Reader Roundtable: Pain, injuries and racing

We’ve all been there. Two weeks before your goal race, some body part, usually in the lower half of your body, will start to grumble at you. Panic! Confusion! Denial! You limp out of bed in the mornings, wear compression everything, take ice baths, foam roll 24/7, and discuss extensively with your running friends what to do.

Is it just the taper crazies? Or are you really injured? Should you race? Should you take half a pack of ibuprofen and then race? Should you start the race, but stop if it hurts too much? Or should you stay off it, forget about the race, and become the world champion of moping instead?

Among the Saltines, there’s a wide range of attitudes toward racing with pain. I’m conservative about it, an attitude I’ve learned from experience (FYI: racing a half marathon with achilles tendonitis is a good way to make sure the achilles tendonitis gets even worse and lasts even longer. Shocking, I know.) Last year, when I hurt my foot a few weeks before the Berlin Marathon, I decided not to run the race despite the months of training and the squandered โ‚ฌ99 entry fee. I was sad about missing the race, but not as sad as I would have been if running the race had made my foot hurt even worse.

Admittedly, I’m on the paranoid side when it comes to running through pain. Sometimes it turns out fine, but sometimes you end up with a long-term problem. To me, the risk isn’t worth it – not to mention that it’s never a pleasant experience to race with pain – but everyone’s calculation is different.

This discussion should also come with the caveat that being 100% pain-free as a serious runner is not always possible. Often we have niggles that are fine to run through as we sort them out with physiotherapy or other treatments. Today, we’re not talking about niggles, but rather about pain that is present while you run and may be made worse by racing (or not! Nobody knows!)

Tell us: what’s your approach to racing with pain? Do you or don’t you? What are your experiences?

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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  1. I race with niggles as they’re nearly impossibly to avoid. I am pretty good about injury prevention so I rarely have to bag something, but it has happened. In 2012 I stress fractured my foot during a race (didn’t know until after). I went to the podiatrist as soon as I could get in, but my race the next weekend wasn’t going to happen. When I left the recovery protocol I tried too much, too soon, too fast and tore my hip pointer as a compensatory injury. I rode 450+ miles with that (not pain) and dropped to a sprint tri from the Oly I was registered for…and I finished and made a bee line to the medical tent. I was out for the rest of 2012 rehabbing that. I lost a LOT of fall registrations. But it also taught me to take recovery from injury seriously and pre-hab weaknesses.

    1. It seems like a lot of runners have had that โ€œoops, shouldnโ€™t have done thatโ€ experience with racing on an injury, leading to future cautiousness!

  2. If you have been an athlete long enough you start to know your body – what you can run/train/race through and what you canโ€™t (that being said, I have raced – successfully – on undiagnosed stress fractures more than once). If I have a big (important) race coming up and itโ€™s something that I am really unsure about, Iโ€™ll make an appt to see my PT. That way I have some medical back up and if it is something I can race on I can get some treatment.

  3. I had to skip the Philadelphia marathon last year because of plantar fasciitis. It was a tough decision in many ways, but the right one for sure. I had a 9 mile training run a few weeks before the race where my foot hurt every single step. Frankly, I should have stopped much much sooner. The day of the marathon was horrible. I got really drunk and shed quite a few tears. The comeback was no picnic but a year later, I’m a totally different runner and running completely pain free. It was hard to miss that race – but EVERYTHING would have been so much worse if I had run it.

    1. Itโ€™s the chance that โ€œeverything would have been so much worseโ€ that scares me every time! Plus, hey, an excuse to be emo and drunk doesnโ€™t come around every day at our age.

      1. You are SO right. I really embraced the emo and drunk too! But honestly – even without the marathon, it was a very long recovery process. Would have been so much worse with it. I wish I could whisper in my ear a year ago that everything would be okay. The uncertainty of injury is so hard to take.

  4. I tend to err on the side of, um, extreme caution. If it’s just soreness that fades the longer I run, it usually goes away after a day or two with some combination of rest, massage, ice, stretching, etc. If it’s a sharp pain (knock on wood!) that intensifies as I run, I err on the side of STOP, DO NOT PASS GO, DO NOT COLLECT $200!

