The Most Pointless Advice Ever? "Listen To Your Body"

By: Brad Deel


I said I intended to challenge conventional wisdom and I might as well start with one that rarely, if ever, gets questioned.  How many times have you heard "listen to your body?"  How many times have you repeated it to others?  I have certainly said it on more than a few occasions.  However, the more I run and the more I learn, the less convinced I am that this mantra has any meaning at all.  Let's start with professional runners.

According to the conventional wisdom, you can avoid injury if you just "listen to your body."  One would think that professional runners are much more in tune with their bodies than the average recreational runner.  Moreover, they have full time professional coaches watching every step they take, access to the latest and greatest training equipment, and daily access to folks like massage therapists and physical therapists.  Yet almost every professional runner has experienced at least one extended absence due to injury.  It is simply silly for folks who are out there running 8:00-12:00 miles to suggest that professional runners who cruise at 6:00 and run tempo runs at 4:45 don't know how to "listen to their bodies."

From a personal perspective, every serious injury I have had came from doing things I shouldn't have been doing but there was nothing at the time I could have gleaned from "listening to my body."  On January 1, 2011, I decided to do a bunch of hill sprints just because I'd been inspired to do them by getting Brad Hudson's book, Run Faster From the 5K to the Marathon for Christmas.  Naturally, I did too many.  I noticed absolutely nothing out of the ordinary at the time and felt great at the end of the run.  It was only the next day that my left hamstring began hurting.  Over a year later it has never fully healed.  I ran my first ultra in July, 2011 - the Kanawha Trace 50K.  Despite some awful cramps, I managed to finish in the top 10 which ain't bad for a debut.  All well and good until a knot popped up on my right Achilles tendon two days later.  I missed six full weeks of running and then had to go through five weeks of physical therapy.  No special body listening skills would have prevented that injury either.

I have run through some incredible pain.  When I first started running, I had bursitis in my right hip.  It nearly brought tears to my eyes for the first half mile or so of every run.  Recently I have had some very painful tendonitis first in my left knee and then in my right knee.  We're talking so painful that I couldn't touch the knee.  I just ignored and kept running.  Well, that's not entirely true.  I "listened to my body" for the left knee, took a week and a half off, and only started running again when it didn't heal.  I just ran through the pain in the right knee.  Both have healed nicely.  In fact, the right knee was fairly sore going into the marathon on March 18 but came out of the marathon with almost no discomfort.  I don't know of anyone who would prescribe running for 26.2 miles at an all out pace as therapy for tendonitis yet it appears to have worked.

What does your body tell you at repeat #7 of Yasso 800's?  What does your body tell you at Mile 2 of a 5K or at Mile 22 of a marathon?  It screams at you to stop but you don't.  The reality is that we get better not by "listening to our bodies" in those situations but by being deaf to our bodies and deliberately pushing on when our bodies yell STOP!

The problem is that no one can tell us what is merely discomfort from hard training, what is a normal ache and pain that will go away even if we keep running, and what is something that needs to send us to the sideline.  We take our best guess and hope we're right.  Sometimes we are and sometimes we are not.  If "listen to your body" is pointless, what then is a replacement?  Simple.  

Think about it before you start it.  Think about what you are getting ready to do and ask yourself if the reward is worth the risk.  I can honestly say that the risk was worth it to run my first ultra but not for the hill sprints.  There was no reason for me to start at the maximum number and duration of hill sprints rather than gradually working my way up.  Even if I hadn't gotten hurt, there was precious little reward from one single workout.  The ultra however provided me with a unique opportunity to participate in an inagural event and do something for the first time.  

So, the next time you are getting ready to do something for the first time, think about it before you start it and ask yourself if the reward is worth the risk.  Your answer may be "yes" or it may be "no."  Let your answer to that question guide you in your training rather than some meaningless phrase that's probably not going to help you anyway.

By the way, if you feel something pop or snap when you are running, stop.  Stop immediately.  That is the one time when "listen to your body" probably does have some meaning.

Agree?  Disagree?  Regardless, join the conversation.

See ya out there.

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