discussion between my self-driven perfectionist who wants to get up and run despite the pain and my inner physician who thinks I would be trading one day of running for an extra week of pain if I do that.

It goes like this:

Perfectionist – You are really overplaying this. If you just get up and run, you will be fine

Physician – Another day of rest and you’ll be fully healed and ready to go

Perfectionist – Wimp!

Physician – Idiot!

Since the day is still young, it’s not clear who’s going to win this yet so stay tuned.

Pain always has something to teach us if we pay attention. It’s the body’s way of letting us know that something is broken, or hurt, or simply worn out. If we listen carefully enough, pain can also teach us about our limits. We can take this in a negative manner, and think of pain as a thing that prevents us from doing things we want or love – but we can also think of it as guidance. In part, an injury is the body’s way of saying – Don’t do it that way.

We can always do better at anything we do. Professional athletes don’t stop having coaches just because they are really good at their game. The most successful people out there are those who make mistakes, learn from the mistakes, and make the changes needed to do better the next time. When you are new at a skill, mistakes are common – and they are often a reason that people simply give up.

But if we can use the information of an injury – a physical mistake of sorts- to make change, we have much to learn. My sore feet, for example, required me to learn something about shoes. I suspect that my aching psoas muscle is trying to tell me that if I really want to run hills, I am going to have to make some adjustments that are not what I was doing on level ground. (pointers anyone?)

What we have to be careful of is allowing the limits of the body to become limits in the mind. It’s too easy for many of us to call it quits when we hurt. Personally, this is part of the fear that drives my perfectionism – the fear that if I give in to pain, if I rest, that I might not only lose ground – I might just give up and lose altogether. If we can learn the lessons, adjust and keep going – we might just be rewarded with bigger and better gains than we ever imagined.

Funny – I always heard the phrase “no pain, no gain” as sort of a tough-guy, gut-it out motto.  But perhaps there is a more subtle interpretation in looking at pain as a way to learn, grow, and eventually exceed our own limits?

Today, I am surely finding some of mine.



Leave a comment
  1. Jeff H
    January 4, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    You need to go get a massage and reward that aching muscle. I use to think a massage was more of relaxing type of process, what I found with my older muscles is they appreciate some attention and found the pain it was sending me was relieved after the massage. So my advice keep running, keep writing, and go get that muscle massaged.

    • Jacqueline Jacques
      January 4, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

      Thanks – Jeff. I would love to have a massage – though this muscle is sort of in a place that’s tricky to get at…
      Think I am going to do some yoga and maybe a very gentle run on my treadmill today. And thanks for reading/commenting – I really appreciate that!

  2. Lena
    January 5, 2012 at 2:15 am #

    We often get comments from customers who are experiencing an issue on one side of the body and not the other. Steven always asks them, “What are you doing differently between the two sides? Why is the GOOD side still good?”

    Developing this kind of self awareness while running isn’t easy – sometimes having a skilled coach watch you can help you figure out where your form is off a lot faster than you could on your own – but the real value of pain is, as you’ve said, the opportunity to correct a problem before it becomes a full blown injury.

    I asked Steven if he had any thoughts about why running hills might be triggering a psoas issue and he said: “It could be overstriding [easy to do in if your shoes are heavily padded], which would put strain on whatever the weak link is. Hills should be a workout for the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, etc.) But most people try to REACH up the hill rather than pushing up.”

    Personally, I think a massage sounds like an excellent solution.

    • Jacqueline Jacques
      January 5, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

      My first thought when I saw this was “hey, your reading my blog – cool!”
      I have thought about you and Steven a bunch lately – finished reading Born to Run and have some very slight thoughts that I might have to try out those cool shoes you make at some point…
      I frankly think I just favor one side over the other and that somehow I can compensate better on flat ground. I have to think about the reaching vs pushing. I ran on my treadmill (flat, no incline) today with no pain at all. I had not at all thought about a running coach ever – I don’t even know where I would find one??? Maybe your husband will watch me run next time I am in Boulder.
      And I am all in for the massage next time I have the time (ok, maybe I just need to make the time)

      • Lena
        January 5, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

        I am reading your blog! Enjoying it, too. It definitely played a part in getting me to rethink my own “I don’t have the energy to exercise right now,” stance…hopefully I’ll be as dedicated as you and stick with it 😉

        I’m happy to volunteer my husband to watch you run – he’s not an coach but has an excellent eye for form and understands it better than most. He can also tell you what to look for in a coach if you do decide you need one. Mostly, though, I think it sounds like a fabulous excuse to get together the next time you are in town ;-).

        • Jacqueline Jacques
          January 5, 2012 at 11:05 pm #

          Given your expertise, I am honored.
          And I will definitely make sure that next trip to Boulder we get together.
          Maybe I can also tour the “factory” and write about it. That would be fun.