If you’ve been training for a little while you’ve probably had one of those days. After, or maybe even during, a workout you start to get a funny feeling. Nothing obvious happened – you didn’t twist your ankle, crash off your bike or smash your heel into the edge of a pool while doing a flip turn. Your knee just started to “twinge” a little during a long run or your hamstring felt “tight” at the end of an interval session. Perhaps your shoulder started to feel a little off after a recent swim or your back was bothering you the morning after doing hill repeats on your bike. What should you do about it?
Well, the first step is to NOT ignore it. Even if a sensation is relatively mild, the pain, discomfort, tightness or other signals your body sends provide useful information that something is going on, so pay attention. I cannot tell you how many times when talking to an athlete with a serious injury it turns out that they have been experiencing some low-grade feedback for weeks or even months before it blew up on them and became debilitating.
Once you’ve tuned into those sensations you should rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 – where 0 would be nothing and 10 would be unbearable. If you would rate it as a 4 out of 10 or higher then you are no longer experiencing mild discomfort/pain/tightness and you should stop. Anything more intense than a mild sensation is worth checking out before you keep working out.
In addition to paying attention to the sensations you should also assess your movement. If that twinge in your knee or that tightness in your neck means you aren’t running or swimming like you normally would, then you should definitely stop what you are doing. If you keep going and use this modified movement pattern you might be able to finish the workout, but you may very well be causing yourself even bigger problems. Movement patterns that are adopted to avoid pain are not as efficient as our preferred pattern and also put strain on parts of your body that may not be habituated to it. I’ve definitely ignored this advice myself so I know it isn’t easy – but neither is rehabbing an injury for six months that only happened because it felt like so important to get in those last 10 minutes of a session.
Regardless of if you had to stop or not, once the session is over you should do something to deal with the problem. I recommend starting with actions that take the least amount of work. The very least amount of work you can do is to watch and wait – something you’re already doing since you are paying attention to your pain level and movement. The next step up the effort ladder is to do some self-managed intervention. An easy option is ice. Ice is applied 20min on/40min off, as often as you can. If the problem is in a muscle you can add foam rolling and self massage as additional low-risk, low-effort interventions. These combined plus a bit of time can help a lot.
If after those interventions that niggle is gone then great! Just log it into your memory banks for future reference if it happens again. If that feeling is still there the next workout then you repeat the process – check pain, check movement and stop or not, followed by some self treatment.
As a final thought – if you’ve had to stop a workout two times or more then you should definitely get some expert advice and treatment. If the pain or discomfort is mild enough that you haven’t had to stop any workouts, but has gone on for a week or three workouts in a row, then you should also be seeing expert advice.
By paying attention to these issues and treating them early you can avoid developing long-term overuse injuries that can really hamper your training. These habits of paying attention to how your body is feeling and moving will also pay off when everything is going well. So, tune in to yourself and stay on track!
Darian Silk is a triathlon coach and Certified Exercise Physiologist based in Toronto. Read more about Darian at https://teamatomica.com/training/coaching/coach-darian-silk/ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org