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The art of listening to your body

Three issues you can run into if you don't hit the right balance between training and straining

overtraining Photo by: Getty Images

“No pain, no gain” are words we all know. Words of motivation and inspiration, but also words that we can trap us into pushing through too much pain.

In sports, there is a certain “pain” threshold we all cross when the effort gets hard and we have to push ourselves to continue. That pain, the pain of your muscles burning with lactate, or your lungs gasping for oxygen, is very different from muscle discomfort or burnout. The pain experienced in a 5K run or FTP test is due to a build-up of lactic acid, but the nagging pain you feel in your foot or the shooting pain in your shin is not the same.

John Rasmussen running a 15:29 at the 2017 Around the Bay 5K. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

Related: Why a high pain tolerance can be a bad thing for runners

Oddly in endurance sports, there is a required ignorance of pain, but also a intuitive understanding of your body – listening to it when something isn’t right. Unfortunately we – endurance athletes – get really good at ignoring the pain and worst at listening to our bodies. This increases our risk of overtraining, overuse muscle and joint injuries, and stress fractures. 

Below we will look at each risk and investigate possible symptoms or signs you may experience with these ailments. 


Overtraining will occur following a time of sustained overreaching. Overreaching is important when building fitness and performance. Functional overreaching is when you provide a training stimulus just outside of your comfort zone to elicit a gain in performance. This period of overreaching is not something that is to be sustained, but something athletes cycle through. It is basically a set period of training really hard, but also resting really well. During this period of time, performance will drop off, but it is in the period following where performance gains are seen. If this period becomes prolonged, overtraining can occur, which will often lead to a long-term decrease in performance and health. This can make the body more susceptible to injury, illness and burnout. Achieving the right balance between training hard and smart, and training hard and dumb, is tough. It is, therefore, important to consult with coaches and athletes more experienced than you.

Overuse muscle and joint injuries

Naturally, due to the repetitive nature of endurance sports, athletes are at an increased risk of overuse injuries. Doing events that take an hour to 17 hours to complete will always put you at risk for such injuries, not to mention the hundreds (and thousands) of hours that are required to train for them. 

Related: Four painful consequences of running in worn-out shoes


Typically the lower limbs are the most commonly affected area. This is due to the locomotor nature of cycling and running. Common injuries are shin splints, patellofemoral syndrome, IT band syndrome, Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. 

It is worth mentioning the importance of activation and strengthening exercises for endurance athletes. These drills prime the muscles and joints for training so that the body is ready and able to respond to the changing and demanding environment of training.

Related: Activation drills for triathletes

Stress fractures

Stress fractures are commonly associated with running due to impact and training loads. The most common stress fractures occur in the lower limbs – in the foot (metatarsals) and lower leg (tibia). Shin splints, also known as Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, is the most common overuse injury among avid runners and multisport athletes. The pain usually occurs gradually and is often the cause of biomechanical irregularities, changes in training, chronic overuse and/or the sudden change in footwear.  In comparison to a tibial stress fracture, a shin splint is usually generalized pain across the lower two-thirds of the tibia (medial shin).


Related: The warning signs of a stress fracture

Other signs of a stress fracture include:

  • Localized pain
  • Visible swelling in the area of pain/discomfort
  • A drastic change in training volume (time/distance)
  • A drastic increase in training load (volume x intensity) 

Sticking to your training plan is good and admirable, however, it is also important to flexible. Plans give purpose and direction to your training, but it is also important to remember that no plan is perfect. Listening to your body and adapting is just as important.