What’s Worse for Running, Injury or Illness?

Injuries or illness?When you’re sidelined with a running injury things are pretty cut and dry: you can’t run for a prescribed amount of time until your injury is healed. And while it’s difficult to miss out on running, especially if you’re in full training-mode for an event, it’s almost a badge of honor. You got injured because you were working your body hard.

In most cases, you can cross-train through injury. While you may not love these different exercises as much as running, at least you have the ability to exert yourself physically and you can still get the endorphin boost from working out. And you might find that when you do return to running, the cross training has actually helped improve your overall fitness and given your body renewed energy from switching things up.

Illnesses, I will argue, are almost more difficult. There’s a lot of grey area. Should you or shouldn’t you run? Is exercise going to make you feel better, or exacerbate your issues? While not directly related to your running, they certainly affect it, as it’s hard to do any type of exercise when you’re feeling bad.

I recently spent a few weeks dealing with shingles. Yes, I am under the age of 70, and No, I was not under any extreme amount of stress. Between the internal nerve pain and the extreme skin discomfort as the rash went through its stages, I wanted to crawl out of my skin. So the last thing I wanted to do was make my body any more uncomfortable. And while I am blessedly flat-chested (I am only being partially sarcastic here, I don’t mind not having boobs when it comes to running!), it probably wouldn’t be appropriate to run around braless. The rash was at chest level, covering my right side exactly where a sports bra goes.

Once I got through the discomfort of getting dressed, actually running wasn’t too bad. It didn’t make me feel any better, but it didn’t necessarily make me feel any worse. So I just powered through and stuck with my current running routine to not lose any fitness.

Most people might think it’s frivolous to worry about fitness when your body is trying to heal from illness, but most people aren’t runners. For most non-life-threatening illnesses you may encounter, you will likely want to get back to running as soon as possible. Just remember to ease back into your routine with extra caution of fatigue. Much like running during pregnancy, if your body is used to daily or near-daily exercise it’s okay to let it it do what it’s used to, provided there is no danger of relapse.

Even if the last thing you feel like doing is exercising, the fresh air and endorphins often help perk you up. And if they don’t, cut yourself a break and take a few days off. Ultimately, your body might need that extra energy to combat whatever invader you’re dealing with.

For me, injury is much easier to handle, I can generally find ways to work around not running and get many of the same benefits through other forms of exercise. But with an illness, pushing through can be much tougher because it’s harder to see the gains in health your body makes each day. Even if you can sometimes still push through and run it’s hard to know if that’s the right thing to do. Ultimately, and as we are constantly re-learning as runners, it is important to listen carefully to what your body is really telling you.

Are injuries or non-running related illnesses more frustrating for your running routine?

I have fun trying to sprint, enjoy long runs in the mountains, and everything in between. Former competitive runner (3 x marathon OTQ & trail marathon national champion) currently working through a lingering injury. I write about trying to stay competitive while raising young kids and moving into a new post-competitive stage.

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17 comments

  1. Fellow non-geriatric shingles sufferer, here (unfortunately, mine was stress-induced). I was lucky enough to catch it extremely early, and minimize the rash/pain (I still had a tiny one, also along my bra line), but I’m so sorry you went through with that! I’m usually more ok with illness, as if I’m too uncomfortable/sick to run, I’m often too uncomfortable/sick to care much. That being said, I’ve been lucky that my illnesses or sickness haven’t sidelined me for extended periods of time. Last summer I got a mystery foot affliction that kept me from running for the better part of 6mo, despite PT and rest. That, to me, was more frustrating… in part because there was no real answer as to what it was, or how to fix it. I tend to get way more “whoa is me the world is ending” about injuries, perhaps simply because they’ve sidelined me in a way that illness hasn’t!

      1. Ooh, shingles. My hubs had those a few years ago (also not 70 years old) and on top of that, got viral meningitis from the shingles virus. That definitely sent him on a bit of a lay off from running, but he did rebound over the course of about two months. He did himself no favors though by going to altitude for two weeks soon after he left the hospital (the trip was planned and paid for before the unexpected shingles hospital stay). I’m sure that delayed his recovery. Hope you are feeling better Parsley!

