Monday, February 3, 2014

Why Pain Isn't Weakness Leaving the Body

So I want to talk about injuries you can get while running and how to deal with them. To clarify, I’m not a doctor, so I’ll be addressing how to MENTALLY deal with injuries. For physical advice, please see a doctor like this one:

Just kidding, not like this one.
Before I get into injuries, though, let’s address a thing that often occurs in some motivational/exercise pieces online. I’d like to consider motivation/exercise to be largely what my writing is about, and I feel the need to call out a certain trend.

You know those pictures you’ll see online of someone running or stretching, whose skin and proportions are usually unrealistically perfect (Photoshop, y’all), and who is surrounded by the manufactured bloom of cool blues and warm oranges? Some of these pictures have a caption that reads, “THE ONLY BAD EXERCISE IS ONE YOU MISS,” or, “EARN YOUR BODY, FEEL THE BURN,” or, “PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY.”

Hi, trend. Let’s have a little discussion about no. No to all of this. No to this strange, violent culture where exercise is some sort of Spartan ritual where you kick the babies of weakness off a cliff with the boot of shame and self-hate. 

But more importantly, no to the idea that pain is an inevitable consequence of exercise and that you should be shamed for letting it stop you. Pain isn’t weakness leaving the body. Instead, it is your body’s very eloquent way of telling you to “NO PLS STAHP!”

Here’s what I think these slogans are getting at: muscles ache during and after exercise as a way to tell you that you’ve reached your physical limit. It’s a normal part of building muscle and cardiovascular strength. So by “pain,” I think this motivational trend means, “muscle soreness from moderate exertion.” These posters are trying to say, “Is it hard? Yes. You should still try!” I’m right behind this. But by saying it with the extreme attitude made popular by commercials for men’s deodorant and flavored tortilla chips, they overgeneralize and create an atmosphere of violence against your own body. 

Don’t exercise because you dislike yourself for weakness, because then it becomes a punishment. You’ll become some like a weird, self-flagellating extremist. I don’t think having this as motivation for exercise is sustainable, and, more importantly, I don’t think it’s good for anyone’s mental health. Exercise because your body is already awesome and can do even more awesome things if you want to.

Especially you. Yes, you!
But let’s speak practically about how else this mindset is destructive. You know what else causes pain? Injury. Injury loves to cause pain, and you should pay attention to pain, especially as a runner.

If you run, you’re putting a lot of strain on a lot of things: Feet, knees, calves, thighs, hips, abs, shoulders, neck, etc. Your WRISTS can swell if you move your arms strenuously enough. If you have a pain in one of these areas, or anywhere, you need to address it. Sometimes, this means taking time off from running, and that’s VERY IMPORTANT TO DO. If you believe the extreme mindset and think that pain in general is an inevitable consequence of exercise, you might think you should run through sharp, jabbing pains. Don’t do this.

When I started running, I experienced what I now know is planar fasciitis. The muscles in the arches of my feet were weak, and by running I was bruising them and felt sharp pains in my heels. When you’re just starting to get a little momentum in your running progress, as I was, this was devastating. I wanted so badly to believe those posters because that meant I could just ignore the pain, and then my feet would get stronger. I couldn’t and they didn’t. Running more exacerbated the problem, and I learned a hard lesson: sometimes the healthiest and most responsible thing you can do for yourself is to rest and do nothing.

For me, exercise--and running especially--are about loving your body and celebrating the fact that it can move itself. I breath deep, feel my feet hit the ground, feel my muscles get used to the repetitive motion, and enjoy being outside. But if your body tells you that something is too hard, or that you’re moving too fast, part of loving it means LISTENING to what it is telling you and resting when need be.

Despite what those posters and their extreme attitudes would have you believe, there is nothing more difficult to practice than moderation; extremes are easy, and balance is hard.

And you're awesome!


  1. Ignoring pain when I first started to run led to a serious IT band injury and four months of physical therapy that cost me ALL the money. Not smart!

    1. Exactly! These types of problems become 10x worse when you don't listen to the signals IMMEDIATELY! That's why I hate those slogans so much!

  2. Can you address the pain of anticipation before any exercise? Not clear? It is always darkest before the dawn...there is nothing more mentally hurtful than the prep, countdown and loathing leading up to the exercise regime...the strenuous act(s) themselves are not at all unpleasant. Why is that?