No Gain from Pain – The Importance of Listening to Your Body

Whoever coined the term “no pain, no gain” was clearly never a runner. Or an athlete of any sort for that matter.

While I’m focusing this post on my experience running, the principles that I’ve come to learn (the hard way) apply across the health and fitness board.

Run 2

Running is a lot like meditation; your mind still – only the sound of your heart beating in your ears.

It’s a lot like plunging under water; at first a shock to your senses, your nerve endings jolted awake, followed by a blanket of weightlessness – your body under a spell of buoyancy.

Your mind buzzes. Your body glides.

Prior to last summer, I had never run further than five kilometres – which I didn’t realize at the time was a strange threshold. Running for me was a post work-out cool down. Or a ‘work-out’ in itself – an easy twenty to thirty minute jog to check off some cardio.

In moving to Toronto, I sought out a path to keep up my routine – just running out the front door was no longer an option. Living in the congested heart of the city, I wouldn’t have been able to make it ten feet without dodging a streetcar or tripping over a Frenchie. So I weaved my way through the bursting, bustling streets and broke through at the water – Toronto’s Waterfront Trail. The Waterfront Trail extends along the shores of Lake Ontario, beginning in Niagara-on-the-Lake and winding all the way to Brockville, with an extension to the Quebec provincial border.

I sped up to a jog at Harbourfront, heading west towards Mississauga. The sun was setting, taking with it the heavy heat of the day, and the evening’s brisk air prickled against my hot skin. The lake opened up on my left, the sun’s final rays stretching out with a yawn before sinking slowly into the water. The cityscape to my right continued to change shape – the high-rises rising and dropping, opening and closing.

And with one jog like this, I was hooked.

Sunset Run-2

But this didn’t bode well for me.

Just like that, I would come home from work, throw on my shorts and sneakers, and take off towards the water. It shook me awake and the Nike + Run Club App telling me that I’ve hit another kilometre mark was addictive.

So here’s where I ran (literally) into trouble. I ran, and ran, and ran – with no plan. I ran however far I felt that evening. I ran five kilometres, then eight, then ten, then fifteen. I discovered this five kilometre threshold which, once passing it, I felt detached from my body – like I could run forever. Although this was thrilling at the time, it soon caught up to me and it was made apparent that I could not, in fact, run forever.

One evening, I tightened my laces and picked up a jog for all of two minutes before feeling a squeezing pain in my knees. I decided to run through it, thinking it was just tightness. Fast forward half a kilometre and I was, with no exaggeration, limping home unable to even bend my right knee without pain.

My dismissing any notion of a running plan was not smart – and I paid for it. I now know the importance of respecting the fact that long-distance running is hard on your body and that you need to listen to your body. Don’t ‘shake it off’, don’t ‘run through it’ – listen to your body because it’s trying to tell you something.

I’ve been in physiotherapy for some time now and I’ve learned a lot – and I want to share it in the hopes that others might not make the same mistakes that I did. With a huge amount of thanks to Geoffrey Dyck at Cornerstone Physiotherapy, here’s what I’ve learned:

Work with your body – not against it. We have natural strides, cadences (steps per minute), and distances we’re comfortable at. Coast here and get your body acquainted with the pavement. Buy not just one, but multiple pairs of good running shoes – this is really important. It’s not about style or appearance; it’s about their fitting with your foot and running style. Places like the Running Room will help you select a good pair by looking at the shape of your foot and watching you run.

Get on a running plan. Seriously. Even if you feel like you can sprint out 15 kilometres tomorrow (kudos to you), don’t do it. Maybe your lungs and heart can, but the rest of your body can’t. Your body needs to become accustomed to and develop strength around the impact. Apps like Nike + Run Club, which I love, are built with running plans that you can follow while recording your runs (including distance, stride, and time). And a running plan isn’t just increasing your distance run after run – it varies your distance and cadence to allow your body to build that strength and capacity to absorb impact.

Stretch. This may seem basic and obvious but I can’t stress it enough. Built-up tightness in certain muscles and tendons can be a contributing cause of running injuries. Targeted stretching of tight muscles and tendons is an effective way to rehabilitate and prevent the recurrence of injury. I get really tight and sore in my hips and love to stretch it out with some hip-opening yoga poses – my favourites being Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana) and Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). On that note, I’ve found yoga to be a really good complement to running; it stretches as well as strengthens your hips and glutes – both crucial for injury-free running.

Strengthen. Runners need to cross-train to build strength. Here’s what happened to me; a lack of strength in my muscles to absorb shock and stabilize while running, compounded by the way my foot hits the ground when I pick up the pace, contributed to excessive “bio-mechanical” stress being put on my knees. Geoff tells me that the knee is a victim of the hip and the foot and thus a lot of problems can arise here. I’m now on a program which includes stretching and isolating work to strengthen and more specific “tendon loading” exercises to simulate the demands of running. I’m also working on a sustained, gradual build up and an interval running plan.

For cross-training, in addition to yoga, I love circuit-training and metabolic conditioning. Tony Greco Lean and Fit in Toronto and Ottawa and The Fitness Lab in Ottawa are two class-based gyms that I’ve always been loyal to.

Rest. What Geoff made very clear to me was that rest is as equally as important as exercise. Runners are prone to a number of issues that predispose them for injuries including hip weakness, foot hyper-mobility, loading issues or freak movements (i.e. too much too soon), shin splints, hamstring strains, Achilles tendon tears and ruptures,  pain in the sole of the foot or IT band (lateral knee pain), the list goes on. Be aware and take care of yourself; when you see or feel signs of injury, do yourself a favour and give yourself some time off.

Injuries are frustrating – to want so badly to do something and have your body pull you back. Last month, I ran my first ten kilometre run and it was so invigorating to run alongside thousands of other runners. What was much less invigorating was that all-too-familiar pain begin to bubble in my knees around seven kilometres, leaving me awkwardly limp-running over the finish line (Geoff did not pardon me to partake in this run but I did it anyways so it was my own fault).

But while injuries are frustrating, don’t let them be defeating –this goes for running, swimming, climbing – wherever you get your high. You can recoup, recover and repair. You can regain, reclaim, and restore.

Just do it right and listen to your body – because there’s no gain from pain.


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