        Hilary, can also relate about the mysterious foot injury. Not having a definitive answer as to what an injury is can be maddening because you don’t know how long you shouldn’t run on it or how to proceed with treatment and even how to prevent it from happening again in the future. Hope the foot is all healed up now.

        1. My aunt is a doc and wondered if I had viral meningitis too bevause of how much my head hurt. Darn these nasty viruses! Did your hubs run while recovering or take the entire recovery period off?

          1. He didn’t run for about a week, I think he was in the hospital for about 3-4 days (had to have a spinal tap done, yuck!). We went to Colorado for two weeks not long after that though and I think he didn’t want to miss out on all the cool mountain runs we had planned, so he ran sooner than he should have, in my opinion. He ended up becoming anemic as a result. So his summer was a bit of a shit show with all that. The shingles and meningitis episode happened at the end of June, anemia at end of July. However, he was able to get back into good marathon shape and ran Philly that November and did well. So, he did eventually get over that business.

          2. Ew yeah! I asked my aunt if I should go the ER and she told me what they’d do and I passed! If they suspect meningitis apparently, they have to do a spinal tap to rule out bacterial even if it’s most likely viral and they can’t do anything about it. Sounds awful!!! Glad he got better and that gives me hope. Starting to consider CIM for my comeback 🙂

        2. That sounds bad. And that would be awfully hard to give up running in beautiful Colorado! I actually got shingles (one of the many pleasant side effects: nausea) early in my pregnancy (one of the many pleasant side effects: nausea), so I felt like a double whammy too! It was horrible.

    1. Oh, I think a mystery injury would be the worst. Then you don’t know what you need to do to fix it, and probably just get generic “stop running and let it rest” advice.

  2. So this is a little timely for me. As someone dropping my #monocard every chance I get, I’m still petrified of a relapse or prolonging my recovery. It is really hard to know what to do and most doctors have no idea and are used to trying to get people to exercise not preventing their patients from exercising! So, we just have to “listen to our bodies” which basically means wing it and cross our fingers.

    1. That would be tricky, since mono makes you tired. And running makes you tired. And “listening to our bodies” can be tricky, because pushing yourself in running/exercise can make you feel bad. So is it bad in a good way, or making you worse? Actually working on a post about this right now!

  3. Going through stomach flu right now and trying to decide when to run. Yesterday even walking caused extreme abdominal cramps and my achy/tired muscles didn’t want to cooperate. Today was supposed to be very slow recovery run but I still had extreme stomach pain, so walked mostly. Guess sometimes what the mind wants and what the body permits don’t meet. Definitely have to lesson to my body–not concerned about getting worse, but have no energy to run. This is temporary, running injuries often much longer and to me that’s a huge difference.

  4. I feel you Parsley! I was out for a week in March with the flu and mentally it was SO MUCH worse than being out with an injury … say for example a current a stress fracture. Six to eight weeks and your bone will be back to normal. When a bone is broken there is no chance of trying to run whilst in a boot or cast. Versus an illness where you’re laying there thinking … “hmm maybe I could go for a little run”. You go out, feel like shit and then it takes you another few days to get back to where you were (recovery wise). Listening to your body is seriously hard! What can be even harder is trying to explain this feeling to non-runners!

  5. I so agree! The anxiety I feel when I’m sick about whether or not I should run is unreal. I somehow feel like I ALWAYS make the wrong choice (which hopefully isn’t true, but again, anxiety is so real). Listening to your body is so hard when you’re sick, because the initial thoughts are “Don’t do any things. Just lie down and sleep forever,” while the runner thoughts are always, “Suck it up, you’re not that sick.”

    1. Yes, it can definitely cause anxiety. I used to be somewhat obsessed about hitting my weekly (or daily) mileage, and got upset if I had to miss something or cut it short. Now I’m much more at peace with taking a day, or days, off. It’s definitely a hard balance when you’re feeling bad!