  5. For me, it has a lot to do with where I am in the season and what my coach thinks. If itโ€™s my final race before a recovery period and a doc and my coach think itโ€™s okay to run without making it worse, Iโ€™ll do it. However, even with niggles, I wonโ€™t race at all if itโ€™s the middle of a racing season. Now, all that being said, Iโ€™ve neve had an injury that kept me from running (knock on wood), perhaps because I take a conservative approach?
    My risk is more related to overtraining and training when my life outside of running gets stressful. That balance is tough for me to work out.

  6. I tend to be overly cautious, and won’t race, or run, if I have an injury – or if something seems off. Fortunately, I’ve only ever had one injury, but it was so bad that I was barely able to walk. When I was recovering and going to chiro, PT and RMT, I was at a point where my PT wanted to me alternate running and walking, and I was too scared to even try. Everything ended up being fine, but it was a few weeks from the marathon I was planning on running, and I was too afraid of setting myself further back than I was. I would rather skip the race and wait until I am fully recovered in order to try and reach a goal, and not risk sidelining myself for an even longer stretch of time.

  7. Have any of the Salty writers ever dealt with high hamstring tendinitis/ tendinopathy / piriformis syndrome or things of that ilk? I’ve been struggling with this mystery injury for nearly 3.5 years, and it’s the weirdest and most frustrating and insidious injury I’ve ever had. I essentially went from being a pretty locally competitive runner to someone who can’t train or race anymore. I go through periods where I can feebly jog, interspersed with periods where I’m so fed up with it that I try to find a new hobby. I’ve done everything short of surgery and PRP (broke grad student, can’t afford that stuff right now). I’ve done the xrays, the MRIs, seen MDs, sports docs, osteopaths, done multiple rounds of physical therapy, long stints with multiple chiropractors, deep tissue massage, dry needling, ART, graston, acupuncture, yoga, trigger point therapy, glute strengthening and activation, LONG periods of rest (doesn’t help beyond getting initial inflammation down), and I still maintain what has become a pretty time-consuming pre-hab routine. Literally nothing works, but for some reason I keep hoping I might someday stumble upon a solution that will allow me to progress beyond jogging and into real training/racing again. I would love to see a post on this if anyone has struggled with it (especially if you resolved it)! If not, maybe a post about how to officially come to terms with the fact that an injury like this means you’re done running and need a new hobby. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. That really sucks. No words of advice from me – I’ve never dealt with that issue – but maybe someone else has ideas…?

    2. No great advice, but sympathy. Mine is a hip issue, but pretty much the same situation. I can sometimes string together a few months of really cautious running before the hip or some other weird compensatory thing flares up and I have to back off. It sucks. Not sure I will ever come to terms with it, but I have somehow managed to progress from just feeling awful about it to trying to be grateful about what I can do.

  8. I’ve been fortunate to have avoided major injuries over the last 6 years as I shifted from casual to more serious runner. Rest days, icing and recovery cycles after marathons help.

    But, I have noticed that as I age, I need more time to warm up and recovery (after workouts and racing) takes longer. So, I have been forced to adjust. And that is working so far but I know I’m seriously lacking in the Extra Salt areas and at 47, I can’t get away with skipping core, strength and flexibility. It sucks to get older and not be able to will your body to perform with the same effort as before. 4 years ago I ran back to back half PRs 4 weeks after my second marathon (first in 12 years) where I BQd. This year after a new PR in Chicago (almost 20 mins faster than my first BQ), I thought I could run a strong half 6 weeks after with rest, reasonable ramp and some limited workouts. But, my legs wouldn’t cooperate. Even with 5 days rest in race week. I started out at race pace and the effort level was just too high. With almost half the Instarunners I follow hurt, getting over injuries or still battling earlier injuries, I decided to just run at the effort level that worked and treat the half as my victory lap. I know I have PRs ahead — age be damned, and with careful training, extra salt, I can’t get there. But that means, more 6 day weeks vs 7 in marathon training and being smart when things are “off”.

  9. No, because no one race is worth risking jeopardizing my long-term running for. Racing injured can be a career-ending move, PLUS no one ever runs good times when hurt anyway.